RALEIGH — Though much of the political talk these days focuses on the economic struggles of the middle class, a coalition of civil rights groups hopes to give a voice to the state's poorest this election year.
On Tuesday, leaders from the state NAACP, the UNC-Chapel Hill Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity and the N.C. Justice Center announced plans to hold listening tours in poverty-stricken regions. The first leg of what is being called "The Truth and Hope, Putting a Face on Poverty Tour" is set for Jan. 19 and 20 in six northeastern counties.
The Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP, said the goal is to "shine the light of truth on poverty and despair in North Carolina" with hopes of developing a massive "Marshall-type plan."
"We can talk about how to use the green economy and science and technology and long-term strategic economic and educational investment to change current realities," Barber said a news conference Tuesday in Raleigh. "We can get serious about living wages and jobs with rights that lift our families out of poverty. We will understand that our state has to lift up those at the bottom if we want the whole state to prosper.
"We will make the poor visible and lift the silence that surrounds this region," he said.
Last year in North Carolina, 1.6 million people lived in poverty, according to Melinda Lawrence, executive director of the N.C. Justice Center. "That's nearly one in five people," she said.
Though federal standards set $22,000 as the poverty-level for a family of four, Lawrence said not only are more families across the state falling below that limit, but expecting any household to pay bills and survive even a meager existence on that income is unrealistic.
The poverty rate last year was the highest it has been since 1981 - 17.5 percent, and Gene Nichol, a UNC-CH law professor and director of the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, said the problem is more prevalent in African-American, Latino and Native American households. More than 4 in 10 minority children in this state live in poverty, he said, "numbers we can barely get our arms around."
In Beaufort, Edgecombe, Halifax, Hertford, Washington and Pasquotank counties - regions in northeastern North Carolina where economic and educational opportunities are few - the problem is far more pronounced.
"If poverty is North Carolina's scourge - which it is - the disease does not strike our regions uniformly," Nichol said. "In a story dating back to slavery, ... Eastern North Carolina counties have suffered chronic and persistent high poverty, economic exclusion and under-investment."
The bus tour organizers acknowledged there are no simple fixes for a complex problem. What they hope to gain are ideas and suggestions from the affected people, who have struggled for generations to prosper in regions where they can work and work and work some more and still not get ahead.
"We mean through this modest effort to illuminate and highlight these barriers, these moral and social transgressions - not simply through data and statistics and documents and reports," Nichol said, "but through the words and voices and protestations and hopes of those most directly affected."
Barber said he hopes to put more than a modern face on this stubborn poverty. He said that letting such need go unnoticed amounts to "attention violence" against the poor.
"There's a violence committed on people when you refuse to pay attention to it," Barber said. "This is not just a tour ride. This is an attempt to say we're not going to have another election or meeting without poverty on the agenda."