Here’s a sobering statistic to consider as you sit down for Thanksgiving dinner this year. One in four children in North Carolina does not get enough to eat on a regular basis.
It’s hard to comprehend how that’s possible in a state in the wealthiest country on earth but it’s true. Overall North Carolina ranks ninth among the 50 states in food insecurity—that’s the inability to afford enough to eat sometime during the year.
That means tens of thousands of people in North Carolina are going hungry every day and that is happening despite the heroic efforts of the selfless staffs and volunteers at shelters, food banks, and other nonprofits in every county in the state.
The informal and patchwork community safety net is important but it is not enough. That doesn’t mean those groups don’t need our help. They do and let’s hope North Carolinians continue to be generous with their contributions and their time.
But that is not going to solve the problem. Neither is the massive outpouring of support that comes every holiday season though it’s also vital and important.
It is the one time of year where some folks on the Right manage to put aside their stereotypes and demonization of people who are struggling to survive and actually encourage others to give money to help them or serve a Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham at the soup kitchen down the street.
The rest of the year we’re told that people without a job are lazy and that families forced to rely on food stamps to feed their children are mooching off the rest of us, and that if we help the poor with handouts they won’t take the initiative to improve their own lives.
A staffer at a conservative think tank in Raleigh once famously scoffed at the long line of people in line waiting for a meal at a shelter by pointing out that some of them were wearing expensive basketball shoes. Apparently if someone gives you a nice pair of sneakers you don’t deserve to eat when you are down on your luck.
That’s the kind of rhetoric you hear in the halls of General Assembly these days from the folks currently in charge.
It’s not clear why they change their tune as Thanksgiving approaches, why a poor single mother or a laid off worker who are seen as burdens to taxpayers most of the year are worthy of support when mid November rolls around.
And it’s not just about the role of government for the ideologues.
If “giving” someone something for free allegedly creates a culture of dependency—to use a favorite right-wing phrase—that why does it matter where the “gifts” come from?
Maybe it is guilt around the holidays that prompts folks to rethink their dismissive attitude toward low-income families. Maybe it’s part of their religious culture that they convenient forget the other ten months of the year. Maybe for some it is even cynical politics that makes them reach out to help.
Whatever it is, it always seems to evaporate when Thanksgiving is over and the Christmas trees are taken out to the curb and the poverty-is-a-choice polemics start again.
Wouldn’t it be something if we could make that holiday spirit last all year, if we could help folks who are struggling with contributions and volunteer hours AND get our leaders to stop punishing low-income families when they write budgets and pass laws?
Reinstating the state Earned Income Tax Credit for low wage workers would be a good start. North Carolina is the only state to have enacted a state level EITC and then ended it. That’s a mark of shame we should correct.
Expanding unemployment benefits would help too. The state’s unemployment debt to the federal government has been repaid and a surcharge for employers has ended. But the benefit cuts for workers remain and North Carolina now ranks 49th in the county in the percentage of laid off workers who receive unemployment benefits, another mark of shame.
There’s more, like reversing cuts to NC PreK and child care subsidies that help low income kids and their parents and rethinking a bill signed last month by Gov. Pat McCrory that will cut off food stamp benefits for 100,000 people next year.
And maybe most importantly, let’s follow the lead of 31 other states and expand Medicaid so 500,000 low-income adults can afford to see a doctor to stay healthy to find a job or go back to school to learn a skill to take care of their families.
The fact that one in four children in our state doesn’t have enough to eat is a moral failure of our society. And just being nice during the holiday season won’t fix it.