Gov. Pat McCrory delivered his State of the State address a couple weeks back. An 80-minute disquisition. There was talk of the “momentum of our success,” of “beating the competition,” a “bright economic future” and “cranes returning to the skyline.” He pitched business incentives and transportation bonds and boasted of tax cuts and unemployment compensation reductions. Sports analogies were pervasive. A broken water fountain received ample attention. Serious business, to be sure.
Still, for me, the governor missed a good deal in exploring North Carolina’s current condition.
He might, for example, have considered what Clyde Fitzgerald – the retired RJ Reynolds Tobacco executive who now runs Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina – is convinced is our state’s greatest challenge: hunger. The “Greensboro metropolitan area is identified by the federal government as the second-most food insecure in the country,” Fitzgerald notes. Winston-Salem “virtually leads the nation in hunger for young kids.” As a state, “we’re next to last for children, behind only Louisiana.”
In Forsyth County, 29,000 kids go to school more to get something to eat than to study, and in Guilford it’s 40,000. The “most depressing thing I deal with,” he explains, “is talking with a parent who describes the decision he had to make that day about which one of his kids could eat.” Or when “I talk to a school kid who says, ‘It’s not my day to eat.’ ” Fitzgerald doesn’t believe those words should ever be spoken in North Carolina.
Fitzgerald’s remarkable organization distributes 26 million pounds of food annually in 18 western counties, up from 7 million just five years ago. But he concedes: “We could put all 26 million into Greensboro or into Winston-Salem and still not meet the need, even there.”
Or, given the unfolding winter harshness, the governor might have addressed the plight of the wounded souls living in the otherwise bucolic woods surrounding Hickory. After massive local unemployment for most of a decade, the Salvation Army Shelter of Hope is pressed beyond capacity. So about 150 folks patch together makeshift cardboard lean-tos and dilapidated tents – keeping a wary eye for police and complaining neighbors. Some camp set-ups are simple, little more than a milk-crate chair and a tarp to fend off snow and rain. Others string together more intricate, if often feeble and porous, designs.
Susan Schneider, 47, is frequently one of the homeless. “I’ve stayed at the Salvation Army, but you have to leave after three months, and I haven’t been able to make enough money to eat and afford a place to live.”
Schneider says she was shocked when she first arrived in Hickory. There were hundreds of people living in the woods, hundreds the shelter couldn’t help out, lots of folks living in their cars, lots more couch-hopping. I’d never before thought of people living in their cars as the lucky ones.
“When you’ve lost your job, your savings, your car, your house, and then I even lost my cat, who was very dear to me,” she said. “I know it sounds funny, or stupid, but losing my cat hurt me deeply.”
When “you lose everything, you lose your sense of being a person,” she said. “(You) lose your own sense of identity, your own space to fill in the world. (It) becomes hard to remember, you’re still a decent human being.”
The governor might even have mentioned the unfolding challenges of his old hometown. Over the last decade, the number of Charlotteans living in poverty nearly doubled, the third-sharpest increase in the nation. The Brookings Institute recently announced that Charlotte also experienced, over the last dozen years, America’s sixth-steepest rise in concentrated poverty – neighborhoods where over 20 percent of residents live in poverty. Nearly 64,000 residents now live in extreme poverty – on incomes of less than $12,000 a year for a family of four. Almost 5,000 Charlotte-Mecklenburg kids are reported by the school district as homeless. And more than 40 percent of its children of color are poor.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed a VISTA member working in one of Charlotte’s most economically distressed communities. She told me that on a recent trip to a clinic, a local doctor asked her what she did for a living. When she reported working for the poverty-fighting program, he said: “That can’t be. There’s no poverty here. I’ve lived here all of my life. If there was poverty, I’d have seen it.”
I’m guessing the governor would say pretty much the same.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at the UNC School of Law. He doesn’t speak for UNC.