If you stand in Max Patch, it feels like you can see forever. Rocky outcroppings, rolling mountains, patches of hilltop fields. Madison County, North Carolina is an undeniably beautiful place.
Tourists flock to our towns, trail hikers pass through, but many of us call these mountains home. Some of us have deep roots here, family farms passed on through generations, old homesteads built by grandparents. For others, Madison County is their chosen home, brought here by college or simply just feeling called to become a part of these hills and this community.
But the magic of the mountains can only carry you so far: The truth is, Madison County is not an easy place to make do.
In early 2020, organizers from Down Home North Carolina set out to ask local residents a simple question: What changes do you want to see in Madison County?
What we found out through these conversations was that the way things have been for poor and working folks here is simply not working. We found out that rent is unaffordable for nearly half of the people living here (48.8%), with more than a quarter of all residents spending more than half their incomes on housing (leaving the rest to cover ALL their other expenses, including food, healthcare, transportation and childcare). In fact, we learned that wages are so low that the median hourly wage here only covers three-quarters of what a parent raising two children would need to cover their most basic needs.
Over and over again, the individuals and families we spoke to said that affordable healthcare was out of their reach. 14% of Madison County residents have no health coverage, and others that do have coverage, including many seniors and families with small children, still can not afford their prescriptions or a simple trip to the doctors. As we canvassed the county, the significance of these gaps grew: To keep each other safe during COVID-19, we moved our conversations with our neighbors to the phones and the people we spoke to on the other end were saying they were fearful of the spreading virus and without healthcare had no idea what they would do if they got sick.
These realities break our heart, but more than that, they call us to action. If we love these towns, these forests, these roads, these hills, and our neighbors, then we have to fight for them. We have to make this a place where we can all call home.
For many of us, COVID-19 drew our attention back to the structural disparities and ethical shortcomings that have limited our individual and collective potential. How can any one of us be healthy if essential workers, people without healthcare, the elderly man up the street, and the young mother next door, are left to get so sick?
We are at a crossroads: Will we make government work for us or will we turn it over to the interests of the wealthy and corporations for good? In 2020, this is not a hypothetical conversation. Our organizing, who we get into office, and how we make our demands in North Carolina will determine if we fund schools or if we fund prisons, if we raise wages or if we drive more working families into poverty, and it will determine if we pass Medicaid expansion so our neighbors can go to the doctors during the worst health crisis any of us have ever had to live through.
To make that change we need to do more than identify the issues– as it turns out, poor and working folks in Madison County already know the issues all too well. Instead, we need to build the power necessary to make change.
Building power at Down Home means doing the work on the ground to care for our community while also helping move people who represent us into decision making seats. For too long, Madison County has neglected to take action on important issues that impact poor and working folks simply because elected officials have not been held accountable to us. But if we build power, we can change that.
Madison County has to work for everyone. Currently, nearly 40% of all residents here are low-income, meaning no matter how hard you try, it’s almost as likely as not that you won’t ever be able to achieve the “American Dream.” By anyone’s count, that’s upside down and means that problems are systemic, not personal. Poor and working folks– nearly half the people living here– need to have a voice in local politics.
Down Home Madison is built by people who live here. Some of us have been here a long time, raising families and carrying on the legacies of generations. Others of us are newcomers and have heartily chosen Madison county as our home. We are purposefully and intentionally multiracial: We know that the long legacy of North Carolina’s dog whistle politics is designed to divide us instead of letting us come together to build a powerful force.
But it is exactly that powerful force that we intend to build. Come on in, ya’ll.