Here’s a surprise: Late in the budget deliberations, North Carolina House leaders inserted a $1.3 million cut to legal aid for poor Tar Heels. State funding for legal services had already been cut by more than half since 2008, to $2.7 million last year. The reduction had not previously been subject to notice or debate. In a surplus year, no one even seemed to know where it had come from. Rep. Nelson Dollar, the House budget man, said to ask Speaker Tim Moore. Moore’s office had no comment. That apparently was not a problem. There’s no need to explain why you crush poor people in North Carolina. To paraphrase the GEICO ad, “it’s what we do.”
The closing budget days also saw odd steps taken to make it almost impossible for judges to waive an expensive array of costs and fees in criminal cases that many poor defendants simply cannot pay. As a result, they’re threatened with a cascade of additional sanctions, including incarceration – reminiscent of the long-rejected debtors prison. Apparently our legislators despise such often constitutionally-mandated waivers. So the new provision prevents courts from eliminating fees without providing a 15-day notice to a laundry list of state agencies – in case they might feel the need to object to the ruling. District Judge Regan Miller said “it’s clear the provision is designed to make the process so cumbersome that judges will elect not to waive costs.” No need for legislative hearings or attribution here either. Just carrying out the mission. No fuss. No deliberation. Attacking poor people in Carolina has become de rigueur.
The non-process calls to mind Sen. Ralph Hise’s recent unannounced efforts to remove 133,000 qualifying Tar Heels from the federally-financed food stamp (SNAP) program and Sen. Brent Jackson’s ultimately more successful surprise measure, late in the 2015 session, to eliminate a different legal aid appropriation because wealthy agricultural interests didn’t like poor farmworkers having a lawyer. It’s apparently unnatural – like having a civil rights center at a law school. Poor people are meant to forfeit their rights without contest. Especially if they’re black or Latino.
The broad thesis, though, is unmistakable. North Carolina’s central problem is that those at the bottom have too much and those at the top don’t, yet, have quite enough. So, 463,000 low-income folks are kicked off largely federally-financed Medicaid rolls without even a proffered explanation; the largest cut to an unemployment compensation program in American history is enacted; we become the only state ever to eliminate its earned income tax credit; we demand drug tests for various welfare recipients even after audits demonstrate the tests cost a lot and yield nothing; we slash child care subsidies making it harder for impoverished working families to keep their heads above water; and we dramatically expand sales taxes to make poor people pay more so rich ones can pay less.
When, I wonder, did it become acceptable, non-embarrassing, “mainstream” in North Carolina for the powerful and the wealthy to use the levers of government to wound and further burden poor people? At what point did we decide this was something to brag about with the home folks, to boast of before the Rotary or the Kiwanis club? When did we decide impoverished people are “others” – not us, not our brothers and sisters, not fellow members of the constituency? When did Christians come to accept that disturbing premise? How do we square attacking poor people with the stirring words of the Sermon on the Mount? What did we replace those life-altering phrases with? I ask non-facetiously. Because I do not know.
These decisions are, to be sure, barbarous. But they are also our own. I know most of us don’t want to be bothered with politics. We have kids to raise, bills to pay, challenges to meet, lives to lead. But this brutal regime is ours. It acts in our name. Each of us is responsible for it – unless we reject the constitutive premises of our nation.
At some point, it no longer works to say: “I don’t pay attention to such things, it’s not my problem.” It turns out, sadly, that it is. We either struggle to stop it, to end the outrage; or we accept it, unthinkingly, as it becomes our own. It thus refashions our commonwealth, our shared understandings and foundational commitments. In the process, we welcome, inevitably, the destruction of our decency as a people. We embrace, finally, what we allow to transpire on our behalf – a shameful and courage-less assault on North Carolina’s poor.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor of law at the University of North Carolina.