Without a lot of attention, the board for the Robeson County Department of Social Services last week approved a budget of an astounding $441 million that takes effect on Tuesday. That is such a huge number that perspective is demanded, and here it is: That budget is about eight times the DSS budget for 1994, which is just 20 years ago.
Obviously inflation can’t account for all of that explosion.
If there is good news, it’s this: Only about $13 million of that is local dollars, meaning the balance is coming from the state and Washington, D.C., making welfare our No. 1 industry, but also bringing dollars to this county that prop up other industries.
The lion’s share of the budget is Medicaid, which accounts for a mind-numbing $336 million, and food stamps follow, accounting for another $62 million. While we all know there are people who exploit this country’s benevolence, the majority of people depending on Medicaid and food stamps would prefer to be working and providing for themselves and their families, but circumstances, some of them their own doing, have condemned them to dependence.
Unfortunately, in Robeson County, poverty isn’t seen so much as a temporary condition, but as a life sentence. Almost a third of this county’s residents live in poverty and that percentage has been a flat line for too long.
So how did we fall so far?
Marketable skills or a diploma were not as treasured 25 years ago, when tobacco was still king, bringing $100 million a year into this county, and providing jobs, not just for migrants who worked the fields, but for businesses that provided support to the growers. The second part of the double-whammy was NAFTA, which took thousands of local jobs out of this country and, according to at least one study, more than $1 billion out of this county.
Not many local economies could have withstood that back-to-back devastation, but ours was even more vulnerable.
This county is 68 percent minority, and we have a long history of denying a quality education to their ancestors. When that happens, education is not valued, and that indifference toward school can be bequeathed as surely as a dollar or a diamond ring.
So 20 years ago when Robeson County residents were forced out of decent-paying jobs and onto the rolls at the Department of Social Services, our county’s history of discrimination became more than a historically black mark, and was resurrected to haunt us again.
This time, we are all suffering.