Faces of Poverty
Professor Gene Nichol is the author of “The Faces of Poverty in North Carolina: Stories from Our Invisible Citizens” (UNC Press, 2018).
These are the faces of poverty in North Carolina: scores of homeless men, women, and children take refuge in makeshift camps, barely hidden in the woods near some of our most affluent neighborhoods. Hundreds wait in lines hours long to receive basic health care at underfunded free clinics. In large cities and small towns, children–especially children of color–rely on meals at their schools to keep hunger at bay, while parents struggle in jobs that fail to pay living wages. While many in the Tar Heel State enjoy unparalleled prosperity, those born into poverty have lower odds than ever of climbing the ladder of economic upward mobility. Today, more than 1.5 million North Carolinians live in poverty. More than one in five are children. Behind these sobering statistics are the faces of our fellow citizens. This book tells their stories.
Since 2012, Gene R. Nichol has traveled the length of North Carolina, conducting hundreds of interviews with poor people and those working to alleviate the worst of their circumstances. Here their voices challenge all of us to see what is too often invisible, to look past partisan divides and preconceived notions, and to seek change. Only with a full commitment as a society, Nichol argues, will we succeed in truly ending poverty, which he calls our greatest challenge.
Criminal Justice Debt
Across North Carolina, poor defendants in criminal and traffic cases have to pay the courts. Costs accrue at every step and can add up quickly, even for minor offenses. Defendants who are unable to pay off this debt face additional penalties, including new fees, extended probation, the revocation of their driver’s license and, incredibly, jail time–often for offenses too minor to warrant incarceration in the first place.
Court Fines and Fees: Criminalizing Poverty in North Carolina
Our first report in our series on criminal justice debt, “Court Fines and Fees: Criminalizing Poverty in North Carolina,” uses defendants’ stories, court observations and interviews with advocates, judges and public defenders to explore the ways fines and fees trap poor defendants in a vicious cycle of debt and punishment. We examine how fines and fees raise troubling questions of constitutionality, cast doubt on the fairness of our courts and infringe on judicial independence. We scrutinize claims about the necessity and cost efficiency of fines and fees and look at the factors that drove their rise in the state. We conclude with simple, straightforward recommendations that can be easily adopted by the courts.
Forcing Judges to Criminalize Poverty: Eroding Judicial Independence in North Carolina
Our second report focuses on the ways in which changes to state law have tied the hands of judges when it comes to waiving court fees and fines. Although both state and federal law permit judges to waive fines and fees—and frequently require it–the North Carolina General Assembly has worked steadily to limit judicial authority on this front. This intrusion on the authority of the courts violates fundamental separation of powers mandates and jeopardizes the rights of impoverished defendants.
About Court Fees
In North Carolina, all defendants in traffic and criminal court who plead guilty or are convicted must pay fees to the court system. These fees are administrative, intended to cover various state costs. The most common fee is the “general court of justice” fee. It and the smaller fees that come bundled with it total about $200. Additional fees–for pretrial detention, electronic monitoring, community service and even attorney’s fees–might also apply, depending on the case. Defendants who pay late, bounce a check, pay on an installment plan or fail to appear in court pay additional fees. On top of fees, defendants may also have to pay fines and restitution.
Defendants in criminal cases are overwhelmingly poor. Court costs and fees can become a long-term financial burden. And the penalties for nonpayment can be severe. The practice that gets the most attention is the incarceration of defendants who can’t pay their court-ordered debts, often referred to as the revival of “debtor’s prison.” But poor defendants who are unable to pay can also remain trapped in the court system or lose their driver’s license. All these sanctions have downstream consequences–loss of a job, housing or benefits, for example–which make it harder for defendants to escape from debt.
The incarceration of poor defendants solely because they lack the funds to pay their fines and fees is unconstitutional. Judges are supposed to ensure that poor defendants aren’t sent to jail for this reason. But judges often don’t conduct any inquiry into the defendant’s ability to pay or, if they do, they apply unreasonable and hostile standards. As a result, the constitutional prohibition against debtor’s prison is regularly violated across the state. Judges also can waive court costs and fees, but in the great majority of cases, they don’t.
Waiver Rate by County Map
Source: NC Administrative Office of the Courts
Exploring Economic Distress in North Carolina
In 2013, we started looking more deeply at the divide between urban and rural poverty in North Carolina, focusing specifically on Mecklenburg and Durham counties. At that time, discussions about poverty were often framed as a rural issue. But inspired by colleagues’ research at UNC-Chapel Hill, we found deep pockets of poverty in both rural and urban places, and that some of the worst-off neighborhoods were at the core of the state’s most affluent cities.
This led us to think more deeply about how poverty looks in locations across the state–and why it might be that way. In 2014, we received a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation to extend this research to a range of NC communities.
This multi-year effort resulted in the publication of a series of reports consisting of interviews with residents, partner organizations, local and regional nonprofits, local government officials and other stakeholders.
We want this research to be useful for the communities we work with. We hope that these portraits shed light on the reasons for poverty in a place and convey the impact it has on poor individuals and the larger region. We want to spur local officials, nonprofits and service agencies to act, and to act wisely. And we want to spark conversations, locally and statewide.
High Point is not what comes to mind when thinking about the hungriest metropolitan area in the United States. A small city of about 114,000 people, located in North Carolina’s Triad region (with Greensboro and Winston-Salem), High Point has long been at the forefront of the state’s prominent, and almost defining, furniture industry. Still, in 2015, a survey conducted by Gallup and released by a national anti-hunger advocacy organization found that the Greensboro-High Point metropolitan area had the highest levels of food hardship in the country. We interviewed community and civic leaders and spoke to High Point residents facing the challenges of hunger and poverty.
Our report, “Economic Hardship, Racialized Concentrated Poverty, and the Challenges of Low-Wage Work,” may surprise, given the Queen City’s reputation as a business powerhouse. But, as our report confirms, while Charlotte generates enormous wealth, its tangled confluence of poverty, racial disparity, segregation in housing and education, neighborhood disadvantage, and labor market segmentation relegates many residents to the sidelines. Such trends will impair Charlotte’s prospects and increasingly wound the dignity and opportunity of large numbers of the city’s residents.
Report: Economic Hardship, Racialized Concentrated Poverty, and the Challenges of Low-Wage Work (2016)
The racial and economic divides that cleave Charlotte were evident in the aftermath of the police shooting death of Keith Scott in the fall of 2016. Many in the regional and national media turned to our report to gain insight into events in Charlotte. These included the NY Times, CNN Money, the LA Times, CBS News, the Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, The Atlantic, the Charlotte Observer, the Wall Street Journal and UNC’s own Daily Tar Heel. A homegrown effort, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, issued a report in the spring of 2017 that echoed many of these same themes, especially on the lasting and pervasive harms of segregation by race and income.
Mecklenburg County Poverty Rate
Source: 2016 ACS 5-Year Estimates
Our report, “Putting a Face on Medicaid Expansion in North Carolina,” describes not a place but a condition–a health care condition called the “Medicaid gap.” People suffering from the Medicaid gap do not qualify for traditional Medicaid (most working age adults who are not blind or disabled do not qualify) nor can they afford insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka “Obamacare”).
The ACA originally contemplated a mandatory Medicaid expansion that would cover all poorer adults. When the US Supreme Court ruled that the Medicaid expansion was voluntary, some states, including North Carolina, opted to reject expansion (despite the feds offering to pay for almost all of it). As a result, over half a million North Carolinians are too rich for traditional Medicaid and too poor to receive subsidies under the ACA.
The consequences of refusing to expand Medicaid are many. They are certainly economic. The state loses out on billions of dollars of federal funding, thousands of new jobs, and the bountiful economic stimulus this activity creates. But the true crisis is a personal one. Lives are stunted and cut short by the lack of access to health care. Our report includes interviews with doctors, patients and would-be patients who are witness to–and struggling with–the consequences of the state’s decision to deny expansion.
Report: Putting a Face on Medicaid Expansion in North Carolina (2016)
Source: 2016 ACS 5-Year Estimates
Durham’s status as a tech hub and university town and its increasingly hip downtown have generated lots of buzz, but have also raised questions about the displacement of poor, primarily African American, residents. As rents increase, where do renters and small businesses go? How do these changes play out in this dynamic and complex place?
Our Durham report grapples with these questions by putting them in a historical context. We draw the connections between racially discriminatory practices and current trends and talk to a range of residents, community activists and city officials about the challenges that come with Durham’s successes.
The Durham Herald-Sun and News & Observer are publishing an ongoing series of articles about gentrification and residential displacement. The City of Durham Human Relations Commission issued a wide-ranging and thorough report on structural racism in the city and the city itself is committed to racial equity training. The Racial Equity Task Force is using our report as part of its curriculum.
This Wilkes County report details the tough times faced by the county in recent years. Once the headquarters of Lowe’s Home Improvement, Lowes Foods, one of North Carolina’s largest banks and numerous homegrown manufacturers, Wilkes was hit hard by globalization, economic dislocation and the wrenching effects of two recessions. Between 2000 and 2014, it suffered the second largest drop in median household income in the nation, mostly due to job loss.
The Health Foundation, an incredible community resource working to improve the health and well-being of residents of Wilkes County, is partnering with the UNC School of Government on a two-year Collective Impact initiative to address the opioid crisis. The foundation used the report when applying for the grant. The Health Foundation is also taking part in a Raising Places grant, designed to improve the living conditions of kids in North Wilkesboro. We’re proud to say that the report also inspired a gift to programs addressing underprivileged kids in Wilkes County.
The Wilkes report was referenced by news outlets including NC Policy Watch and the Wilkes Journal-Patriot which highlighted our presentation of report findings. PBS NewsHour, after interviewing Gene Nichol, went to Wilkes for its piece on the invisibility of poverty in national politics. Actor Zach Galifianakis is from Wilkes County. In March 2017, he hosted a screening of “Democracy for Sale,” part of his series on inequality in America. Gene Nichol participated in the panel discussion. We attended a forum on housing and homelessness in Wilkes County and provided an overview of poverty in the county.
Source: 2016 ACS 5-Year Estimates
Goldsboro, the county seat and largest municipality in Wayne County, is grappling with rapidly spreading poverty and deepening patterns of racial and economic segregation. According to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of middle income households in Goldsboro shrank more than almost anywhere else in the country. One in four people overall are poor. Over half of all county residents, and over 70% of its black and Latinx residents, live in a neighborhood marked by poverty.
Our report, “Goldsboro: Isolation and Marginalization in Eastern North Carolina,” examines concentrated poverty in Goldsboro through the voices of its residents. It also looks more deeply at poverty trends, housing challenges, and racial and economic segregation in the public schools. Our conclusion? While residents of color bear the brunt of poverty in Goldsboro, it drags down the entire community. To address poverty in Goldsboro is to improve outcomes across the board.
The segregation of public schools by income and race is big part of the picture in Wayne County–and one that has a lasting impact. Explore school performance through the prisms of race and poverty in our Story Map.
The local newspaper ran a good synopsis of the public town hall where we announced the release of our report. It also kickstarted a group of committed advocates and citizens gathered to address poverty in the city. NC Policy Watch published “A community conversation about poverty and opportunity in Goldsboro” and related radio piece. Public Radio East discussed the study.
Source: 2016 ACS 5-Year Estimates