A state House lawmaker entered the national fray over what constitutes poverty Thursday when he declared there was no "extreme poverty" in North Carolina.
Rep. George Cleveland, a Republican from Jacksonville, took issue with the federally defined poverty line during a meeting of a committee that is considering new rules for the state's pre-kindergarten program.
Cleveland was voicing an increasingly popular argument among some conservatives that federal poverty statistics overstate actual hardship because they do not take into account government aid such as food stamps, Medicaid, subsidized housing and other examples. A report from the conservative Heritage Foundation last year said most poor people have air conditioning and cable TV.
The House committee on Early Childhood Education Improvement is seeking to focus the pre-K program on the neediest children. One of its findings included the observation that more children are living in extreme poverty.
Cleveland disagreed and wanted the committee remove the phrase from its report.
"We have no one in the state of North Carolina living in extreme poverty," Cleveland said. Extreme poverty is prevalent in other countries, not in the United States, he added.
"Poverty is a governmental definition in this country, and through the years they keep redefining poverty to make sure we have a poverty class. 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."
Cleveland, who is in his fourth term, comes from Onslow County, where poverty grew by more than 7 percent between 2007 and 2010, and median household income dropped by 5.7 percent in that time, according to a report by the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center. The report used information from Census reports and the state Employment Security Commission.
Onslow Community Outreach, a nonprofit that runs a soup kitchen, homeless shelter and health clinic in Jacksonville, reported that shelter use increased by 18 percent last year compared to 2010, and that 52 homeless veterans and 50 children slept there last year. The clinic served 218 patients and turned away 310, according to the agency's annual report.
Rep. Justin Burr, an Albemarle Republican and co-chairman of the committee, said he has seen people in need in his own county.
"I believe there are certainly people in this state who are hurting right now and who need assistance and who are struggling to get by," he said.
Cleveland withdrew his proposal to strike the phrase after a committee break where he talked to Jordan Shaw, the spokesman for House Speaker Thom Tillis.
In an interview later, Cleveland said that he was sure there are people in the state living hand-to-mouth with no place to live, but people in other countries live in much worse conditions.
The federal poverty line is an income of $22,050 a year for a family of four. One in 10 North Carolina children lived in extreme poverty in 2009, according to a report from Action for Children North Carolina, where extreme poverty is defined as a family of four living on $11,000 a year or less.
The debate over poverty erupted the day before a poverty tour sponsored by the N.C. Justice Center, the state NAACP and other groups begins its second leg.
"His comments actually reveal why we're having a Truth and Hope Tour of Poverty," said the Rev. William Barber, NAACP president.
"We're going to be putting a face on poverty to force politicians like my dear brother, and I call Representative Cleveland my brother, not to dismiss poverty but to engage in a progressive agenda to address and alleviate poverty," Barber said.