Last week, a working group hired by the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) Governors’ Board published a report recommending the closing of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. The center is housed by the UNC school of law and is “a non-partisan, interdisciplinary institute designed to study, examine, document, and advocate for proposals, policies and services to mitigate poverty in North Carolina and the nation.” The center operates on an annual budget of $120,000 and receives no funding from the state, relying only on grants secured through 2016. Should the center be shut down, this funding will need to be returned. The proposed closing has drawn criticism and opposition on both a local and national level, with statements released by the UNC School of Law and the American Association of University Professors defending the center and its director, law professor Gene Nichol.
In a statement published by News and Observe, Nichol illustrated the necessity of the center and its work.
Poverty is North Carolina’s greatest challenge. In one of the most economically vibrant states of the richest nation on earth, 18 percent of us live in wrenching poverty. Twenty-five percent of our kids. Forty percent of our children of color. We have one of the country’s fastest rising poverty rates. A decade ago, North Carolina had the 26th highest rate among the states. Now we’re ninth, speeding past the competition. Greensboro is America’s second-hungriest city. Asheville is ninth. Charlotte has the nation’s worst economic mobility. Over the last decade, North Carolina experienced the country’s steepest rise in concentrated poverty. Poverty, amidst plenty, stains the life of this commonwealth. Even if our leaders never discuss it.
And, astonishing as they are, these bloodless statistics don’t fully reveal the crush of economic hardship. That resides more brutally in the terror and despondency of the 150 or more homeless Tar Heels living in the woods and under the bridges of Hickory; or in the 1,100 wounded souls waiting in line, most all night long, outside the Fayetteville civic center, desperate for free dental care; or in the quivering voice of the Winston-Salem father who describes deciding which of his children will eat today and which, only, tomorrow; or in the daughter from Wilson fretting for her 62-year-old father with heart disease who can’t see a doctor unless he scrapes together the $400 he owes and has no prospects for.
The Poverty Center is one of three research centers in North Carolina’s public university system that have been recommended for closure. Closures have been recommended for the North Carolina Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at North Carolina Central University. The working group has also proposed enforcing a policy that would limit university-backed political advocacy. Opponents have suggested that closures serve a political agenda, namely silencing criticism of recent public policies. In a statement issued by UNC Law Dean Jack Boger and signed by 64 of the law school’s professors, Boger states:
The BOG special committee rests its recommendation on no genuine reason beyond a barely concealed desire to stifle the outspokenness of the center’s director, Professor Gene Nichol, who continues to talk about the state’s appalling poverty with unsparing candor. The committee’s original charge was to cut funds to centers that spent too much and to redirect their state aid toward other projects. On that basis, targeting the Poverty Center makes no sense at all. The center hasn’t taken state tax dollars since 2009, and its modest staff — a few earnest post-JD law graduates and an army of dedicated student volunteers — are housed in three small rooms nestled in an off-campus building and paid through private sources…The Special BOG committee would constrict that breath of freedom. It would order the Poverty Center to turn aside from investigating conditions of human misery in our state that cry out for greater attention, not less.
According to the Poverty Center’s official site, the full board will vote on the recommendation at their Feb. 27 meeting in Charlotte. The UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity is presently maintaining a list of media links related to the proposed closing on its official page. You can read the full statements released by Nichol, Boger, and the American Association University Professors here.
News and Observer | National group joins chorus opposed to closing UNC’s Poverty Center