For much of the last decade, Gene Nichol has traveled North Carolina, exploring deep veins of poverty that are largely unseen by most of us but ravage much of the state like a disease.
Nichol and his law students at the UNC Center on Poverty found sad markers of misery: more than 200 homeless people living in the woods outside Hickory, 150 people lined up each day before dawn on the edge of “uptown” Charlotte to receive assistance, a community health center in Kinston where patients can’t get care because they’re not covered by Medicaid.
Nichol, Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at UNC, paints a depressing picture of North Carolina’s economic landscape in his new book, “The Faces of Poverty in North Carolina.” He marshals a dreary litany of statistics: 15 percent of our residents live in poverty, 12th highest poverty rate in the country, one in four children are hungry. Two cities, Roanoke Rapids and Lumberton, rank among the three poorest in America.
Charlotte, with its megabanks and booming towers, is one of the richest. But it has the worst economic mobility of the 50 largest cities in America. “If you are born poor in Charlotte,” Nichol writes, “you are more apt to stay that way than anywhere else.”
Nichol says his book sets out to lift the veil on poverty in North Carolina, on the theory that if we are forced to look at the conditions that lead to such abject existence, we might feel compelled to do something about it.
“I don’t think the United States is the most selfish country,” he said recently. “I don’t think we are the meanest or the cruelest. I thought and I still think the big part of the reason we treat low-income people so poorly is that they are invisible to us.”
Nichol builds his case by weaving together the ugly data points about income, education, jobs, and health care with personal anecdotes from hundreds of interviews with the people most affected. It adds up to a damning narrative about a large and growing underclass fostered by callous policy-making in Raleigh and Washington.
“Scarcely a word about poverty is uttered in the halls of the General Assembly,” he writes. “Recent North Carolina governors have almost never mentioned it, regardless of political party.”
It’s a depressing story, and I wonder if there really is cause for hope from drawing back the curtain. “I used to think that six days a week,” Nichol says. “Now I think it about three… I’m less certain in my optimism.”
He cites two counties at opposite ends of the state that offer both contrasts and similarities. Wayne County, in the state’s eastern Coastal Plain, is one-third black. Wilkes, on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is 90 percent white. What they have in common is high poverty rates, both over 20 percent.
In Wilkes County, he said, “I interviewed lots and lots of people in 50-year-old trailer homes. They had no perceived economic prospects. But out front they had a Trump sticker and a Confederate flag. There were none of those in Goldsboro.”
“Those two groups of people saw themselves, I have no doubt, as cultural adversaries.
“If anyone could ever be smart enough to help those two groups of people realize they have so much more in common than what separates them, then I’m convinced we could fix our politics in North Carolina. But I’m not smart enough.”
Ted Vaden, The News & Observer ‘s former public editor, lives in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at email@example.com.