The string of bad news coming out of North Carolina is far from over. After earning the ire of progressives across the country for passing bills that would close most of the state's abortion clinics, eliminate death-row inmates' ability to prove they were victims of discrimination, and end federal unemployment benefits for 70,000 residents, the state has seized on another issue: giving out food to the homeless.
This weekend, a Raleigh church group was threatened with arrest when it attempted to pass out food to the homeless in one of the city's parks. The group, Love Wins Ministries, has provided meals every weekend for the last six years and has always operated with the cooperation of the police. A city ordinance prevents food distribution in city parks — presumably to keep public spaces clean — but police had never enforced it until this weekend. This sudden reversal sends the signal that the homeless are less of a priority than tidy green spaces, and is symptomatic of the state's rapid shift away from tolerant and socially responsibly policies. It also threatens to push a struggling North Carolina further into poverty.
A full 18% of North Carolinians live in poverty and the state has rocketed up to 12th in the ranks of the country's poorest states, a dramatic shift from its position at 26th a decade ago. A quarter of children in the state live in poverty and an appalling 40% of children of color do. These towering poverty rates translate into high rates of food insecurity, as well. 1.7 million residents participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in May 2013.
In Raleigh, the numbers are similarly high. Applications for SNAP are steadily rising and have almost doubled from 2007 to 2012. Since food banks are generally not open during the weekend — Shepherd's Table Soup Kitchen and the Salvation Army operate on weekdays — the elimination of Love Wins as a reliable food source may have dire consequences for the hundreds that rely upon it.
Raleigh mayor Nancy McFarlane and City Council member Mary-Ann Baldwin have teamed up to get Love Wins Ministries back in business, but North Carolina's problem is bigger than this incident. After Republicans took control of the executive and legislative branches this year for the first time in roughly 150 years, the state has led a push towards social conservatism that has seen the erosion of progressive policies that provided for the poor, women, and minorities. Residents are angry. Governor McCrory's approval rating has plummeted 15% in the last month and Moral Monday demonstrations have called for a reversal of recent legislation. But until the state halts its drastic decline into social intolerance, North Carolina risks leaving its people behind.