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North Carolina's lawmakers have distanced themselves from poverty

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Last week, Gov. Bev Perdue signed another executive order allowing the extension of federal unemployment benefits to the roughly 25,000 North Carolinians who stood to lose them starting Jan. 28. It's the same move she made to end a stalemate last spring after she rejected legislation that approved an extension, but one contingent on deep cuts in the state budget.

The benefits fight was last year's first big face-off between the governor and the new GOP leadership of the General Assembly and an early indication of the ideologically driven battles to come. Even though the benefits come out of federal funds and cost the state nothing, the leadership was of a mind to take some hostages to make a point about budget cuts—and the state's jobless served that role nicely.

During the prolonged debate, in which thousands of North Carolinians took real financial hits while waiting for their benefits to be restored, some of the Legislature's new leaders engaged in derision of the hostages, asserting that collecting benefits, which last year averaged $282.35 a week, made people lazy and unwilling to look for work.

Last week there was no big debate over the extension, no excessive taunting, just a tepid exchange of press releases and, with the Legislature safely out of town, no political standoff.

That's too bad, because as ugly as last spring's fight was, at least it put the focus on something you don't hear about much on Jones Street these days—poverty.

During the seven weeks of the standoff, stories from the casualties of the Great Recession seeped into the public discourse. People briefly emerged from the shadows and told their elected officials and the rest of us what it's really like to live near the bottom of the income strata: to skip meals, to decide between rent and medicine, to send the kids to stay with relatives until the household's financial situation stabilizes.

Alexandra Sirota is the director of the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center, which over the past year has produced a series of studies tracking the growth and direction of poverty. She said it's a mistake to ignore poverty's impact on the future of the state.

"The lack of conversation is driven by a misunderstanding of what's going on in the economy," Sirota said. "The growing income disparity that's been a focus of the Occupy movement, the depth of the recession and the glacial pace of the recovery has taken a very real toll in North Carolina."

Sirota said in the first decade of the 21st century the number of people in poverty has increased in North Carolina; there is greater deprivation for those already living near the bottom.

"You have people who at the beginning of the decade were in the middle class who now find themselves in poverty, and for the people who before were just scraping by conditions are now far worse," Sirota said.

It should be no surprise that the percentages increase dramatically for African-American and Hispanic households. About one-quarter of the state's black population lives below the poverty line, while steep declines in construction and the poultry industry, traditional sources of jobs for Hispanic workers, has put almost a third of the Hispanic population there as well.

Poverty is scattered unevenly throughout the state but no region is untouched. Robeson, Rowan, Wilkes, Wilson, Pitt and Rutherford counties report 2010 poverty levels above 20 percent.

The idea of a federal poverty line is itself misleading. The line was set in 2011 at $22,314 annual income for a family of four. That's about $15 a day or $107 a week per person for rent, food, transportation, education and so on. Keep in mind that that's the high end of the spectrum. A more sobering figure to ponder is 728,000, the number of people in North Carolina living on half or less of that $22,000.

And consider how little $22,314 gets you. In a state with high housing and transportation costs, the Budget and Tax Center estimates that a family of four needs closer to $49,000 to maintain itself.

Gene Nichol, director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill law school, said he's also concerned about the lack of an honest dialogue about poverty.

"We have a very serious problem of exclusion and marginalization and denial of opportunity in North Carolina," Nichol said. "It's the largest, most intense issue we face, but there's a great gap between what we say we believe and what we do. It's not a part of the focus. They don't talk about it down at the Statehouse. It's the largest problem we face, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the broader culture."

This week, Nichol along with researchers from the center are among those joining state NAACP president Rev. William Barber and others on a two-day bus tour of the northeastern corner of the state, home to locales that have been economic dead zones for generations. Here persists crushing poverty untouched by the booms of late 20th century.

The Truth and Hope Tour includes meetings with grassroots organizers and unemployed workers in rural Beaufort and Washington counties to understand the roots of chronic job shortages and the impact of additional losses from Hurricane Irene. Barber, at a press conference announcing the tour earlier this month, called it a way to show the lives behind the numbers, to "make the poor visible and lift the silence that surrounds this region."

Nichol said it's time to see the humanity behind the numbers and time to fight against the stereotypes that have crept into political discourse during the primary season. The rhetoric aimed at the poor, he said, has been "breathtaking and embarrassing." Whether it's instituting drug testing for those on public assistance—it's an exercise in humiliation—or suggesting that poor kids ought to be cleaning toilets at their schools, as Newt Gingrich noted, the general theme, Nichol said, is that people in poverty are to be sneered at.

"We've countenanced astonishing levels of poverty, obscene levels of child poverty," Nichol said. "Paul Wellstone used to say that the largest challenge of American life is that we turn our gaze away from the people at the bottom.

"In the richest nation on Earth, 40 percent of children of color live in poverty. Those numbers have mushroomed and they continue to grow and it's on top of a chronic problem we never solved."

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