Three undisputable, but contradictory, facts lie at the vortex of American poverty.
First, this is the wealthiest nation on earth. Second, we countenance higher levels of poverty, especially child poverty, than any remotely comparable country. Third, Americans believe, with steely determination, this is the fairest society the most committed to equality and justice for all the world has ever known.
A facile and energetic mind can square much that collides. But not these three realities. Its impossible to be the richest, the poorest, and the fairest all at once. How do we manage it?
Broadly speaking, by both circumstance and design, we make the poor invisible to the wider majority.
Our kids are doing fine, and our friends kids, and theirs. Sure, there may be poverty afoot, even deprivation so significant it challenges the aphorisms of equal opportunity and dignity we daily profess, but its on the other side of the tracks, or the county, or the commonwealth. Since we dont confront it, we assume its nonexistence. We neednt address what we dont see. We can thus remain content and boastful in our hollow pledges and declarations.
This is why it is crucial to place the scourge of North Carolina poverty center stage in our politics. It also highlights the disappointment of our fast-concluding governors race. Walter Dalton and Pat McCrory have proposed much, discussed much, fought much but not about plans to lift Tar Heels out of poverty.
Melinda Lawrence of the N.C. Justice Center, Dr. William Barber of the N.C.-NAACP and I have written to the candidates, invited them to meetings with folks struggling under economic duress, asked them to attend summits exploring the challenges of poverty and even implored debate moderators to press the issue. No dice.
Let me give just a couple of examples of what this stony silence means:
• Eleven years ago, North Carolina had the 26th-highest poverty rate in the U.S. Last year, we were 13th. We are frantic about our competitive posture in relation to other states on an endless array of fronts. Why are we seemingly unconcerned that we rapidly and dramatically lose ground, compared to our colleagues, in effective efforts to fight poverty?
• Forty percent of our children of color African-American, Latino and Native American now live in wrenching poverty. Think that over for a second. No other advanced, economically powerful, Western democracy would put up with anything like that. Why do we? And, regardless of what one thinks the best solution to this crushing challenge may be, what explains the failure to even name it as a problem?
A few weeks ago, I spoke to a large gathering of North Carolina Head Start teachers in Morganton. I knew they wouldnt learn much from me. But I was confident Id learn a good deal from them. In reviewing their conference materials, I came across a pamphlet produced by the state offices giving pointed and practical advice to teachers dealing with the over 8,000 homeless North Carolina children, 5 years old and younger. It was thoughtful and constructive. But it was impossible to read without heartbreak. Are those thousands of homeless babies worthy of a sentence or two? How about a commercial?
Of course many claim, these days, there is nothing the worlds most powerful nation can do about poverty. Its not so. In 1959, before the onset of the War on Poverty, a stunning 35 percent of Americans over 65 were poor. Thirty percent of our children lived below the federal threshold. By 1975, child poverty had been cut in half, and senior poverty slashed by over 60 percent. And given the sustaining power of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, today 8 percent of those over 65 live in poverty. We didnt lose the war; as Terry Sanford put it, we abandoned the battlefield.
There are millions of poor and low-income folks in North Carolina. They, too, are members of a democratic republic, even if cast aside and rendered invisible to our orchestrated tussles.
Frederick Douglass argued: The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her claims have been born of earnest struggle. Power concedes nothing without struggle. It never did and it never will.
I wish Douglass charge didnt apply to North Carolina. But it looks like it does.
Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at UNCs Law School and director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity.