Gene Nichol speaks at the Smith Warehouse Tuesday. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography
When Gene Nichol talks about the biggest threat to America and North Carolina today, Ebola and the Islamic State are not even part of the discussion.
"Poverty is the greatest problem our state and country are facing,” Nichol said. “Right now, we are the richest country in history and, at the same time, have 50 million poor citizens, the greatest income inequality in the developed world and one of the lowest rates of economic mobility anywhere.”
Fresh from an afternoon of driving Triangle voters to the polls, Nichol, a UNC law professor and director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, shared the extent of income inequality in North Carolina through both numbers and personal accounts of working in the state’s poorest communities. His election night talk, “Poverty, North Carolina and the American Flight from Equality,” was part of the Duke Human Rights Center’s “The 99%” series and co-sponsored by Humanities Writ Large.
Robin Kirk, the co-chair of the DHRC’s executive committee, said questions of human rights matter locally as well as globally.
“Human rights matter right here,” Kirk said. “The high levels of poverty and income inequality we see in both our state and country as a whole keep people from living dignified, full lives.”
Nichol said he’s particularly bothered that no elected official in North Carolina and beyond has made poverty eradication a part of a campaign promises or agenda.
“Our state’s poverty levels are 11th in the country, 18 percent of us officially live below the poverty line, 28,000 of our schoolchildren are homeless and two million go to bed hungry,” Nichol said. “But I’ve never heard a politician mention this. Can you imagine being the governor of a state with two million hungry babies and not working it onto your radar screen? What has to happen for it to become an issue they’ll talk about?”
Nichol also shared his personal experiences working in North Carolina’s poorest communities, cautioning that statistics alone, though useful in many disciplines, are “just bloodless numbers fit to put on a dusty shelf and be ignored.”
“What I’ve found through my experiences working in this state and talking to real people is that being poor means you’ve lost everything,” Nichol said. “When you lose everything, you lose your sense of self, you lose the feeling that you belong in the world or deserve to be here. You forget what it’s like to be a human being.”
Though Nichol credited the “saintly” individuals and nonprofit organizations working on behalf of the poor in their communities, like the Interfaith Food Shuttle and Durham County Kids Project in Durham, he urged the young people in the audience to take a more political approach to the issue. Along with being informed voters, Nichol said the best way to reach North Carolina politicians is participating in Moral Monday demonstrations around the state.
“Charity cannot make up for a lack of justice,” Nichol said. “It’s your generation’s challenge now, and you have got to do better than mine has done. These are not just percentages. This is a fight for the very decency of the American people, a fight for our very soul.”
UNC-Chapel Hill senior Kiever Hunter said cynicism, though a normal reaction to such statistics, would not be part of his response to Nichol’s call to action. Instead, he plans to continue attending Moral Monday demonstrations and stay informed on income inequality issues.
“I realize that things probably aren’t going to change in this state for the next several decades,” Hunter said. “But the worst thing you can do is just accept [income inequality levels in North Carolina] as the status quo.”