North Carolina has been in the national news a lot lately. Passing the nation’s worst voter suppression law, it eliminated same-day voter registration, cut a full week of early voting, barred voters from casting a ballot outside their home precinct, ended straight-ticket voting, and scrapped a program to pre-register high school students who would turn 18 by Election Day. It also included the nation’s strictest voter ID requirement.
Here’s how the law affected me in the last primary election. Before I could vote, the poll monitor required me to hand over my ID. He scrutinized it with great care and at great length. Then he put my ID face down on the table with his hand covering it and demanded to know what the address is on my license. Next he wanted to know my license number. Now, I don’t know about you, but telling someone my address is no problem, but I haven’t memorized my license number. But neither of those questions should have been asked in the first place.
I moved home to North Carolina at just the right time, since this state is considered “ground zero” in this election year and reflects the political shift that is going on in our country. After spending two years listening to low-income community members, culminating in a community visioning gathering, there were three major issues they identified as critical: jobs and wages, healthcare and education.
Here’s why. Our minimum wage is $7.25, way below poverty level. This wage is less than half of what is needed to provide a living wage that would afford people basic necessities. Instead, one out of four children in North Carolina goes to bed hungry.
In healthcare, North Carolina’s legislature rejected federal money that would have expanded the program to cover a half million of the state’s lowest-income adults. Innocent people are dying – five to seven people every day, week in and week out, year after year.
Education is a critical issue because while state lawmakers found the funds to create a voucher system for private schools, they reduced the number of openings in the state’s highly successful pre-K program for at-risk children. They ended tenure for public school teachers, abolished teachers’ supplemental pay for advanced degrees, and eliminated thousands of teachers and teachers’ assistants. Lawmakers failed to include even a token pay raise for teachers. (Since 2008, teachers have received a 1.2 percent raise.) Adjusted for inflation and a growing state population, 2014 education appropriations are more than a half billion dollars less than in 2008. By the end of the coming year, North Carolina will drop to 47th or 48th in pupil expenditures and teacher pay.
Other headline news you should know – gender-specific bathrooms are only one part of the HB2 bill recently passed by the legislature. Referred to as the “bathroom bill,” our state government is creating fear among many people about non-existent public safety issues in bathrooms. But there is much more to HB2 than this critical issue, and it affects workers’ rights.
The state now has the power to keep minimum wage at $7.25 an hour, and makes it impossible for cities or counties to create their own minimum wage. You can now be fired for your age, religion, ethnicity, etc. and are not able to sue your employer in a North Carolina court to get your job back. Finally, you cannot sue in North Carolina, but you can sue federally. That means it takes more time and money. It is so difficult to do that it makes it impossible for people without extra time and money on their hands.
It’s easy to live in a progressive area where you don’t have to fear for the work you do or who you are. But I know my work is needed here in North Carolina more than ever. And I believe we can really make change!
So, one of the things our local project, We the People: Working Together, is doing this year is training leaders, working to train poll monitors, and creating statewide popular education voter materials. We’re encouraging people to vote, even when it’s uncomfortable. It may be that the Supreme Court doesn’t think the Voting Rights Act is necessary anymore, but I can tell you from “ground zero” that its loss is having a huge impact.
Spirit in Action has joined with Democracy NC and Blueprint NC, as one of 41 non-profit, non-partisan groups working together across issues and racial lines to advance equity and social justice in North Carolina.
We are especially focusing our work in organizing in trailer parks. Trailers make up 14 percent of all North Carolina-occupied homes and most are low-income. We are having a lot of success reaching folks because we know how to talk to people. We don’t just canvas. We ask people for their opinions and we listen to them. We discuss the critical issues – jobs and wages, healthcare and education– and what’s in people’s hearts. That is real civic engagement work at ground zero, and that’s why I am in North Carolina.
Peace, Power and Love