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“Winning the Class War”

“Winning the Class War”

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recently commented on the dangers lurking in the vast inequalities of wealth in America and the sharp contrast between unprecedented corporate profits and near-depression-level rates of unemployment.  “There is no way to bring America’s consumer economy back to robust health if unemployment is chronically high, wages remain stagnant and the jobs that are created are poor ones,” he warns.  “Without ordinary Americans spending their earnings from good jobs, any hope of a meaningful, long-term recovery is doomed.”

Leaders in North Carolina should listen up.  The current Great Recession has eliminated thousands of jobs in the state’s already ailing traditional industries:  textiles, tobacco, and furniture manufacturing.  And those jobs aren’t coming back.  What will replace them?  How that question is answered will affect the welfare of us all.  Will we slip backwards into a “new normal” of high unemployment and intractable poverty, or will we chart a creative course toward economic security and opportunity for the many rather than just the few?  “What’s really needed,” Herbert suggests, “is for working Americans to form alliances and try, in a spirit of good will, to work out equitable solutions to the myriad problems facing so many ordinary individuals and families.  Strong leaders are needed to develop such alliances and fight back against the forces that nearly destroyed the economy and have left working Americans in the lurch.”  The story of the North Carolina Fund has important lessons to teach about how those alliances might be forged and how new leadership might be nurtured from the bottom up.

Read Bob Herbert’s essay on “Winning the Class War”:

Discovering NC’s History of Philanthropic Leadership

Discovering NC’s History of Philanthropic Leadership

A reader comments on stumbling upon To Right These Wrongs and discovering “North Carolina’s legacy of progressive philanthropic, educational and political leadership.”  That legacy is something we desperately need to recall and recover as we seek to chart our way through a new era of rising poverty and inequality.

Read her blog:

Op Ed: Charity Is Not Enough

Op Ed: Charity Is Not Enough

The young man at the checkout counter politely informed me about Harris Teeter’s fund drive for the local food bank and asked if I would donate money. I did. I couldn’t load up my car with cranberries, potatoes and pie ingredients and ignore the fact that so many other people couldn’t do the same.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, food banks, pantries, shelters, churches and synagogues across the state have entered one of their busiest times. As many of us plan for a season of feasting with friends and loved ones, we are reminded – by our ministers and rabbis, by news reports and online social networking outlets – “not to forget” those in need.

As we all know too well, our state and our nation are in a crisis, and many of our neighbors are suffering as a result. Nearly 17 percent of North Carolina residents today live under the poverty line, including nearly one quarter of our children. We have the ninth-highest rate of food insecurity (which means uncertain or insufficient access to the food necessary for a healthy life) in the country.

While the homeless are often the public face of poverty, they represent only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of our neighbors who struggle, invisibly, every day. The lines at our food pantries are filled not only by the recently unemployed but also by people with jobs whose wages are so low that they cannot pay their bills and feed their children.

Clearly we need to pitch in where we can; those of us with resources must share with those who are without. But while charitable turkey dinners bring momentary cheer and sustenance to those who are suffering, and may allow the rest of us to enjoy our own holidays with less guilt, they will do nothing to change the fundamental structures of poverty in which many families find themselves trapped.

Charity must not remain the extent of our ethical response to poverty. I had hoped that if the recent financial crisis had a silver lining, it would be that more people would recognize that a national safety net is not a luxury but a necessity; that unemployment and underemployment are not the result of personal failings but of economic forces.

I assumed people would understand that we cannot blame the residents of towns where factories have up and left. We cannot blame the family whose savings were wiped out by a child’s hospitalization, and who now find it difficult to get insurance.

With the conservative turn in American politics, I am not feeling optimistic. We are likely to see major cuts to social services, and a return to the rhetoric of privatization instead of talk of the public good. On the other hand, I am heartened by the news just released by the Half in Ten Campaign – according to a recent poll, a huge majority of voters reject the idea that programs that support low-income families and children should be cut, and 65 percent say Congress should find other ways to reduce the budget deficit.

I am also encouraged by working with colleagues at Duke and UNC on a joint venture called The Moral Challenges of Poverty and Inequality in North Carolina. These faculty approach the issues differently, but we all agree that, while charity is indeed a virtue, it will not solve the pain and suffering that surrounds us; we cannot approach poverty on a case-by-case basis.

We will have to take broad economic approaches, including the creation of jobs that both provide living wages and contribute toward the sustainability of our environment. We must prevent more people from falling into poverty by supporting health care reform. We need institutional solutions, such as affordable and excellent child care and improved public education. And we should experiment with new approaches, such as “baby bonds” that would provide a baseline savings account for children born to poor families.

Fundamentally, we have to understand that our futures, and those of our children, are directly linked to the future of the poor around us. Implementing all of this in practical terms will take work, and it will be much harder than filling a paper bag with cans. But even those of us with plenty of money for the grocery store cannot afford to avoid it any longer. This Thanksgiving, let’s start working together in ways that will make charity less necessary.

Rachel F. Seidman is a visiting assistant professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and administers the Moral Challenges of Poverty and Inequality Project.

Raleigh News and Observer, November 24, 2010

Learning about Poverty from the Photographs of Billy Barnes

Learning about Poverty from the Photographs of Billy Barnes

In a recent post to the UNC Press Blog, Patrick Cullom, Visual Materials Archivist for Special Collections at UNC’s Wilson Library, describes his work cataloging and preserving the 63,000 images that make up the Billy E. Barnes Photographic Collection.  Barnes was the North Carolina Fund’s communications director, and the bulk of his photographs document the Fund’s work and the conditions of poverty in North Carolina.  The collection is a unique resource for anyone interested in poverty, civil rights, and social activism in 1960s America. Learn more

Op-Ed: Poverty’s Place in the Wake County School Debate

Op-Ed: Poverty’s Place in the Wake County School Debate

Poverty has been the elephant in the room during debates about Wake County’s school assignment plan.

This week the school board voted to end the longstanding policy that encouraged socioeconomic diversity in schools. That plan tried to ensure that no school had more than 40 percent of its students on the free or reduced-price lunch program. The new policy eliminates busing students outside of their “community zones” and will quickly lead to segregation by economic status and resegregation by race.

Members of the new majority on the Wake County school board have turned their backs on fundamental issues of social justice and democracy. Their actions undercut nearly a half century of effort to battle the poverty and racism that for so long had blighted North Carolina.

Poverty makes a big difference in the lives of the county’s schoolchildren – and the consequences extend well beyond the cafeteria. Children who can’t afford lunch ($1.75 for K-5 and $2 for grades 6-12) probably don’t get enough to eat at breakfast or dinner; probably don’t have the financial resources for a home computer, music lessons, tutors or athletic equipment; and may not even have a quiet place to study at night. In these circumstances, even the most academically gifted children start at a disadvantage in the quest for a quality education.

The old school assignment plan would not have ended poverty, but the new plan will surely make matters worse for the poor. Why? Because poor people lack the political power to demand their fair share of resources. They lack the money to run for office or support the politicians who get elected, and they do not belong to the social networks through which public policy gets made.

Poor people lack the financial means to subsidize the additional school programs and extra-curricular activities that middle-class families purchase through silent auctions, wrapping-paper sales and innumerable other fundraisers. Parents who work two jobs to pay the bills often don’t have the time to volunteer in their children’s schools, and so those schools lack the valuable energy and talents that parents with flexible schedules provide. And, finally, schools full of poor children find it difficult to attract faculty and administrators with the same level of training and experience as wealthier schools.

In short, poor schools lead to a second-tier education, which makes it all the more difficult for children to escape poverty.

We have just completed a book on the battle against poverty and inequality in the 1960s spearheaded by N.C. Gov. Terry Sanford. In Sanford’s view, public education was the “vital tool for the creation of new jobs, for the development of a more substantial and diversified economic structure, for the elimination of the causes of poverty, the easing of prejudices and racial discrimination, the fulfillment of individual aspirations, and the cultivation of all human capacities.”

But Sanford also realized the state would reap none of those benefits until it addressed the legacies of racial discrimination and attacked poverty at its roots. That was a difficult task then, and it is no less challenging today.

The problems of poverty and inequality, which are at the heart of the Wake County school controversy, demand a new level of ethical commitment from individuals, organizations and institutions across North Carolina. They demand an engaged citizen response that includes people from the bottom to the top of the socioeconomic ladder. They demand joint problem-solving and shared responses to challenges.

The poor must find ways to voice their needs and concerns, others who care for justice must contest the division of society into “we the people” and “they the poor” and all of us must make an effort to create human relationships that bridge our differences and turn them into sources of strength rather than alienation.

The vote to dismantle the student assignment plan is a step backward. But the residents of Wake County, and all of North Carolina, have an opportunity to right this wrong. Our frustration over the school board’s actions should drive a new moral commitment – and the public policy to go with it – to heal the injuries inflicted by poverty and inequality. There is still time to rise to Terry Sanford’s challenge – “the cultivation of all human capacities” – regardless of whether people live in the inner city or the suburbs.

Robert Korstad (Duke) and James Leloudis (UNC-Chapel Hill) are historians and senior fellows in the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. They are the authors of To Right These Wrongs:  The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America.

Raleigh News and Observer, March 5, 2010