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Was Closure of UNC Chapel Hill Poverty Center Racially Motivated?

A decision to close an academic center for poverty research in NC has Natives questioning whether the move was politically—or racially—motivated.
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A controversial decision to close an academic center for poverty research in North Carolina has Natives questioning whether the move was politically—or racially—motivated.

The University of North Carolina Board of Governors, 32 elected members tasked with “general determination, control, supervision, management and governance,” last month voted to “discontinue” programs at three of the system’s 16 campuses. Among those marked to close by September 1 is the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill, a program housed in the School of Law and designed to study, document and advocate services to mitigate poverty.

The vote came after a working group spent five months reviewing the university system’s 240 centers and institutes to determine whether they were meeting intended purposes. The group found the poverty center was financially unsustainable and did not significantly contribute to solving the poverty issue.

Poverty center directors, law professors and many in the Native community beg to differ.

“Poverty among Native Americans in North Carolina is a shocking thing,” said Malinda Maynor Lowery, associate professor of history and director of the Southern Oral History Program at UNC Chapel Hill.

Lowery, who is Lumbee, said the poverty center promoted research that was both wide and deep. For example, the center had taken multi-pronged approaches to understanding and documenting circumstances in Robeson County, the largest and poorest county in the state and home to a 40-percent Native population—mostly Lumbee.

“It takes a public university to reach those in need,” Lowery said. “That’s what academic freedom is about. We can look at things no one else can. With the poverty center closing, the research will stop.”

Existing research shows that Natives make up only 1 percent of the state’s working class, but that 40 percent of Natives in the workforce are considered low-wage. Low-wage is defined as earning $11.34 per hour or less, or $23,500 per year.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story, said Heather Hunt, interim assistant director of the poverty center. The center’s mission, especially in Robeson County, was to tell the detailed stories behind the statistics.

“Numbers don’t make an impression or leave an impression,” Hunt said. “We want to tell the stories of perseverance and cultural richness, not just of poverty.”

The poverty center also trained the next generation of policy makers and advocates, Hunt said.

“It exposed students to the broader issues and introduced them to the concept of the bigger world and the complexities and difficulties people face,” she said. “Having them grapple with that informs whatever they end up doing with their lives.”

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Founded in 2005 by U.S. Sen. John Edwards, the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity addresses pressing needs of those living in poverty and works to improve circumstances of all working people. Although housed at UNC Chapel Hill, the center is funded entirely by grants—leading to questions about how closing the center will save the university money.

Jack Boger, dean of the Chapel Hill School of Law, called the closure dismaying and unjustified. In a written statement, Boger shot down the Board of Governors’ initial objective to find $15 million in savings. He believes closure is evidence of board members’ dislike of candid research and writing produced by the center’s director, Gene Nichols, who is also a professor of law.

“The poverty center has not received state taxpayer funds since 2009 and takes up no campus building space at all,” Boger said in his statement.

Yet the benefits to students and communities are incalculable, he said. The poverty center “has provided to hundreds of law and graduate students meaningful research, analytic and writing experiences that have led to important published reports on poverty in North Carolina. It has introduced them to one of North Carolina’s most serious public policy issues. It has brought students into moving, first-hand encounters with lower-income and non-white communities and families struggling to obtain shelter, adequate health care, a sound basic education for their children and meaningful employment.”

Members of the Board of Governors did not respond to requests for comment on this article.

Closure of the center has sparked fear in additional university programs, and even entire campuses. UNC Pembroke, a historically American Indian university located in Robeson County, was established in 1795 as a training ground for Native teachers. In recent years, it has been tagged as “low-performing” and some fear it may be next on the chopping block.

“We have been targeted before,” said Mary Ann Jacobs, chair of American Indian Studies at UNC Pembroke. “People have commented on our retention rates or graduation rates, but we’re also one of the cheapest schools to attend in the system.”

Jacobs, who is Lumbee, said the campus relied on the poverty center for up-to-date research on economics in Robeson County—data that was invaluable for grant-writing. On the advocacy side, the poverty center pushed for social reform and better employment opportunities for a county plagued with high dropout rates and a workforce that is largely unskilled.

Because the county is the poorest in the state, Jacobs believes the board’s decision to close the poverty center is evidence of systemic discrimination.

“They say it was all about the money, but it makes me wonder,” she said. “I see them focusing on historically Native American and black campuses, and I think they’re targeting people of color.”

Although the poverty center plans to close by June 30, there’s a silver lining, Hunt said. The same grants that supported the center will be rerouted to a new program, the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund.

Still housed in the Chapel Hill School of Law, the program—a scaled-back version of the original—will continue to research poverty in North Carolina. The only difference is that the grants will be specifically in Director Gene Nichols’ name.

“He’s still a law professor, and he will be doing his own research,” Hunt said of Nichols. “It just happens to be the same research the poverty center was doing.”