I was in college when it happened. Two friends and I were making a late-night run to the only grocery store near campus for a social gathering that was to be recorded in the archives of history. As we approached the only open register, I recognized the tired face of a young mother. The cashier was explaining something to her and her husband, and then they shared a heavy sigh. They weren’t going to eat that night.
I knew this family. They were not unlike many others that I knew – a classmate who could play little league baseball, but doesn’t. The family you don’t often see in church, except first in line when a free meal is offered. Growing up in rural North Carolina, you know many families such as the young family standing in front of me at the cash register. But it was on this night that I realized this circumstance had a name.
We know that people born in to economically struggling families are four times as likely to have a premarital, teen pregnancy. It wasn’t uncommon in my high school. Like a broken record, many of these families suffer from generational poverty. And that’s the right name for it – poverty. This wasn’t the first night I had seen poverty and it wouldn’t be the last.
Overall, half a million kids are living in poverty in North Carolina and more than half of them are living in “extreme” poverty. Talking with fellow educators, I hear the horror stories. Like children weeping upon hearing of potential snow days – wondering how they’ll eat. Backpacks filled with leftovers before they leave the cafeteria.
We’ve seen what happens when children cannot access basic necessities. Children who grow up in food insecure households are more likely to go without health care, have increased school absenteeism and face greater risk of early academic failure – did you know that in America, in the 21st century, you can fail before you even really get a chance to start?
We see this happening all too often, but we don’t stop it. While most of the state lives in our urban hubs, rural communities are still struggling to recover from the recession. Nationally, 90% of persistently poor counties are located in rural areas. In 10 of these counties – Bertie, Columbus, Halifax, Hertford, Richmond, Robeson, Rutherford, Scotland, Tyrell, and Warren – child poverty often hovers near or above 40%.
We all knew kids who missed days in junior high and never made it through high school, but how many of us thought to ask why?
It is a travesty that our current legislature hasn’t made poverty a priority. They’re writing absurd bills about possum drops and female breast exposure. They’ve cut education funding, putting tuition out-of-reach for too many students. They’re passing laws to enshrine cursive writing while they’re cutting unemployment benefits. They’ve cut the benefits for 118,000 children of unemployed workers. They refused to expand Medicaid for half a million North Carolinians, and now every year over 1000 North Carolinians will see their lives cut short simply because they don’t have insurance.
Where is a bill that helps put food on someone’s plate? Where is a bill that helps parents put shoes on their kid’s feet and gives them a fighting chance in the school system?
In the past there was a “War on Poverty”. Now it seems like our Republican General Assembly is waging a War on the Impoverished. The budget cuts they’re going to pass are tearing open a wound that will hurt North Carolina for decades.
The bigget obstacle to combating poverty is that society is all too willing to believe that poverty is a town away just outside their community. We must stop dehumanizing people of “limited means” and start addressing the circumstances of poverty in greater terms. Understanding poverty means understanding these people aren’t statistics: they’re our neighbors.
-- Justin Conley,
Young Democrats of North Carolina