03/04/12 — Poverty tour make stop in Goldsboro

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Poverty tour make stop in Goldsboro

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on March 4, 2012 1:50 AM

Although more than 60 individuals were packed into the Community Crisis Center on Slocumb Street Friday, the absence of one member of the Truth and Hope Poverty Tour loomed over those gathered.

Gene Nichols, the director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity which was a part of the bus tour, addressed the crowd first, and apologized that the Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was not able to attend as advertised.

"He is dealing with the legal process at the moment," he said, almost tongue in cheek.

Reports had indicated that Barber, who was due in court Friday morning to enter a plea concerning a trespassing charge, would plead guilty to the misdemeanor and do community service through the state's program for first offenders to have the charges dismissed.

Minutes later, just before the open forum portion of the event was to begin, it was announced that Barber's guilty plea had been entered and he had been "set free," leading to an eruption of applause from those gathered. Barber had not been incarcerated, Nichols clarified later, saying that he had only been in court for his hearing.

Barber was arrested when he set foot onto the grounds of the Wake County School Board Administrative building June 15, 2010 along with three others. Thirty demonstrators were arrested across four school board meetings that summer for acts ranging from refusing to yield the floor, banging on walls and taking seats of school board members. The demonstrators were protesting the school board's decision to eliminate diversity as a factor in school assignments in the county.

Barber, who resides in Goldsboro, will perform 40 hours of community service and pay $430 in fees.

With the air cleared, however, the true dialogue was able to begin as several citizens spoke out during the event, which was promoted as a town hall-type event to provide citizens with an opportunity to discuss the area's poverty situation.

Some shared their personal experiences while others highlighted the resources available to Wayne County's impoverished -- all of which will be taken into account when the tour concludes with a summit later this year, Nichols said.

"We're seeking stories about the real and economic struggles they face. Those stories are the heart of what we're after," he said.

The timing of the event was particularly interesting as it came just a day after a state representative let slip what Nichols characterized as "sickening" remarks concerning the state's poverty status.

"We have no one in the state of North Carolina living in extreme poverty. We might governmentally say they are, but they're not," Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow said during a meeting on the state's mandatory pre-K program. He defined "extreme poverty" as those living on $1.50 per day.

The U.S. Census Bureau defines children living in "extreme poverty" as those who live in households that bring in less than 50 percent of the poverty threshold. For a family of four, that's $11,000 annually.

Later, Rep. Cleveland continued to defend his stance.

"I'm sure there are hungry people in North Carolina, but to say they are living in extreme poverty in North Carolina, I think that's an overstatement," he told the Associated Press when reached in his office.

A 2011 report from Action for Children based on U.S. Census estimates showed that 183,000 children lived in extreme poverty in 2007 and that statistic increased to 228,000, or 25 percent, in 2009. The report also showed one in 10 children in 2009 lived in households that meeting the "extreme poverty" threshold.

Cleveland sought to clarify that he was comparing the state's impoverished citizens to those in developing countries, but Nichols said the fact that opinions like that exist only increase the importance of movements like the poverty tour, saying his comments showed impoverished kids were "not worthy of political concern."

"Those who suggest we don't have significant and powerful poverty issues are refusing to open their eyes," he said. "Once they open their eyes and start seeing what's there, they'll want to turn away.

"The notion that we can turn our back on the lower third of this state ... and call this the home of equality ... is hypocrisy run amok. It cannot be accepted and we have to wage war against it.

The type of thinking shared by Rep. Cleveland, he said, was the very reason why the poverty tour was created -- to put names and faces to the poverty statistics.

Those faces appeared behind the podium Friday sharing stories of struggles and offering ideas for the future. One suggestion was for municipalities to create mechanisms to help those in need find the resources available to them, while another noted that any system where it's more advantageous to remain on welfare than to work for minimum wage is fundamentally flawed.

The suggestions and issues raised at the meeting will be combined with others from communities across the state to form a platform for the agencies involved to push with state legislators in the coming session.

Attaching names and testimonies to the platform will only increase the groups' abilities to push for reform, Nichols said.

"The goal is to eliminate the possibility of being ignored," he said.