Progressive Voices

Why we must put a face on poverty

In North Carolina, our constitution promises that exercises of government power will be limited to those “instituted solely for the good of the whole.” This is a solemn moral covenant as well as a legal obligation.

Too often, we fail to live up to these ideals. We allow widespread poverty to exist, especially in our communities of color, through inattention or through unwise policy.

Here, in North Carolina, almost 18 percent of us – nearly one in five — live below the federal poverty standard. Even that poverty standard is stingy, at $22,000 per year for a family of four. Imagine raising a family of four on less than that. How would you feed them, let alone help one or more realize the dream of a college education?

Poverty is North Carolina’s scourge, and the disease does not strike our people or our regions uniformly. Four out of ten Black and Hispanic and Native American kids grow up in poverty. Think about that: Four out of ten minority children living in poverty in the midst of the richest nation on earth. As if any theory of justice or virtue could explain the exclusion of innocent children from the American dream!

This is not a new problem. An array of eastern North Carolina counties has suffered from chronic and persistent high poverty, economic exclusion and underinvestment.

We cannot let North Carolina have mere islands of prosperity surrounded by a sea of poverty and inequity. That’s why our organizations and allies are participating in the “Truth and Hope Tour of Poverty in North Carolina,” a state-wide tour of rural counties and inner city neighborhoods where North Carolinians have struggled to find work, decent housing, transportation, and sufficient food for their families.

Counties visited on the first of three legs of the tour — Beaufort, Edgecombe, Halifax, Hertford, Washington, Pasquotank – experience rates and conditions of poverty dramatically exceeding those of most of the state.

In these counties, between one-third and one-half of all persons of color live below the federal poverty standard. To look at the face of poverty forces us to see the impact of racial disparity, regressive tax policy, the lack of targeted investments in infrastructure, education, job creation and a host of other challenges.

How can we let these communities remain in the economic shadows? To do so undermines our values of equal dignity, and opportunity, and justice.

It also wastes vital human capital. Imagine the potential contributions people in these communities might make to our state, country and world if only they could escape the trap of destitution. Are we missing out on the next great engineers, doctors, and scientists by failing to provide a path out of poverty and into education? To effectively exclude whole communities from access to opportunity benefits no one in North Carolina.

It is important to hear these voices that are so often excluded from our public discourse. We mean, through this modest effort, to illuminate and highlight these barriers, these moral and social transgressions. We want to do so not simply through data, and statistics, and documents and reports but through the words and voices and protestations and hopes of those most directly affected.

Through this effort, we hope to put a face on North Carolina’s biggest actual problem, our greatest policy failure: the marginalization, exclusion and effective invisibility of so many of our fellow Tar Heels.

We hope that citizens from across the state will join us and enlist in the battle. Perhaps then we can truly say that our public power is dedicated “solely to the good of the whole.”

Rev. Dr. William Barber II is president of the NC State NAACP. Gene Nichol is the director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. Melinda Lawrence is executive director of the NC Justice Center.

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