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A look back at a year-long series on poverty in the Tar Heel state

Gene Nichol—Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the UNC School of Law—wrote a year-long series [1] in the News and Observer last year that highlighted poverty’s persistent and varying grip on North Carolinians. The timing could not have been more perfect. A group of state lawmakers were intent on dismantling the state’s public structures [2] even though the economy was failing to deliver for far too many of our family members, friends, neighbors, and fellow North Carolinians.

Mr. Nichol cites some startling figures that I’ve shared in this space before, such as the troubling trend of poverty among children of color that is edging closer and closer to half of the population [3]. But Nichol did what I couldn’t do: he tapped into the hearts and minds of his readers by eloquently moving beyond the bloodless statistics. He brought to light the disturbing and stark reality of how the iconic images of the faces of poverty 50 years ago when the War on Poverty was launched are not all that different from the working poor of today.

To the disbelief of many, he documented the experiences of those living in extreme poverty out in the eastern part of our state—experiences that are so meager that some live in shacks with no in-door plumbing. He used the power of his pen to expose the numerous communities that are still divided along racial and class lines by railroad tracks, revealing how the deck is stacked against some of our neighbors merely based on their zip code. The ironies littering our national anthem, speeches, and historical documents that speak of equality and opportunity, but only in theory, were exposed.

Nichol pumped blood into the stories about people who are homeless and living in woods (literally living on the outskirts of society), people who have no fair shot at justice because they can’t afford legal representation, and families who wear hoodies when they sleep at night to stay warm because their electricity bills cost more than child care or rent. He reminded us that these statistics and experiences bring shame on the US, the richest nation on earth.

After reading this series, one will long forget the pitiful attempts by conservatives and libertarians who spout endless myths and argue [4] that people can’t be poor because they own “assets” such as a microwave or a refrigerator. Nor will one hear truth in the uninformed claim by one state legislator who says [5] that “extreme” poverty doesn’t exist in our state. On the other hand, one will be reminded that the economy is failing too many of our people while the safety-net programs and work supports work in overtime to help combat poverty in North Carolina.

Too often, the public and lawmakers ignore the problem of poverty, instead turning their attention and focus towards politically-safe and vaguely-defined groups such as the middle class. Yet, this series pushed all its readers to pay attention, “see the invisible” (to use his words), and educate ourselves about the plight of poverty that fiercely grips far too many of our neighbors.

*Note: Mr. Nichol serves on the board of the NC Justice Center.

This post is part of a blog series on poverty in North Carolina. Other posts in this series are available here [6], here [7], here [8], and here [9]