In her cramped bungalow on the outskirts of Sylva, a small town in North Carolina’s Jackson County, Carrie McBane is speaking with two strangers, Brigid Flaherty and Sharon “Lois” Cullins, about her lack of health care, her low wages, and the growing opioid epidemic in the surrounding community.
Flaherty heads a progressive policy organization called Down Home North Carolina, which she co-founded shortly after the 2016 elections. Cullins, a recovering addict, is one of DHNC’s paid canvassers. In prison, Cullins turned her life around and began working as a peer counselor for other addicts. Since then, she has made it her mission to work on community organizing. A 55-year-old African American, Cullins comes off as fearless; since she began working with Flaherty’s group in late 2017, she has often canvassed in this rural, deeply conservative, and mostly white region of the Tar Heel State.
Both Flaherty and Cullins are especially interested in reaching out to people whose political opinions are usually ignored. When they find someone willing to talk, one of them takes out her iPad and makes note of the answers. These go into a growing database of conversations that the canvassers have been conducting across the mountainous western region of North Carolina, to find out which issues will be important in building a progressive coalition across this battleground state.
McBane, who is originally from Nicaragua and was adopted by a couple from Florida in the 1980s, works at a local Dollar Tree store. Although still young, she has Type 2 diabetes, which was recently diagnosed after she suffered a cascading series of health crises. “I stopped eating,” McBane tells the two organizers. “I developed really bad dry mouth. Had a crack on my tongue. It hurt so bad. I dropped 20 pounds in a month. It scared me.” Like so many working-class people in a state where GOP legislators have resolutely blocked the expansion of access to health-care services, McBane has to pay out of pocket when she needs to see a doctor. The local clinic, which caters to the area’s uninsured, charges her a discounted rate of $60, but each visit to a specialist racks up hundreds of dollars in bills, and each visit to the ER thousands. In paying her medical bills, McBane has burned through a small inheritance left by her parents.
As she sits in a purple rocker, her large, well-groomed Norwegian elkhound waddling around the small living room, McBane describes a general state of chronic economic insecurity. “No one has health care around here,” she says. “No one I know—and I know people with full-time jobs. Everything’s out of pocket.” Even though she has a job, her income is so low that she qualifies for food stamps; and yet, she points out, the Trump administration is trying to make it harder for people to get such assistance. “The government asks a lot of us without any idea of the consequences to people,” she says. “And they don’t care.”