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Discussion Highlights Rural Poverty in State

A series of speakers addressed UNC Young Democrats about the problem of rural poverty and its effects throughout North Carolina.

Young Democrats President Chris Brook said the goal of the forum was to educate. "(Our mission was) to get more information out to the campus community about a problem that is simply overlooked."

During the forum, a panel of three experts spoke to the audience of nearly 60 students about their knowledge and experiences with rural poverty, after which the speakers answered audience questions.

The speakers were Andrew Dobelstein, a professor at the School of Social Work; Eric Johnson, a senior and founder of the N.C. Student Ambassadors program, which sends UNC students to rural communities to talk about their college experiences; and Leah Totten, the communications director of MDC, a regional organization that seeks to combat poverty.

Totten spoke about rural poverty and how widespread the problem is in North Carolina. She said one aspect of poverty that is rarely discussed is how it affects children. "One out of every five kids in North Carolina lives in poverty," she said.

The number of North Carolinians living in poverty has increased recently, Totten said, despite the fact that the United States experienced its largest period of economic expansion in the late 1990s. Many factors affect poverty, such as education levels, race, gender and geography, she said.

Totten said people whose education stopped after they received high school diplomas have less employment opportunities and make less money than people with additional education. "People with high school diplomas make less than they did 20 years ago."

Johnson spoke about education and said the main issues that hinder higher education for rural high school students are cost, admissions requirements and education quality. Johnson said tuition increases are a real threat to students who attend rural high schools. He said many families simply cannot afford the cost of sending their children to college.

Admissions requirements can make it difficult for rural students to be admitted to universities, Johnson said. He said many universities take into consideration the number of advanced placement classes a student has completed when they make admission decisions. But he said many rural high schools offer less AP classes than urban high schools.

Johnson said that often the problem lies with guidance counselors who discourage students from attending four-year colleges and leaving the rural community.

Dobelstein talked about poverty from a policy perspective. He said that as the U.S. economy slows down, poor people will be one of the most affected groups. "The burden will be on low-income people as the economic problem trickles down."

Dobelstein said rural family traditions and an ineffective welfare system can be hindrances to combatting poverty. "A lot of families don't have motivation."

He said the best way to combat this lack of motivation is to get more people from outside the community to come in and energize students about education.

Dobelstein said poverty is an especially serious issue because it affects everything that happens in a person's life. "Money in America is the gate to opportunity," he said. "If you're poor in America, you're denied everything."

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