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Fighting poverty - It's with us always

By D. G. Martin
Posted Sunday, June 20, 2010

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Chapel Hill, NC - “For the poor always ye have with you,” Jesus told his disciples.

Also with us always are efforts to fight poverty.

Even though there has been remarkable economic progress in recent times, poverty remains an unmet challenge in North Carolina, according to MDC, a Chapel Hill based non-profit that studies Southern trends. Last month, in a press release about its latest “State of the South” report, it said, “A new analysis of the Southern economy shows that the two recent recessions knocked the South off an upward trajectory that had broadened the middle class and nearly closed the poverty gaps that perennially separated it from the rest of the country.”

A report issued by The UNC Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity says, “Despite much progress, poverty remains a daunting challenge—a challenge heightened by race, by region, by age, by sex and by family structure. An array of predominantly rural counties, particularly in both the eastern and western regions of the state, suffers from high and persistent poverty levels.”

These reports of the persistence of poverty in our state reminded me of North Carolina’s pioneering poverty fighting efforts in the 1960s. In 1963, Governor Terry Sanford and others created the North Carolina Fund to raise private money for a 5-year effort to stimulate and fund locally based efforts to improve the lives of poor North Carolinians.

A new book tells the Fund’s story. Duke Professor Robert Korstad and UNC-Chapel Hill Professor James Leloudis are the authors of “To Right These Wrongs: the North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America.”

According to the new book, the North Carolina Fund was, due to the efforts of Sanford and Fund director George Esser, amazingly successful in raising private and Federal government resources. They persuaded the Z. Smith Reynolds and Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundations to make multi-million dollar commitments. When they shared their plans with the Ford Foundation, asking only for advice about how to structure the Fund’s programs, they walked away with $7 million.

A few months later the Fund’s plans and experience, minimal as they were, attracted generous support from Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs.

“To Right These Wrongs” chronicles the mixed results of the Fund’s efforts. From the beginning the Fund encouraged and funded proposals from local area organizations rather than forcing its own programs on the local groups.

The new book focuses on Fund-supported antipoverty efforts in three different areas of the state: (1) The urban area in and around Durham, (2) A rural collection of eastern counties along the Virginia border, and (3) A group of mountain counties along the northwest border with Tennessee.

The challenges and experiences were different in each region. But everywhere, a battle for control hurt the poverty-fighting effort. Whether it was the poor whites or the mountains or the poor African Americans in Durham and the East, the local power structures fought any effort to give significant planning and administrative control to representatives of the poor.

Because it was, after all, the 1960s, poverty-fighting and civil rights advocacy became intermingled. Antipoverty community organizing efforts sometimes led to demonstrations and protests. Critics of the Fund’s and Federal antipoverty efforts won the political battles (i.e. the election of Richard Nixon in 1968) that ultimately put an end to the public financial support of antipoverty programs not controlled by government.

When the Fund began, it set a five-year term for itself. It went out of business, on schedule, in 1969.

Although the Fund did not eliminate poverty, the new book shows in detail how some poor people made specific and substantial progress. Even more important, the Fund mobilized and awakened a core of strong leadership that still serves the state.

D.G. Martin is hosting his final season of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at

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