Poverty is North Carolina’s greatest challenge. In one of the most economically vibrant states of the richest nation on earth, 18 percent of us live in wrenching poverty. Twenty-five percent of our kids. Forty percent of our children of color. We have one of the country’s fastest rising poverty rates. A decade ago, North Carolina had the 26th highest rate among the states. Now we’re ninth, speeding past the competition. Greensboro is America’s second-hungriest city. Asheville is ninth. Charlotte has the nation’s worst economic mobility. Over the last decade, North Carolina experienced the country’s steepest rise in concentrated poverty. Poverty, amidst plenty, stains the life of this commonwealth. Even if our leaders never discuss it.
And, astonishing as they are, these bloodless statistics don’t fully reveal the crush of economic hardship. That resides more brutally in the terror and despondency of the 150 or more homeless Tar Heels living in the woods and under the bridges of Hickory; or in the 1,100 wounded souls waiting in line, most all night long, outside the Fayetteville civic center, desperate for free dental care; or in the quivering voice of the Winston-Salem father who describes deciding which of his children will eat today and which, only, tomorrow; or in the daughter from Wilson fretting for her 62-year-old father with heart disease who can’t see a doctor unless he scrapes together the $400 he owes and has no prospects for.
Some believe such urgencies are beyond the focus of a great public university. Bill Friday wasn’t among them. An active and engaged Poverty Center board member, from its founding until the last days of his life, President Friday felt it crucial “to turn UNC’s mighty engine loose on the lacerating issue of poverty.” He constantly challenged our students: “A million poor North Carolinians pay taxes to subsidize your education. What are you going to do to pay them back?”
I’ve been blessed with a long and varied academic career. But none of my efforts has approached the extraordinary honor of working, side by side, with North Carolina low-income communities and the dedicated advocates and providers who serve them. Together, we have sought to focus a meaningful light on the challenges of poverty and to push back against policies that foster economic injustice. No doubt those messages are uncongenial to the governor and General Assembly. But poverty is the enemy, not the Poverty Center.
I have been repeatedly informed, even officially, that my opinion pieces have “caused great ire and dismay” among state officials and that, unless I stopped publishing in The News & Observer, “external forces might combine in the months ahead” to force my dismissal. Today those threats are brought to fruition. The Board of Governors’ tedious, expensive and supremely dishonest review process yields the result it sought all along – closing the Poverty Center. This charade, and the censorship it triggers, demeans the board, the university, academic freedom and the Constitution. It’s also mildly ironic that the university now abolishes the center for the same work that led it to give me the Thomas Jefferson Award a year ago.
The Poverty Center runs on an annual budget of about $120,000. None comes from the state. Grant funding has been secured through 2016. These private dollars will now be returned. UNC will have fewer resources, not more. Two terrific young lawyers will lose their jobs. Student education, employment and publication opportunities will be constricted. Most importantly, North Carolina’s understanding of the challenges of poverty will be weakened. These are significant costs to pay for politicians’ thin skin.
Personally, I’m honored to be singled out for retribution by these agents of wealth, privilege and exclusion. I remain a tenured law professor. When the Poverty Center is abolished, I’ll have more time to write, to speak, and to protest North Carolina’s burgeoning war on poor people. I’ll use it.
Fifty years ago, Chancellor William Aycock testified against the Speaker Ban Law, saying if UNC bowed to such external pressures, as it does today, it would forfeit its claim to be a university. He noted: “Our legislators do not look with favor on persons, especially teachers, who express views different than their own.” But no public official can be “afforded such immunity.” Leaders “freely extol the supposed benefits of their programs, but object to their harmful effects being called to the attention of the citizenry. ... The right to think as one wills and to speak as one thinks are requisite to a free society. They are indispensable to education.”