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Despite Closure, UNC-Chapel Hill's Poverty Center Continues In Different Form

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Charlotte Observer
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In February, after a board meeting disrupted by protesters, the UNC Board of Governors voted unanimously to close three of the system’s university-based policy centers. Eastern Carolina's Center for Biodiversity, and NC Central’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change were shut down. But most of the attention focused on the closure of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

Its director, Gene Nichol accused members of being bullied into the decision by the Republican-led legislatures. He says its retaliation over articles he wrote criticizing Republican social policies.

Board members deny the charges, saying all of the system’s 237 centers were equally scrutinized and that the poverty center’s work could continue in a different way. Nichol is doing just that.

“The dean of the law school set up the NC Poverty Research Fund,” Nichol said. “It allows the law school to continue the work of documenting, researching and publishing work on poverty, what contributed to it and ways to ameliorate it.”

Like the poverty center, Nichol and his staff work out of the same state building in the law school. The Poverty Center was a privately-funded organization, and Nichol’s research is still financed that way. But the Poverty Research Fund is actually a pool of money that’s used to support the law school’s poverty research. Law school officials say they do not dictate or oversee Nichol’s work but they do approve expenditures. Nichol says the fund’s money, which was made available to him in July, is an increase over the poverty center’s annual budget of about $120,000.

“Between pledges and donations from foundations and individuals we’ve received enough financial support that we’ll have more money than we’ve had in the past but we’re not by any stretch gonna be rich,” said Nichol, adding that they have enough to carry them over for the next two years.

With the additional funds, Nichol has more paid interns and a full-time research associate. However, the mission of the new fund is different. In addition to research, the Poverty Center’s staff also provided legal assistance and information clinics for low-income residents. Nichol says his charge now is to focus solely on publishing their findings.

“There’s some irony about that since we will spend a higher percentage of our time publishing rather than giving student opportunities to work in the direct delivery of services. I say ironic because we were closed because of what we published,” he said.

Now, Nichol believes he has a louder voice. An upcoming report he is working on for the new fund will focus on the increasing concentrations of poverty in