Point of view

NC poor would be better served with more light, less heat from Gene Nichol

April 17, 2014 

It is widely known that Professor Gene Nichol, who runs the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity at UNC founded by John Edwards, and Gov. Pat McCrory are not members of the mutual admiration society. Nichol has written many pieces about his views on poverty in which he has not concealed his contempt for the governor and other Republican leaders.

If the goal of the poverty center is, in fact, to improve the condition of low-income residents of our state, an approach focused on generating more light than heat no doubt would better serve the poor.

Many on the left define “poverty issues” too narrowly. For example, it seems that the expense of heating a poor person’s home would be a poverty issue. But where is the study from a left-leaning think tank that evaluates the effect of the shale gas revolution on the cost of heating homes of low-income residents? In fact, every policy that affects our subsistence level is a poverty issue.


In San Francisco, the role model for progressive communities, the median home price is $925,000. Young professionals who earn a mere $116,500 a year qualify for low-income housing subsidies. Eggs cost substantially more in California than anywhere else in America because of a state law enacted to govern how farms raise chickens.

California is ranked near the bottom nationally in education, yet a retired California firefighter is building a $2 million home in North Raleigh thanks to his opulent pension.

San Francisco’s outrageous cost of living is the direct byproduct of liberal policies.

Closer to home, the cost of taxes and water for an average-priced home is more than 50 percent higher in North Carolina’s most liberal town, Chapel Hill, than any other community in the state.

The deterioration of the family unit affects poor people profoundly. It would be invaluable to have a left-leaning poverty think tank tackle the question of how jobs and welfare affect the family unit respectively. Most people agree that jobs that provide a living wage are the most sustainable way to lift someone from poverty. Perhaps a poverty think tank could rate all policies, liberal and conservative, on the effect they have on job creation.


Education is clearly a poverty issue. But studies that simply show the correlation between education and income are highly superficial and fraught with sample bias.

Surely a physical education degree from a major university does not offer a greater path to prosperity than a technical education from a trade school. If we had an educational system that allowed low-income residents to choose different career options early in their schooling, if desired, how would this affect poverty levels? Perhaps the teachers union could fund an independent study to examine this important question.

Promoting development of businesses that employ the unemployed would be a powerful way to serve low-income residents. But that would require a pro-business attitude that is frequently absent in liberal communities. Science and technology-based businesses might be tolerated, but certainly not the type of companies that hire low-income residents such as manufacturing, distribution and large-scale retail.

Because liberal think tanks define poverty solutions so narrowly, their proposed solutions are equally simplistic. It does not take a lot of research to demonstrate that taking money from those who are better off and giving it to those who are less well-off will shrink the income gap in the short run. However, to add value to the debate, perhaps liberal think tanks could also study the many issues identified above and offer more innovative and sustainable solutions.

If society views our moral obligation as equipping poor people to pole-vault out of poverty rather than smugly declaring that conservatives fail to provide the poor with a long enough pole, liberals should also examine how progressive environmental, education and business policies continuously raise the bar they must clear.

Is the pole too short or the bar too high? A bit more intellectual honesty on this topic would improve liberals’ chances of winning converts. Certainly more so than demonizing elected officials. The poor could use a little more policy and a little less politics.

Michael Jacobs is CEO of Jacobs Capital. He is also professor of the Practice of Finance at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Graduate School of Business.

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