Commentary

Kirk Ross: Poor kids everybody’s problem

January 24, 2014 

Our county is not immune to that awful disease of willful ignorance when it comes to poverty. The same blindness toward the poor that afflicts the non-poor throughout this state is rampant here.

So it was good medicine to hear once again from the pulpit of First Baptist Church last week the story that is all too seldom told of the thousands of children in Orange County living in poverty.

The preacher in this case was county Commissioner Mark Dorosin in his role as civil rights attorney and keynote speaker at this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day service. As lead attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights, Dorosin has traveled North Carolina working with disenfranchised citizens, many of them living in desperate poverty. He reminded us that you do not have to go very far to get to such places and that poverty, especially among children, has climbed rapidly here in the first decades of the 21st century.

Almost 17 percent, roughly 5,000, of Orange County’s children live in poverty. One-quarter of all kids in the county are now on Medicaid, nearly a third on free and reduced lunch, one-fifth uninsured. And the rates are stunningly different when broken down by race, with 8.9 percent of white children living in poverty compared to 37 percent of African-American children and 52 percent of Latino children.

Poverty, by legal definition, is the same in Orange County as other counties where it’s far cheaper to get by. The federal poverty threshold – about $23,000 for a family of four – does not afford the life of luxury demagogues would have you believe. And keep in mind that the rate is tied to a threshold. Among the households where those 5,000 children reside are many far, far below the line.

Why is this not considered a crisis? They’re just little kids, OK?

Part of the problem are the zombie lies about the people in our state living in poverty. Even around here there is a belief of convenience that it is a condition mostly self-inflicted.

That attitude just baffles me and is not supported by the facts. Yet I have seen it come back into fashion in the past few years in stately chambers inscribed with mottos about honesty and fairness.

It’s hard to to observe such misstatements about the unemployed, uninsured, homeless and homebound in our land and not see a bleak future for millions of kids with a couple of strikes already against them.

But it does nearly as much damage to sit idle in the face of a crisis as it does to claim there is none. The state may not be owning up to it now or anytime soon, but my hope that is maybe we can. You just can’t look at these statistics and say with conviction you live in a progressive place.

At the church last Monday, Dorosin said it’s time for the county to face the facts and he’s right. These are not demographics skewed by the college-age population, they’re solid numbers, they’re awful and they’re a reminder of how stratified and separated we are.

“The issue of child poverty is not only a political and economic one,” Dorosin said. “It is a moral one. If we don’t begin to deal with this issue at the earliest possible point for these children, we will deal with it in our schools, and in our courts, and in our prisons, and on the unemployment lines, and sadly, in our funeral homes. As Frederick Douglass said, ‘It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’”

Amen.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at kmr@rossalmanac.com

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