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UNC flap puts spotlight on poverty

Poverty in NC

In 2013,  more than 1.7 million people lived in poverty in North Carolina, or 17.9 percent … That was the 11th highest rate in the country. A decade ago, North Carolina ranked 26th.

RALEIGH – A silver lining in the highly politicized controversy over whether to close a center on poverty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the new attention it focused on the plight of the poor in this state.

In case you missed it, a working group of the UNC Board of Governors, which runs the university system, recently recommended the closure of Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill, run by Gene Nichol. Nichol is an outspoken and fierce critic of those who elect the board’s members, the Republican-led General Assembly. The Board of Governors is expected to decide soon whether to abolish the center.

Whether the center is closed or not won’t change today’s poverty statistics. In 2013, more than 1.7 million people lived in poverty in North Carolina, or 17.9 percent of its residents, according to the U.S. Census. That was the 11th highest rate in the country. A decade ago, North Carolina ranked 26th.

Census data show roughly one in four children and 40 percent of black children in North Carolina live below the federal poverty level, which is less than $24,000 for a family of four.

Every year, the General Assembly debates issues related to poverty. The 2015 legislative session also will mean more discussions about how to help areas of the state that have yet to break the cycle of persistent poverty.

As the debate over economic incentives heats up, legislators who represent rural areas want more of those incentives targeted toward areas where unemployment rates – and poverty levels – remain stubbornly high.

If the recent A-to-F letter grades for public schools in North Carolina showed anything, they showed that schools with more poor children tended to get lower grades. What should be done to help those low-performing schools in low-income areas should get some attention this year.

In early talks about the state budget, one of the key reasons cited for a possible $270 million shortfall in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, is that wage growth hasn’t kept pace with projections.

State lottery revenues will get plenty of attention as legislators look for ways to pay for various needs or wants in the next state budget. Typically, along with those conversations come reports about how people in the poorest areas of the state spend more on lottery tickets.

Early this session, a group of House Democrats proposed legislation to create a permanent poverty task force and create a position in the governor’s office for an executive advisor on economic prosperity and poverty reduction. It calls for spending $200,000 a year for the task force and $100,000 a year for the position in the governor’s office. As of this week, the bill hadn’t attracted any Republican co-sponsors.

Democrats again are pushing for an increase in the minimum wage and the reinstatement of the Earned Income Tax Credit, but those proposals aren’t expected to go anywhere this session.

Nichol calls poverty “North Carolina’s greatest challenge,” and in a recent column criticized Gov. Pat McCrory for not mentioning it in his recent State of the State speech. In McCrory’s defense, he did talk about trying to ensure that everyone who wants a job in North Carolina can find one.

The governor also talked about the state’s declining unemployment rate. “Despite this tremendous accomplishment there are still a lot of communities, small businesses and individuals that are hurting, and there is still much work to be done,” McCrory said.

Gene Nichol couldn’t have said it better himself.

Patrick Gannon writes columns for Capitol Press Association.

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