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Updated: Friday, 02 Mar 2012, 10:17 AM EST
Published : Friday, 02 Mar 2012, 8:21 AM EST
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Jack Roberts, a 28-year-old who tries to patch together a living with odd jobs such as car detailing and mowing grass, is baffled about why a North Carolina legislator thinks no one in the state lives in extreme poverty, which the lawmaker defined as earning just six quarters a day.
"I'm kind of confused now," said Roberts, who daily knocks on doors in Scotland Neck, hoping a friendly homeowner will need his services. "Why would he believe that? If there are no jobs, how can people survive? ... It's tough out here with no job and no money."
Roberts, a high school graduate who lives with his wife of 10 years in a trailer in Oak City, was reacting to comments made Thursday by Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, at a legislative meting about the state's pre-kindergarten program.
Cleveland said he was skeptical about a House committee report that read "there are an increasing number of children living in extreme poverty." Government keeps redefining poverty "to make sure that we have a poverty class," he said.
"We have no one in the state of North Carolina living in extreme poverty. We might governmentally say they are, but they're not," Cleveland said, pointing to developing countries where he said extreme poverty really exists. "Extreme poverty is that you're out there living on a dollar and a half day. I don't think we have anybody in North Carolina doing that."
Roberts estimates he makes about $200 a week with his odd jobs so he makes far more than Cleveland's stingy description of "extreme poverty." Still, he decides each week which bills to pay. He recently moved to Oak City because he couldn't find safe housing in Scotland Neck he could afford.
He hopes to finish his last semester at community college, where he's going for a two-year degree in auto body repair. He's missing this semester because the application for financial aid arrived too late for him to apply.
"With no job, you feel like you don't have a life," said Roberts, who said his unemployment has run out after he was laid off last year from Perdue Farms in Lewiston.
Cleveland's comments came the day before the state chapter of the NAACP begins the second part of its tour of poverty-stricken areas. The tour is going to southeastern North Carolina but doesn't include anywhere in Cleveland's home county of Onslow, which is in that section of the state.
Although the remarks are "sad and absurd," it's important not to dismiss them, said the Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP. "They point to the very problem we have been talking about -- the attention violence and social brutality that we continue to commit against the poor when we ignore the facts that tells us over 17 percent of North Carolinians are in poverty. ... That's the reason we're engaging in this tour. We used to believe in a war on poverty. It seems like now some politicians and public policy leaders have decided to engage in a war against the poor and disdain for the poor."
Census figures show about 1.6 million people, or 17.5 percent of the state's population, were living in poverty based on federal guidelines in North Carolina in 2010, compared to 16.3 percent in 2009. About one in four children were living at or below the poverty level. More than 728,000 North Carolinians were living in deep poverty in 2010, meaning they earn half the federal poverty level, or at the time about $11,000 for a family of four.
The federal poverty level, created in the 1960s, is adjusted for inflation but includes only the cost of food, said Louisa Warren, a senior policy advocate at the N.C. Justice Center, one of the sponsors of the poverty tour. It doesn't include housing, transportation, health care, child care or any other expenses most people must pay.
Cleveland's remarks weren't only inaccurate but also "tone deaf," said Warren, who attended the legislative hearing. "If we don't acknowledge there's a problem to begin with, there's not much hope of fixing it," Warren said.
Other Republicans distanced themselves from the 72-year-old Cleveland, whose fifth term is all but assured since no one filed to run against him. GOP Rep. Justin Burr, co-chairman of the committee studying publicly funded early childhood education, took issue with Cleveland's comments during the meeting and said people in his district were hurting and needed assistance.
"There is a rising level of poverty in this state, certainly with the way the (U.S.) economy is and the global economy," Burr said afterward.
Cleveland attempted to remove a reference to "extreme poverty" in the final report but later withdrew his amendment. Reached later in his legislative office, Cleveland wouldn't back down from his committee statements and suggested reporters were making a negative story out of something that is factually true.
"I'm sure there are hungry people in North Carolina, but to say they are living in extreme poverty in North Carolina, I think that's an overstatement."
Like Roberts, 79-year-old Leon Raynor of
Colerain was confused by Cleveland's remarks. Tornadoes in April destroyed Raynor's home, which a charity is rebuilding. But the storm deeply affected Raynor's wife, who's been in a nursing home since then. And the medical bills are piling up.
"I've got bills on top of bills," said Raynor, who's living in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He borrowed $500 last month from the credit union to pay his light bill.
"I would tell him that for me, life is hard," Raynor said of Cleveland. "It's rough on me everyday. ... I don't think he knows exactly what's going on."
Few expressed their anger at Cleveland in more biting terms than Gene Nichol, director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina, who said Cleveland should resign.
"He could go to Ahoskie and camp out all night with people in line to get food at the food bank to make sure their kids are not hungry. Canned goods are so scarce that people sleep outside to get in line," he said. "Or he could go to Elizabeth City where there are 1,000 women and men homeless with 26 beds and help them find a place to sleep.
"And when he's done with that, I hope he'll just step down."
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