State & National
|Lawmakers town hall on poverty|
|Black Caucus hosts meeting in Durham|
|Published Thursday, April 10, 2014 5:37 am|
DURHAM – The North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus held its first town hall meeting to discuss the issue of poverty in the state. Local representatives, community members, organizations and concerned citizens participated in a two-hour discussion over the crisis, which lives in each of our backyards.
“(This year) marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the War on Poverty,” said Rep. Garland Pierce, NCLBC’s chairman. “The poverty gap continues to widen and we thought this would be a good time to refocus our attention on the thousands of North Carolinians who are the working poor.”
There are 1.7 million people, or 18 percent of the state’s population living in poverty.
“Twenty percent have no health care coverage,” said Gene Nichol, UNC-Chapel Hill professor of law and director of the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity. “We have the 12th highest poverty rate in the country, though only a decade ago we were 26th. Over a half-million of our households participate in the food stamp program.”
Nichol said that America as a whole has higher levels of poverty, including child poverty, than any other advanced nation in the world. He said 41 percent of children of color live in poverty.
“In truth we are the richest, the poorest, and the most unequal nation on earth,” he said.
Rep. Larry Hall, who conducted the meeting, said that poverty is an important issue that the state has not yet conquered. He said he wants to make clear that we have the resources to conquer the problem, the real question is, do we have the commitment.
“We want to do more than listen, we want some action,” Pierce said. “As we stand here today there are children who go to school hungry, families that can’t afford to go to the doctor.”
Pierce said that Robeson County is the poster child for poverty in North Carolina and the fifth poorest county in the nation.
Robeson County is the largest (by land mass) county in North Carolina and has a minority-majority – over half of its residents are African-American, Native American and/or Hispanic.
According to U.S. Census Bureau 2012 American Community Survey statistics for North Carolina youth under age 18, 40 percent of African-Americans are poor, 43.6 percent of Hispanics are poor, and 44.1 percent of Native Americans in the same category are poor. For white youth it is 18.8 percent.
Pierce said that when he drives around Robeson County he is shocked at the conditions people are living in, in 2014.
In Durham County there are over 17,204 children living in poverty.
Rev. Curtis A. Gatewood, the HKonJ coalition coordinator for the NAACP, said that they began the Truth and Hope Tour of the poverty effort a few years ago.
The NAACP partnered with the NC Justice Center and other organizations to do a bus tour around the state. It tours rural counties and inner city neighborhoods in North Carolina that struggle to find work, housing, transportation and food for its families. Its aim is to “put the face on poverty in North Carolina.”
Gatewood said many people do not want to see the faces of poverty, but the truth is haunting.
“We took buses and we traveled over 2,000 miles across the state,” he said. “We knew this was necessary before fundamental transformation would ever be possible.”
Said Nichol: “Don’t let anyone convince you that the poverty level is anything but brutal.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey statistics, five years ago 16 percent of all North Carolina families of all sizes lived with total incomes below $25,000. In 2012 the number went up to 19.5 percent.
“When you talk about poverty, you have to put it into context. Black people have not been sitting around begging for free stuff,” Gatewood said.
He said that there are many poor who work full time or multiple part-time jobs and still can’t afford a living wage. He said the notion of poor people being lazy or asking for handouts is not right. He said we can’t allow the legislature to continue to deny Medicaid or unemployment benefits, or provide tax breaks for the wealthy.
Pierce said that education, poverty, health care and unemployment “seem to be first cousins” but the issue is bigger than any one person, institution or organization. He said when people don’t know how to navigate the system, they will never get what they need.
Hall said that as a state, North Carolina is not only refusing to help the poor, it is “taking steps to systematically hurt them,” through legislation.
After the official business of the meeting concluded, attendees were asked to stand and introduce themselves and their cause and offer any suggestions, questions or partnerships they might have.
“We need to continue to work towards change and action,” Pierce said. “We are policy makers. You out there are the soldiers that go out everyday. We’ve got to find those resources and come together.”
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