I was in college making a late-night run to a grocery store near campus collecting the materials necessary for a social gathering that was to be recorded in the archives of history. As we turned into 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. 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 into 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.
Twenty percent of North Carolinians are born into “limited means.” In the last 40 years, nearly half of the children born into poor families remained poor throughout their childhood, and made little improvement over time. It’s a quiet epidemic in rural parts of this state where access to opportunity is hard to find.
Overall half a million kids are living in poverty in N.C. 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 as 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 urban hubs, rural communities are still struggling to recover from the recession. Nationally, 90 percent 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 percent.
This is an unaddressed problem. It is a travesty that our current legislature hasn’t made this a priority. They’re passing laws about possum events, female breast exposure, and doubling the waiting period for divorce that is already a threat for anyone trapped by domestic violence. They’ve cut funding to education causing tuition costs to rise out-of-reach for too many students. They’re passing laws to enshrine cursive writing, they’re cutting unemployment benefits. They’ve cut the benefits for 118,000 children who lived with parents who were unemployed for more than six months. 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 the NC General Assembly is having a “War on the Impoverished.” The budget cuts they’re going to pass are exacerbating a wound that will hurt North Carolina for decades. The problem with 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 these aren’t statistics they are our neighbors.
Justin Conley is the national committeeman for the Young Democrats of North Carolina.