The Choice to Look

As a faculty member at UNC, I’ve been closely following our unfolding drama around the Center for Poverty, Work, and Opportunity headed by our colleague, Gene Nichol. For context, I am a member of the Center’s advisory board and have been since its inception. When Gene took the helm of the Center several years into its existence, we all knew something good would flourish because of his commitment and moral leadership. To say I hold him in the highest regard is a gross understatement. I respect him as a colleague and friend. If he did nothing more than write editorial pieces about poverty, he would do enough. Because, as current events demonstrate, when he talks people listen even if they don’t like what they hear.

If there is any good that comes from the current crisis and the many articles, editorials, op-ed pieces, and letters to the editor that have surrounded it, it is that people are having to talk and think about poverty. I’ve been thinking about it too. A month or so ago, a neighbor reached out to the neighborhood and asked us to join her in regularly supporting Table, a local group that combats child hunger in our community. New to the area, she described her surprise to learn how many children are hungry here in Chapel Hill. She asked that every week we, her neighbors, bring food that could go home with children from school in their back packs so that they and their families won’t be hungry over the weekend. She leaves a box on her porch so that we can easily drop things off. The neighborhood has supported this effort. Yet, every time I send my boys down the street with a bag of groceries for her box, I find it hard not to cry. Children should not be in a position in which strangers have to fill their backpacks on Fridays so that they and their younger siblings can eat. It is a terrible evil and it is perpetuated by specific choices that find expression in policies and politics.

Extending unemployment benefits to those who have been laid-off, raising the minimum wage so that someone working full time does not have to have their family living in poverty, expanding Medicaid coverage which goes a long way toward preventing bankruptcy, and deciding income levels at which food stamps will be provided all impact poverty and, not to put too fine a point on it, hunger. Some of you may respond that individual choices are to blame when people, particularly children live in deprivation. Their parents should be doing something differently. In some cases you are right. There are choices we wish people wouldn’t have made to begin with and choices we wish they’d make now. Yet, personal choice intersects with public choice. If a substance abusing parent wants to change, that parent needs accessible and affordable substance abuse treatment at the right level of care for the particular addiction. Likewise, mental health problems that get in the way of employment and good parenting require available treatment. Politicians decide whether funds are allocated in these ways. To divorce interventions to alleviate hunger from policy and, therefore, political choices is impossible.

With his powerful voice, Gene Nichol makes us look this conundrum right in the eye. His language of “hungry babies in Greensboro” prompts visceral reactions that admittedly would make all of us want to turn away. When I became a social worker at age 23, the commitment I made was not to close my eyes to suffering. I cannot always change it and it will surely not be alleviated in my lifetime. But I can bear witness that it is there and it is real. And I can give my talents, such as they are, to those who have no voice and no advocate. I am not alone. Many of us in the professional schools, do work that impacts some part of the poverty puzzle and we do it at Carolina because we believe that what we are doing is highly consonant with the University’s mission and history. Any of us could be singled out and targeted for the work we do. The Board of Governors will make its decision on Friday barring divine intervention (i.e. ice and snow that is in the forecast). But, whatever the decision is, it will say more about the decision makers than it will about anything else. Professor Nichol will continue to speak. And too many North Carolinians will continue to be hungry until we all decide, through our personal and public choices, to stop it.

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