NC Budget and Tax Center

Census Data on Poverty Should Be Wake-Up Call to Policymakers

Millions of North Carolinians continue to cope with the Great Recession’s aftermath, according to data released yesterday by the Census Bureau. The North Carolina Budget and Tax Center (BTC) published a brief today showing that the state’s poverty rate held steady, household income fell, and income inequality grew. While policymakers fail to enact policies that support good jobs and reduce poverty, a middle-class life is increasingly out of reach for many North Carolinians.

The poverty rate in North Carolina was 17.9 percent in 2011, statistically unchanged from 2010 and 2 percentage points higher than the U.S. poverty rate in 2011. Nearly 1.7 million North Carolinians have incomes below the poverty line, which corresponds to an income of $23,021 for a family of four. 737,380 residents lived in deep poverty—which equates to half of the poverty line. More troubling, the poverty rates for children, people of color, and those with disabilities are well-above the state average.

North Carolina’s median household income was $43,916, $6,586 lower than the national figure. For households headed by a person of color, the median figure is lower than the state average. The combination of a flat poverty rate and falling income signals that working families and low-income individuals are being left behind. The Census data confirms that income inequality is in fact growing. Incomes are falling across the board but households in the bottom fifth of the income distribution have fallen the fastest since 2007.

High poverty rates and prolonged deterioration in income are no surprise given North Carolina’s jobs deficit, rapid acceleration in low-wage employment, and cuts in public investments—all of which come on top of decades of growing income inequality and the lost decade of the 2000s. The jobs deficit in North Carolina is well-above a half million jobs, meaning that many residents are without the employment necessary to support themselves and avoid poverty.  

The data signal the need for policymakers to make a genuine commitment to the creation of jobs that pay living wages and sustaining programs that assist struggling families. Such a commitment requires going back to the drawing board and rethinking the scheduled federal cuts to social programs, which kept millions of Americans out of poverty last year. State legislators also need to be held accountable. They must pledge to reform our tax code in an equitable way that supports public investments at this critical time in the economic recovery. Otherwise, the outlook for substantially reducing poverty remains grim in North Carolina and across the nation.

An economy that works for all of us will be more stable and grow stronger. Generations ago, American policymakers recognized our economic interdependence and invested in policies that provided a pathway out of poverty into the middle class. It is due time for our leaders to have the courage to talk about poverty, learn from those who live in poverty (watch this video), and take the necessary steps to rebuild an inclusive economy.

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