There's no such thing as extreme poverty in North Carolina. At least that's what Rep. George Cleveland, a Republican in the state assembly, claimed Thursday in a meeting of state legislators, making himself the latest and perhaps most controversial target of controversy in a heated debate over funding for that state's early childhood programs.
"We have no one in the state of North Carolina living in extreme poverty," he said. "Poverty is you're out there living on a dollar and half a day. I don't think we have anybody in North Carolina doing that."
People who work on poverty issues in the state dismissed this idea as outrageous. Barb Bradley, the head of Action For Children in North Carolina, a nonprofit group, called Cleveland's contention "patently false."
She cited several statistics that added up to a very different picture from the one that Cleveland painted. She said 1 in 10 children in North Carolina live in "extreme poverty," which is defined by the federal government as a household of four living on $11,000 a year. "I had would challenge any legislator to live on 11,000 a year for a family of four and not characterize it as extreme poverty," she said.
Cleveland's comment came as lawmakers and government officials in the North Carolina are fighting over the future of the state's preschool programs, a debate that could have far-reaching implications for the country.
For years, North Carolina was an undisputed leader in the field of early-childhood education. Supported by a string of Democratic governors who were generally seen as progressive on education issues, its public preschool program stood out for a variety of reasons. It received more funding per child than programs in most other states and remains one of only four state programs meeting all 10 benchmarks of quality set by the National Institute for Early Education Research, a nonprofit program that evaluates pre-K programs around the country.
But advocates for children say that state lawmakers are now erasing all those gains.
Last summer, facing the sorts of constraints that have withered government budgets everywhere, the state legislature cut funding for the pre-K education program and the early child care program by 20 percent.
A judge ruled that this violated the state constitution, which states that all children have a right to a free and public education. This ruling set a precedent for requiring the state to provide pre-kindergarten education to poor children.
Since then, lawmakers have attempted to lighten the state's load. They shifted supervision of the pre-K program to a division of the government that oversees private-sector companies, effectively doing away with a set of regulations that guided the program for decades. Observers ascribed this to a broader privatization campaign and pointed to ideological motives; in 2010, North Carolina elected its first majority-Republican legislature in a hundred years.
Two weeks ago, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, filed an appeal of the judge's ruling, arguing that that the state has no obligation to create and maintain a pre-K program for all children. The next day, Governor Bev Perdue, a Democrat and the latest in a line of prominent "education governors" in Raleigh, announced that she'd found enough unused money in the state budget to send an additional 2,000 poor children to preschool. Rep. Justin Burr, the Republican co-chair of a House committee on early childhood, called this a "political stunt" and said the money wasn't readily available. The legislators haven't carried out the governor's order.
Cleveland's "extreme poverty" comment was made at a meeting of the early childhood committee where members hammered out the details of a report on the state's early childhood programs. The full assembly will have an opportunity to review the report and consider its recommendations in May.
The report recommends reducing the number of "at-risk" children on the pre-kindergarten program's waiting list by narrowing the program's eligibility requirements. As it stands, the bar for eligibility is set at 75 percent of the state median income, defined as $51,000 for a family of four. The committee suggested limiting eligibility to children living at or below the poverty level, defined as just more than $22,000 for a family of four.
In the last decade, researchers have accumulated piles of evidence on the importance of early-childhood education for poor kids. "It's been pretty well established that children from disadvantaged backgrounds who grew up in poverty come to kindergarten with a gap in their academic abilities," said Patricia Cole, the director of government relations at Zero to Three, a nonprofit advocacy group. "Research has shown that if you have a high-quality pre-school program it can minimize the gap."
But is that gap big enough in North Carolina to justify describing the state's worst poverty as "extreme?" Alexandra Forter Sirota, the director of the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center, considered that question while riding a bus through the state on a publicity tour on Friday aimed at highlighting the conditions of poverty in North Carolina. She described hearing a story about a family whose house burned down because they couldn't afford electricity. "They were using candles, which caused a house fire that now has displaced the family," she said. "I think those stories make clear that many North Carolinians and North Carolina children are struggling with real economic hardship."