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Report: minorities, poor in N.C. blame Trump, Congress

Down Home NC holds a rally at the Haywood County Historic Courthouse. Donated photo Down Home NC holds a rally at the Haywood County Historic Courthouse. Donated photo

A recent report published by nonprofit advocacy group Down Home North Carolina says that changing demographics and their accompanying shifts in political allegiance have forever altered the ideological character of rural North Carolina, and the subsequent Republican takeover of state government is hitting the working poor, people of color and the LGBTQ community hardest.

“People are really suffering, and people don’t want to be outside of the political process,” said Brigid Flaherty, co-founder and co-director of DHNC, which launched in June 2017, with the intent of building a permanent progressive infrastructure capable of countering Republican gains in rural North Carolina.

To create that infrastructure, volunteers with the group embarked on “an extensive community-listening project” between June and November 2017, and after knocking on 4,000 doors while also canvassing local Walmarts, social service offices and food banks ended up gathering 1,384 responses in Haywood and Alamance counties. 

Those counties were selected, according to the Flaherty, for their similar situations — high rates of unemployment and poverty coupled with lots of low-wage work as the result of declines in traditional manufacturing, documented examples of white supremacist recruiting efforts, competitive electoral districts and proximity to large urban areas. 

DHNC’s survey population was older, less white and less male than the statewide averages. The survey population wasn’t cherry-picked through extensive micro-targeting, but still revealed that 35 percent of those who responded make less than $25,000 a year.

Just three main questions were asked — what issues concern you or your family on a regular basis? Who do you feel is responsible for causing these problems? What solutions would help?

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“I don’t think it’s a surprise that jobs and health care were the big issues,” Flaherty said. 

Across all demographics, losing access to health care was by far the greatest regular concern for respondents, with almost 60 percent citing it. Almost 48 percent worry about having a good-paying job and a shocking 42 percent still worry about putting food on the table. 

Health care concerns were greater among older and female respondents, while low wages, housing affordability and food supply concerned people of color more than their white counterparts.

Retired educator Pat Robbins spent two whole weeks knocking on “several hundred” doors in Canton, Clyde and Maggie Valley for DHNC and said she’d heard such concerns regularly.

“Definitely here in Haywood County, the issues of health care coverage, fair wages, and the opioid crisis were huge,” Robbins said. “Regarding health care specifically, I met a gentleman in his late 30s, works at a local store here in town, and because they keep his hours just under a full-time schedule, he’s not eligible for health care. But he’s making too much money for Medicaid, and he was falling though the cracks in terms of eligibility for the Affordable Care Act.”

And he’s one of the lucky ones — Robbins recalled another elderly woman who said she’d be just fine with her Medicaid, but when informed of possible changes in funding replied, “No, that’s not happening! That can’t happen! I’ll die!”

In her experience as a special education teacher, administrator and later school principal, Robbins said 60 percent of all Medicaid services are consumed by children with disabilities.

Housing was a concern for more than 40 percent, followed by political voice, public education, pollution, prejudice, substance abuse, jail and deportation.

Those are just some of the takeaways in the 36-page report, titled No One’s Ever Asked Me Before: Conversations with North Carolina’s Rural Communities.

“Because that’s what we heard over and over again,” said Flaherty, of the title. “People feel invisible, and feel marginalized.”

Overwhelmingly, respondents blame President Donald Trump with 45.4 percent of them citing him as the main cause, but 45.3 percent also blame the federal government. Nearly 28 percent blame Republicans, and 13.4 percent blame Democrats. 

“The majority of people I spoke to responded in just that way,” Robbins said. “Clearly, people have a sense, and I think it’s an accurate sense, that in this particular presidency that there’s not necessarily advocacy on his part about meeting the needs of working families.”

Raising wages was listed as the number one solution by 65 percent of those who answered. 

On the county level, although the report claims broad similarity in respondents across both Haywood and Alamance, there are some differences between the two.

Haywood’s comparatively older population was more concerned about health care than Alamance’s, where Medicare recipients number less than half of Haywood’s 14.8 percent. Haywood also scored 50 percent higher than Alamance in concern over substance abuse. 

Differences were few between gender, but race produced some deviation even though “overcoming prejudice and racism” was listed as a top-three solution by all respondents, including at least one white male who said he felt stigmatized as a “redneck.”

“I actually had a couple of conversations when white folks in the county checked off ‘racism’ as a problem,” Flaherty said. “There was a real sense of anger that folks who were poor and white felt like others looked down on them, calling them ‘hillbilly,’ and that made them feel like they were outside of the community, that they were stigmatized. I still think race is a big divider, but the issues are actually uniting folks.”

Based on the data collected, Flaherty said DHNC will invest in rural organizing in areas that have been written off as too rural or too red. 

“Organizing takes resources. Resources can come from a variety of places, and I think a lot of times those resources go towards thinking that transformation is only about winning an election every two years,” she said. 

Persistent political organizing on any level creates enduring networks of volunteers, donors and candidates that quickly wither with disuse.

“You can’t just organize in urban areas,” Flaherty said. “You have to have a long-term vision and a long-term plan that will connect up with rural areas. Parachuting in, or only devoting resources when you think a district is flippable, that’s a losing strategy.”

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