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What We Learned: Community Discussions and Building Economic Opportunity

Financial stability and economic opportunity are fundamental for the health and success of our state’s children. In North Carolina, however, too many children are growing up in communities that are struggling. From the mountains across the piedmont to the coast, we see communities where good jobs are few and far between, where schools are underfunded, and where adults and children have limited health care options. This is disproportionately true for communities of color due to systemic barriers like hiring and housing discrimination and bias in the criminal justice system.

Families are striving to make ends meet and to provide their children with the opportunity to be healthy, do well in school, and grow into productive adults, but community-wide barriers can put prosperity out of reach.

That’s why NC Child began our work on the Opportunity Agenda, creating a set of policy solutions that can make a measurable difference in building economic opportunity for children and families across our state. We embarked on a series of community meetings this September to present elements of the Opportunity Agenda and to hear directly from communities about what they need to build opportunity. We went to Asheville, Mars Hill, Wilmington, and Winston-Salem (Our Goldsboro meeting was cancelled due to flooding. Please hold that community and so many others impacted by Hurricane Matthew in your prayers.). And we are planning more meetings early next year.

We want to share a few things we saw and heard in our visits.

The spirit of place and community is alive and strong in North Carolina.

Everywhere we visited North Carolinians are working hard to make their communities better places to live. Non-profit organizations, businesses, parents, and civic leaders are coming together to address problems in their neighborhoods and improve the lives of children and families.

In Wilmington, Dr. Janna Robertson and hundreds of community members have created the Forest of Dreams to provide youth with the opportunity to learn about and practice visual arts and to revitalize their community.

In Winston-Salem, Marty and Ben Tennille have taken the issue of hungry children head on and are leading H.O.P.E. of Winston-Salem, which has delivered over 110,000 healthy meals and 160,000 pounds of fresh produce directly to the neighborhoods of children who are at risk of hunger.

Out west, Greg Borom and others have launched the Success Equation, a community-wide effort to address the root causes of child poverty in Buncombe County.

These are just a few of the many examples we encountered of communities coming together to tackle the issue of child poverty and its effects on children and families.

Communities understand that the well-being of their children and families depends on critical infrastructure and public investments in their community.

Parents are doing their best to raise their children, but many North Carolina communities lack the infrastructure to support them. One area that stood out in each gathering is the lack of access to high-quality child care and preschool. A college student from Mars Hill University said that she feels that having more children prepared to learn when they enter school is the “number one” poverty prevention tool. In every place we went, community members gravitated towards increasing funding for child care subsidies as a top priority policy solution for promoting economic opportunity. Given the current waiting list for child care assistance, it’s not hard to see why: 21,865 children are on the waiting list as of September 2016.

Helping parents get health insurance was another common theme. Health insurance is critical not only for a family’s physical and mental health, but also its financial health. Parents can’t work when they are sick or injured and can’t get the treatment that they need. Furthermore, necessary medical treatments can leave uninsured families buried in debt. Meeting attendees were universally supportive of using available federal dollars to close this coverage gap either by expanding Medicaid or developing a North Carolina-specific solution.

I came away from these meetings with such hope that we can build opportunity for every child in North Carolina. Certainly, the work ahead is complex and challenging. But I also realized that if we listen to each other, clear solutions about what’s needed to promote economic opportunity will emerge. So we’re going to keep listening (we’ll hit the road again in 2017), and we’re going to keep advocating for policies like expanding access to child care and closing the health insurance coverage gap. We’ll be sure to let you know what we learn and what you can do to ensure all children in our state have the opportunity to thrive.

Adam Sotak

Adam Sotak is the co-director of community engagement at NC Child.