North Carolina’s ‘Invisible Citizens’

Feb 7, 2019

Some day-to-day experiences alert people of poverty in their community: long lines at the food pantry, individuals asking for change near a freeway exit, or family members juggling multiple jobs. But legal scholar Gene R. Nichol believes that the experiences of day-to-day poverty experienced by more than one million North Carolinians are invisible to most. 

For years Nichol has been tracing the state to collect stories of the poor and impoverished, and he documents many of them in his recent book “The Faces of Poverty in North Carolina: Stories from our Invisible Citizens” (The University of North Carolina press/2018). He details that more than one in four children are hungry in this state and many rely on meals at school as their primary source of food.

He found not much separated the economic crisis of white residents of Wilkes Country from black residents of Goldsboro: both had high poverty rates and little hope of economic growth. Though many consider themselves adversaries, Nichols believes much could be gained politically if they understood how much their communities have in common. 

Nichol also argues that no matter what the political affiliation, leaders in North Carolina are not addressing this growing issue. Nichol joins host Frank Stasio to discuss his book, what he discovered during this research, and his recommendations for solving the crisis.

Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. On Wednesday, Feb. 27, he will be in conversation with John Grisham at the Orange Literacy Council’s “Writers for Readers” fundraiser at The Carolina Club in Chapel Hill.

Interview Highlights

On the focus of his book:

It's one thing to collect the data and show the trends that exist as worrisome as they are … I began to think it’s more powerful to tell the stories of those who were living in poverty. So this book is mainly a narrative of folks that are living across North Carolina in [an] immensely challenging circumstance.

On a woman he interviewed who had been living in the woods in Hickory:

She said: When you’ve lost everything … You lose your sense of being an actual human being. The lines I remember: You lose your sense of having a place to occupy in the world. And she said she hadn’t yet recovered it.

On the homeless community living in the woods in Hickory:

They’re not all males … They’re not all people who are having mental illness challenges or addiction challenges. Though a lot of them are, but there are a lot of folks who just kind of had the bottom fall out economically, and it becomes very difficult to recover.

On group of working women in Charlotte featured in the book:

They were all women of color. They all worked. They all worked more than 40 hours a week, frequently more than one job. They were adamant to care for their families against all odds.They made $8 - $8.50 an hour. They would say this constantly to us, though they would put it politely, they weren’t rude about it. [They would say]: It’s the wages, stupid. Everybody knows that you can’t pay rent, electricity, transportation, childcare in Charlotte, North Carolina making $8.50 an hour.

On North Carolina’s war against the poor:

You can’t write about poverty in North Carolina — its depth and its stunning hardship — without also writing about the fact that in the last seven years we have had the most intense war on poor people waged out of our General Assembly that has occurred in modern American life.