Gene Nichol highlights challenges of poverty


The Appalachian Online

Kevin Griffin

Using statistics and stories, Gene Nichol spoke about the reality of poverty in North Carolina and the failure of political leadership Thursday in the Schaefer Center.

Nichol’s decades-long career has included time as a law professor at universities across the country as well as a stint as president of the College of William and Mary from 2005 to 2008.

Currently a law professor at UNC Chapel Hill, Nichol headed that university’s poverty center until it was closed in February by the UNC Board of Governors.

The closing of the poverty center was widely criticized as a politically-motivated action against Nichol, who has been an outspoken critic of state policy, particularly in the area of poverty.

“Who would have guessed that an academic center would be eliminated because a board of governors and their political benefactors in the general assembly disapproved of the writings of a faculty member?” Nichol said. “But in truth, if you are willing to wage a war on poor people, and a war on people of color, matters like academic freedom are small potatoes.”

Nichol went on to address the issue of poverty of North Carolina.

He started by listing numbers: 18 percent of North Carolinians living in poverty, and more than 25 percent of children living in poverty, with 41 percent of minority children living in poverty.

Looking to specific cities, Nichol cited Charlotte as having the worst social mobility of any city in the nation, while Greensboro is ranked as the nation’s hungriest city.

In addition, he said that North Carolina has some of the highest rates of concentrated poverty in the United States, with a Business Insider list putting four North Carolina cities in its top 10.

Moving beyond the numbers, Nichol related the stories of poverty in North Carolina that he had seen or heard about.

Nichol referred to conversations he had with Clyde Fitzgerald, the executive director of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, about the children that Fitzgerald encountered in his work.

“The most depressing thing I deal with, Fitzgerald says, was talking with a parent who describes the decision he had to make that day about which one of his kids could eat and which one would not,” Nichol said.

Nichol also said Fitzgerald told him about the way some children would react when they it was supposed to snow.

“Then I started seeing, Clyde said, all these children I deal with now who  get anxious and scared and would start to cry a little bit, when people talked about it snowing, because it meant for them days they would not get anything to eat, and they didn’t know how long the condition would persist,” Nichol said.

Nichol brought the talk around to the role of policymakers.

“In the last three years, our governor and our legislature have looked at these stark deprivations, these massive inequalities, these sins against dignity and have moved decidedly to make them worse,” Nichol said.

Nichol criticized state lawmakers for, among other things, refusing to expand Medicaid, a move he said that studies show would result in the death of more than 1,000 North Carolinians.

“We have, in the state of North Carolina an immense battle going on, and it is a battle for our very decency as a people,” Nichol said. “It is quite terrifying.”

Senior social work major Emily Hincher, who said that she attended the event for a social work class, was moved by the speech.

“I cried, actually,” Hincher said. “These are statistics I have heard before, and they are impactful, but it is hard to realize it when you’re in a classroom.”

Senior history major Hannah Malcolm said she came to the event because of her interest in academic freedom issues, but found a personal connection to the issue.

“In the event he talked about how Winston-Salem, Greensboro and then Robeson County were some of the poorest places in the nation and one side of my family comes from Forsyth and the other side comes from Robeson, so this is my family that he is talking about in a sense, my kind of people, so I wanted to come and hear it from a different perspective,” Malcolm said.

“It hit a little too close to home. I know poverty exists and I knew poverty existed where I lived, but I did not realize it was that bad, that deep, that entrenched..,” Malcolm said. “It is quite terrifying.”

Story by: Kevin Griffin, Staff Reporter