Point of View

Gene Nichol: Republicans' North Carolina 'plan' penalizes poor to subsidize rich

February 20, 2014 

Last month, scholars at Harvard and Berkeley released a massive study of economic mobility in America’s 50 largest cities. Charlotte came in last – 50th of 50. If a child is born poor in North Carolina’s richest city, she is more likely to stay that way than if she were born anywhere else in the country.

Our Mecklenburg County trio – Pat McCrory, Thom Tillis and Bob Rucho – didn’t seem to notice the study. They were too busy bragging about the new North Carolina plan, delivered in 2013. The governor explained that he and the General Assembly had made “tough decisions” to improve our prospects. Massive cuts to programs benefitting the poorest Tar Heels, significant tax increases for low-income residents and hugely generous tax cuts for our wealthiest corporations and citizens will, allegedly, right the course. Trickle down on steroids.

Why would a state with among the country’s highest poverty rates, child poverty rates, percentage of uninsured, levels of income inequality and worst economic mobility decide to dramatically penalize the poor in order to subsidize the rich?

One answer that we’ll never hear – the obvious and, I’m convinced, most accurate one – is that our current crew of leaders represents and carries water for only the wealthiest among us – the folks who pay for their campaigns and benefit the most from their policies. The problem is, this truth can’t be confessed in a democracy. It won’t do to plead: “We’d like 51 percent to vote to aid us in service of the top 2 percent.” The numbers don’t work.

More acceptable, perhaps, is the distinct claim that yawning chasms of inequality and the advanced world’s highest levels of poverty are central to America’s particular economic genius. Only as a result of our unfettered, rapacious, investor-subsidized version of capitalism can such astonishing mountains of wealth be produced. This goose’s egg is golden indeed.

But when unpacked, this justification reveals an oddly nasty moral component. We’ll accept a lot more poor folks, including our specialty, poor children, so that a handful of us can amass the greatest wealth ever witnessed by mankind. Intense sacrifice by millions of the most vulnerable is necessary to secure the absurd indulgences of a relative few. Not exactly the message you want on a bumper sticker.

So, the claim transforms to the breathtakingly counterintuitive notion that special solicitude for the rich will actually result in elevated prospects for the poor. For McCrory, it’s crucial to alter the landscape to favor “job creators” to “let them know North Carolina is open for business.” Sen. Rucho embraces the contradiction more overtly. Cutting poverty programs and lowering taxes for those at the top will “lift” the impoverished. The status quo, he reports, is “worse for the poor than anything, we need an alternative.”

Just for a moment, let’s put that assertion into perspective. The wealthiest Americans, and North Carolinians, already capture more of our income than at any time in 100 years. Over 95 percent of our income gains 2009-2012 went to the top 1 percent.

We have the greatest income inequality of all advanced nations – the largest gaps between rich and poor. To find our peer in economic disparity, you have to speed past the Western European nations, past our new world colleagues like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, past our less-developed counterparts in India, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Russia and Uganda, down to the bottom of the list to our apparent running buddies Rwanda, Madagascar, El Salvador, Cameroon and Sri Lanka.

Despite all this, lo and behold, once again the key to prosperity for those at the bottom is to be just a little more generous to those at the top. OK, a lot more generous. Good Lord.

The new North Carolina economic plan requires a fealty to plutocrats that is robust, complete and unyielding. It assumes an ignorance in the vast majority of Tar Heels that is beyond surpassing.

In the months ahead, we’ll see whether we’re as clueless as they think we are.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at the UNC School of Law and director of the school’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. He doesn’t speak for UNC.

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