NC Seems Untroubled by its Shockingly High Child Poverty

The following is a guest blog post by Gene R. Nichol, author of The Faces of Poverty in North Carolina: Stories from Our Invisible Citizens. More than 1.5 million North Carolinians today live in poverty. More than one in five are children. Behind these sobering statistics are the faces of our fellow citizens. This book tells their stories. Since 2012, Gene R. Nichol has traveled the length of North Carolina, conducting hundreds of interviews with poor people and those working to alleviate the worst of their circumstances. 

Happy Book Birthday to Nichol’s The Faces of Poverty in North Carolina, officially available in paperback today!

We get used to things we should never get used to. 

North Carolina countenances shockingly high levels of child poverty. About 1 in 5 of our kids are impoverished (19.5%). Child poverty is also potently racialized. Kids of color are three times as likely as white kids to be poor. And all children, regardless of ethnicity, are notably more likely to be poor than adults are. 

We continue to compare unfavorably with other states. In 2019 (pre-COVID), North Carolina’s child poverty rate was 10th highest in the nation. This is familiar terrain. We had the 11th highest state child poverty rate 50 years ago in 1969. 


But a scan of the past half century shows modest successes, as well as defining failures. We have seemingly decided, in the last dozen or so years, that it’s OK to let a huge percentage of our youngest, most vulnerable members endure wrenching hardship. 

In 1969, almost 1 in 4 of our kids who lived with a parent was poor.  Ten years later, the rate had been reduced by 5%. By 1989, it was cut further still to 16.9% and, impressively, came in below the national average. In 1999, 15.7% of Tar Heel kids were poor, again better than the rest of the country. 

But the 2008-12 Census Bureau survey, showing in part the impact of recession, revealed soaring state child poverty figures (23.5%) — over 3 points higher than the national numbers. And the 2015-2019 census results were largely unchanged (20.8%), again well above national markers — but, this time, during a period of 

Altered results, over time, show up geographically as well. In 1969, almost half of N.C. counties had child poverty rates over 30%. Seventeen (mainly eastern) counties had rates over 40%. But by 1999, only five counties had rates of 30%, and none exceeded 40%, an impressive reduction. Again though, a decade later, 32 counties surpassed 30% and six came in over 40%. 


In the last decade, high rates have apparently calcified, reclaiming much of eastern North Carolina and including western counties like McDowell, Cleveland, Allegheny, Wilkes and Yadkin, where child poverty had earlier been in retreat. All children in North Carolina, regardless of locale or ethnicity, experience higher rates of poverty now than two decades ago. 

Has a returned, solidified, debilitating and extraordinary child poverty rate become an issue of primary focus for the N.C. General Assembly? Not in the slightest. 

Having one of the developed world’s highest child poverty rates is apparently, for us, un-worrisome. We explore no meaningful, majority-sponsored state anti-poverty initiatives. 


In fact, the last decade, instead, has produced brutal cuts to already meager social safety net protections. More broadly, we behave as if having deplorable child poverty levels is as natural as the morning sun. Who cares if we treat our kids worse than almost everyone else? 

We, apparently, have bigger challenges on our minds. Like the bold threat of critical race theory submerging our public schools. Or the surpassing danger of transgender kids unfairly dominating our sports programs. Or the haunting specter of various folks showing up in our bathrooms. Or the daunting risk of publishing data about the ocean’s rise. Or the pesky peril posed by agricultural whistle-blowers. We’ve got real emergencies to deal with. We can’t be bothered with the likes of poor and hungry babies. 

Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense that “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it the superficial appearance of being right.” As ever, here’s to brother Paine. 

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished professor of law and Director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina School of Law. He teaches courses in constitutional law and federal courts. Photography by Steve Exum of Exumphoto on September 5, 2012.

Gene R. Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.