Fighting Poverty and Politics in North Carolina

North Carolina has the dubious honor of leading the nation in the increase of people living in high-poverty areas. We are one of the most food insecure states in the country with over 650,000 people (17%) struggling to find enough food to eat and more than 1 in 4 our of children at risk of persistent hunger.

Ten years ago, John Edwards returned to North Carolina to start a new center at the UNC School of Law to address the persistent problems of poverty in our state. Working with Gene Nichol, then dean of the law school, they started the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, whose stated mission is to “advocate for proposals, policies and services to mitigate poverty in North Carolina.” Shortly after Nichol assumed leadership of the center in 2008, the state legislature cut public funding for its work. The center carried on its work supported by private funding sources.

After Republicans won the NC state house in 2010 and the governorship in 2012, the North Carolina legislature implemented a wave of policies that hit poor families and poor communities particularly hard. Cuts to unemployment benefits, a refusal to expand Medicaid, and the cutting of taxes on the wealthy while raising them on the poor have certainly contributed to North Carolina’s increasing poverty and the hunger of its children in recent years. In his role as director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, Nichol became active in the Moral Monday movement. As an outspoken advocate for the poor, he challenged the actions of the state government in opinion columns for the News and Observer.

Republican legislators recently recommended closing the UNC Poverty Center. Opposition to the Center has been led John W. Pope Foundation, which focuses on “the advancement of individual freedom and personal responsibility.” The Pope Foundation is a deeply ideological organization that promotes the idea “that individual initiative – not government intervention or welfare – is the key to reducing poverty and bringing prosperity to all North Carolinians.” Consequently, their efforts at poverty alleviation focus almost exclusively on efforts that help people “lift themselves out of poverty.”

NC Republicans and the Pope Foundation seem to have mistaken Jesus’ remark that, “the poor you will always have with you” as permission to disregard the Bible’s larger message of social justice, which makes clear that it is the responsibility of just societies to care for the “least of these” in our midst. Just societies are marked the extent to which they provide for those who are starving, naked, and homeless.

Jesus words were spoken in defense of the actions of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume on the eve of his betrayal and crucifixion. Jesus was referring back to a passage from Deuteronomy, which also noted that persistent problem of poverty but unlike Pope and the Republican state legislators, the author of Deuteronomy commanded the people to “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land” (Dt. 15:11).

Many people look to the Bible for guidance in matters of ethics and morality. For some people it offers valuable insight into questions of how we are to live and, for others, a vision of God’s intentions for our life together as a human community. Whether we read the Bible for a vision of personal morality and behavior or for indications of how to order our societies – the Bible makes it clear that poverty is a foremost marker of justice in our world. Individuals are judged by how they treat the poor and needy and societies are enjoined to create structures that keep people from falling into poverty.

Poverty is both structural and personal. Certainly, society doesn’t make people poor, but societies that fail to offer jobs that pay a living wage ensuring that too many people are unable to pay their bills cannot be described as just. Likewise, people do need to be responsible, to work hard, and to make careful decisions about how to spend their money. While some poor people are irresponsible, there is no evidence that the rates of irresponsible behavior are any higher among the poor than the middle-class or the affluent classes. In fact, most poor people work very hard and struggle mightily to care for themselves and their families. Our public policies and our political resources need to reflect public concern for social justice and we need to use the tools at our disposal to structure our society so the people can flourish and be responsible.

The attack on the Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity is clearly a partisan attempt to punish Nichol for his outspoken critique of the NC legislature and its repressive agenda toward poverty and people living in poverty in the state of North Carolina. Not only should the Center remain in operation, state funding should be reintroduced as a first step toward truly beginning to address the structures of poverty that are increasingly shaping the state of North Carolina. The legislators could learn a great deal about the causes of poverty and effective means of addressing it from the work of the Center itself.

While it is true that we will always have poverty in our midst, it is also true that it is our calling and our responsibility to do everything in our power to fight that poverty by creating just structures of support for our community members and to support and care for the people who find themselves living in situations of poverty and marginalization.

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