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‘Must read’ report: The persistent and pervasive challenge of child poverty and hunger in North Carolina

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Kids in trailer bed. (Photo: Steve Liss)

[Editor’s note: The latest report from researchers Gene Nichol [2] and Heather Hunt [3] of the N.C. Poverty Research Fund [4] at UNC Law School examines the scandal of child poverty and hunger in North Carolina. In “The persistent and pervasive challenge of child poverty and hunger in North Carolina,” [5] Nichol and Hunt delve into the sobering facts and data surrounding this persistently dire situation and present numerous powerful observations and human stories shared by an array of interviewees with firsthand experience in serving people in need.

Though it tells a sobering story, this report constitutes the latest in a long line of ‘must reads’ from the Nichol/Hunt team and deserves to be an essential resource for local, state and federal policymakers, human service providers, advocates, academics, journalists, and all North Carolinians who desire to make their state a better place to live. 

The following is from the introduction. Click here [5] to explore the full PDF version of the report.]

These are the conversations that aren’t had often enough. We need to ensure meals are there for everyone. And we can do it. These conversations need to reach our lawmakers, who seem not to know or care about the issues. It seems like our lawmakers haven’t experienced poverty or hunger. Or if they did, it was too long ago, they’ve forgotten it or ignored it. It’s really important to press the conversation forward. All our children deserve to eat.

—Anti-hunger advocate

“We need, most of all, compassionate policy making. Policies making a livable wage and affordable housing a reality. If you did those two things, it would put Loaves & Fishes out of business. And we’d be happy to be put out of business. I would love to be forced to go into another line of work. I dare you to put us out of business. Many of our policymakers’ lives don’t include the experience of low-wage people or, if they did, they’re too far away from it now. So they don’t deliver compassionate policy-making. Something has to give.”

—Tina Postel, Loaves & Fishes/Friendship Trays

“What we should do is shift the focus to what kids need to thrive. It’s expensive to ignore the needs of kids. Let’s also stop all this focus on deserving versus undeserving kids. There’s also the presence, or rather, the dominance of race in that division. We have to get past the inability to think of Black kids as our own kids. There is no future without supporting our kids — all our kids—and what they need for success. It’s what matters the most. Let’s make the investments our kids need. Public schools, libraries, families, and the rest. Make that be the only test. Not, as it is now, just serving the interests of the top 1 percent.”

—Alexandra Sirota, Budget & Tax Center, North Carolina Justice Center

Sometimes we get used to things we should never get used to. North Carolina countenances extraordinary levels of child hunger and poverty. For perspective, the United States, tragically, lets more of its citizens, especially its kids, live in wrenching poverty than almost any advanced democratic nation. The United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has decried the “shockingly high number of children living in poverty in the United States.” The U.S. has, by far, the highest child poverty rate among peer nations. It is, by almost all measures, the world’s richest country. It has also become, the rapporteur wrote, “the most unequal society in the developed world.”

North Carolina is, on average, notably worse than the rest of the country. About one in five Tar Heel kids (19.5%) live below the federal poverty threshold (about $25,000 a year for a family of four). That is the 10th-highest state rate in the nation. Almost  10%of North Carolina kids live in extreme poverty. The youngest segment of the state’s population is the poorest. Twenty-two percent of children 5 years old and under are impoverished.

Child poverty is also very highly racialized. Children of color are three times as likely as white kids to be poor. And child poverty in North Carolina, in recent decades, has become decidedly more concentrated — with poor kids living in neighborhoods containing higher and higher percentages of other poor kids. Children are thus required to deal not only with the challenges flowing from their own family’s economic hardship, but, often, also those of their close communities.

The economic mobility of North Carolina children has become increasingly impaired, making it more likely that if you are born poor you will stay that way. Our youngest, most vulnerable members face the most daunting economic challenges.

North Carolina child hunger is similarly crushing. The state’s food insecurity rate is the ninth-highest in the nation. In most North Carolina counties, at least one in five children are food insecure. In over 20 counties, the rate is more than one in four. Reflecting the prevalence of poverty, hunger is racially skewed too. While 62% of white households are food secure, that’s the case for only 43% of Black and Latinx households.

In 2019, over 250,000 households with children in North Carolina (almost 21% of all households with children) participated in SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. And for the 2019-2020 school year, nearly six of 10 Tar Heel public school students were enrolled in free or reduced cost school meal programs. Hundreds of thousands of North Carolina children — living in one of the most economically vibrant states of the wealthiest nation on earth — year in and year out, don’t get enough to eat.

This report seeks to document and explore North Carolina’s twin challenges of child hunger and poverty. They constitute, jointly, one of the state’s most wrenching and most embarrassing problems. They are, as well, massively inadequately attended to, constituting little of our public policy discourse, deliberation and legislative focus. Ignoring the pervasive dignity- and opportunity-denying difficulties of so many of our youngest and most vulnerable members is increasingly impossible to square with our foundational commitments and declarations, our constitutions and our creeds.

The sections that follow examine North Carolina child poverty and hunger through an array of lenses. We look at levels of poverty, inequality, mobility and hardship over time. We focus on the close kinship between poverty and race. We compare North Carolina levels of child hardship and challenge to those of other states and nations. Geographic distinctions are outlined as well, as is the dominance of low-wage work. Childhood food insecurity and other hunger markers are explored. And we briefly examine the Covid-19 crisis as a case study in the polarization and separation that mark us as a state, often leaving our most vulnerable families, including their children, in crushing circumstance. Across a very broad landscape of challenges and opportunities, North Carolina fails to offer adequate assurances for its children to thrive.

We make an effort to move beyond the data as well. Frequently, we turn to the words and narratives of those who work with impoverished children and their families across various communities. Statistics alone fail to convey the depth and realities of burdens pervasively imposed on North Carolina kids. We conclude by suggesting an altered public policy approach for North Carolina’s children. As Alexandra Sirota, director of the Budget & Tax Center at the North Carolina Justice Center, pressed,

In more recent years, we haven’t looked at the long-term effect of our policy choices on our kids. … We haven’t made the turn to realizing and acting on the fact that only if kids do well, do we have economic well-being. We only look at dollars and cents being spent and even then it’s mainly only the dollars and cents interests of wealthy people. What if the main idea was, “we have to do everything it takes to give all kids a real chance to thrive”?

As Sirota summarized, we “didn’t sign up for a society that lets kids starve.”

Click here [5] to explore the full PDF version of the report.