Seeing the Invisible

From silence to savagery, pain for the poor intensifies

Stacy Sanders, 39, a specialist with the Fayettteville police, checks on people living in tents underneath the Person Street Bridge spanning the Cape Fear River. Fayetteville’s homeless population is one of the largest in North Carolina.
Stacy Sanders, 39, a specialist with the Fayettteville police, checks on people living in tents underneath the Person Street Bridge spanning the Cape Fear River. Fayetteville’s homeless population is one of the largest in North Carolina.

We face many challenges in North Carolina, but none approaches the scourge of wrenching poverty amid plenty. In one of the most vibrant and accomplished states, in the richest nation on earth, over 18 percent of us, some 1.7 million, are officially poor. And the standard is a daunting one. A family of four living in Charlotte, for example, on an annual income of $24,000 is not classified as impoverished – though one guesses that’s little consolation as they scratch to survive.

It’s worse still. Over 1 in 4 of our children is poor – 41 percent of our children of color. Think on that. Over 4 in 10 of our babies, our middle-schoolers, our teenagers of color are constrained by the intense challenges of poverty. And if you are born poor here rather than in another state, you’re more apt to stay that way.

North Carolina has one of the country’s fastest rising poverty rates. A decade ago, we were 26th – a little better than average. Now we’re 11th, speeding past the competition. We’ve also seen, over the same period, one of the steepest increases in the ranks of the uninsured.

Two million of us are classified by the federal government as hungry – over 20 percent, the nation’s fifth-highest rate. Nearly 622,000 of our kids don’t get enough to eat. Greensboro is the country’s second-hungriest city; Asheville is ninth. Feeding America reports that, for children under 5, we have the country’s second-highest food insecurity rate, just behind Louisiana. A 2011 study deemed Winston-Salem America’s worst city for childhood food hardship.

A national report last month named Roanoke Rapids and Lumberton two of the three poorest cities in the nation. Robeson County has America’s third-highest food stamp participation rate. The number of homeless K-12 students in North Carolina rose dramatically between 2010 and 2012. We have, statewide, over 9,000 homeless veterans.

As this series has documented, hundreds of those vets live under bridges and along wood lines in Fayetteville, often fresh from battlefields. Some 250 wounded souls occupy tents and cardboard dwellings in otherwise bucolic forests, outside Hickory, unable to find relief in over-pressed shelters. Hundreds line up, before 6 each morning, at Crisis Ministries in Charlotte, trying to avoid the ravages of homelessness.

Over a thousand Tar Heels recently stood on line outside the civic center in Fayetteville – many for over 30 hours – hoping to get generously proffered dental services. No small number had to be turned away. This year, due to inadequate support, sponsors were forced to cancel most of the previously scheduled clinics.

As economic engines rev across parts of Charlotte and Durham, isolated neighborhoods experience mushrooming, and terrifying, child poverty rates – sometimes exceeding 80 percent. And families scramble to exist, almost unseen even to their neighbors, without access to electricity, sewer and clean water.

That’s an earful. A fusillade. More than even a patient reader can be expected to endure. I understand that. What I don’t understand – and I have tried – is the reaction of our political leaders to it.

Rep. George Cleveland of Onslow County has claimed, now famously, there is no real poverty in North Carolina. He somehow missed the 10 percent of children in his own district living in extreme poverty (under $11,500 a year for a family of four) and hundreds of homeless kids in the Jacksonville school district.

But Cleveland is only the most blunt and most foolish of his colleagues.

How can one be governor of the state with the second-highest percentage of hungry babies and never mention it? What does it take to be deemed important?

House Speaker Thom Tillis hails from Mecklenburg County. I’m guessing he believes he’s had a successful run as he now prepares to campaign for the U.S. Senate. His track record, though, includes being either unaware or unmoved by the fact that, in the last decade, child poverty in Charlotte’s distressed census tracts rose from a demoralizing 42 percent to an astounding 54 percent, and that nearly 5,000 kids are now reported homeless by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District.

Senate President Phil Berger represents Rockingham and Guilford counties. Greensboro nearly leads the nation in hunger. Pete Brunstetter, outgoing Senate budget writer, comes from Winston-Salem, which the Food Research and Action Center deemed, if you’re a kid who needs to eat, the most dreadful city in the country. Neither Berger nor Brunstetter stirred. In last year’s session, they cut the food bank allocation by half.

And the sins don’t stop with silence. The governor and General Assembly, in 2013, launched a war against poor people unlike anything seen in our modern history. There’s no need to rehash its particulars in depth here – hundreds of thousands swept from Medicaid expansion; the steepest cuts to a state unemployment compensation program since they were created in the 1930s; the grim abolition of the earned income tax credit, requiring 929,000 low-income Tar Heels to pay more to the tax man; the headlong rush to become the first state to cut off welfare benefits during the government shutdown. Meanwhile, the wealthiest North Carolinians were treated to colossal tax breaks in a bold redistribution from the long-jeopardized poor to the richest among us – folks who already secure greater portions of our wealth and income than has occurred in a century.

In swift steps, we moved from treating low-income Tar Heels with a studied, traditional invisibility to a calculated, boastful brutality; from a truce of silence to a competition in cruelty. Before our eyes, political leaders vied for the prowess that apparently attaches to whomever is seen as the most patently dismissive of claims of humanity, compassion and brotherhood.

In the process, we systematically mocked our pledged allegiance to “justice for all.” And we decisively cast aside the New Testament charge to care, faithfully, “for the least of these.” But we did manage to cement, and bolster, our status as most unequal nation in the world.

In 2005, Nelson Mandela told 20,000 people in Trafalgar Square: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice … the protection of a human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.” Amen.

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.