I wonder at times what happened to the people I met last year on the poverty tours. The ones who didn't look like they were going to make it another month, let alone another year. The people who were so unsteady and living so close to the edge that it wouldn't have taken much to send them over.
I think about these people as I walk through the Legislative Building or roam the crowds at Halifax Mall on Monday afternoons. You don't see them, but they exist: the invisibles of North Carolina, our outcasts, our ghosts.
A lot what's going on in Raleigh should scare you. The most frightening thing is not what is being wrought, but the cool confidence of those doing the damage and their inability—or downright refusal—to learn from their mistakes.
Just a couple of years ago, heated debates over budget slashing were often laced with myths about financially struggling North Carolinians. The current bunch in Raleigh is more polite, careful with their language and professing concern for the well-being of all. Yet compared to the less tactful old guard, the policies being enacted this year are more callous and will hurt more people.
Last year's poverty visits, organized by the Rev. William Barber and the NAACP along with the N.C. Justice Center and the UNC Center on Poverty, took us to places suffering the most in the state. We heard not myths but first-person accounts about life in the other North Carolina—the one on the other side of the virtual gated community the legislature continues to build. Every now and again, people would get up and describe their situation, and it was like listening to them deliver their own eulogies.
None of us wants to believe that by making certain policy decisions, the General Assembly is actually killing people. But after that experience, when they vote to cut food and housing programs, limit health care or defund mental health services, I see ghosts.
If you unpack the idea that these cuts are necessary in order to encourage the job creators to turn around the economy, it follows that those suffering while we wait for the turnaround are being sacrificed.
And the pace is picking up. Soon some of the people whose unemployment benefits have been cut or terminated will join the ranks of the invisibles, including the thousands of poor, elderly and disabled North Carolinians who would have benefited from Medicaid expansion but instead will have to get health care in emergency rooms and increasingly overburdened community clinics, or not at all.
The monopoly of the GOP is concerned with its pet projects and settling old scores rather than dealing with an economy in crisis. It has set off an unprecedented exodus in state government. McCrory appointments continue to filter through the bureaucracy as experienced hands take their pensions and bolt. The word on the inside is that appointees are arriving full of ideology and loyalty to the new regime, but without a clue how to run things or how things run.
Within the legislature, widespread inexperience is taking a toll as its leaders drag it down paths the body is wholly unprepared to pursue. It's not just about unemployment, abortion or the other rotten bills that have emerged from Jones Street. They can't even get their signature issues right.
What a surprise, for instance, that the telecoms, banks and other major enterprises were unwilling to give up hard-won, lucrative state tax breaks in the name of reform. Apparently, bill writers forgot to check their own campaign finance reports before coming up with the tax plan.
That kind of fumble adds to the unease about our state with the very people the administration is trying to recruit. For a group that presumably at least has access to smart people, the concept that markets hate uncertainty even more than taxes does not seem to have sunk in.
Neither has the fact that the negative attention we're getting is not going away. The governor and the legislature seem shocked that their spin has failed. It's as if they don't realize there is a geographical limit to their supermajority superpowers.
A national conversation is happening about what's going down here. At last, we have a debate Thom Tillis, Phil Berger and Pat McCrory can't stage-manage.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Haunting realities."