The holiday season is a time to reflect on our personal journey over the past year and spend time with family and friends. For many, it is also a time of compassion and willingness to help less-fortunate neighbors make ends meet and secure basic needs.
In Governor McCrory’s Thanksgiving video message, he spends a brief moment encouraging North Carolinians to think of and help people who are struggling to get by. It is rare for the Governor to lift up the plight of families in need. But, a small act of kindness is never wasted and his call for supporting our neighbors is welcome.
The big question remains, however: what have lawmakers done this past year to address poverty? The scourge of poverty that exists in every Tar Heel community demands sustained and systemic attention. Very few lawmakers give people struggling with economic hardship the attention that they deserve—not in policy agendas, not at the policy tables, and not in public speeches.
These end-of-the-year-only messages that pop up about helping people in need remind me of that one uncle—and we all have one—who talks a big game at family holiday gatherings but lacks follow through when it matters most.
When it comes to the anti-poverty track record for 2015, policymakers left a lot to be desired. If North Carolina leaders want to build a more inclusive economy, they cannot continue to pursue public policies that deepen economic hardship or push low-income people further into the margins of society. Our economy grows strongest and longest when everyone has access to economic opportunity. To that point, let’s count the top six ways lawmakers came up short in their responses to poverty in 2015.
- State lawmakers drastically cut the value and reach of unemployment insurance benefits for jobless workers in 2013. Now there are more than 270,000 unemployed North Carolinians but less than 23,000 receive unemployment insurance benefits, making North Carolina one of the states with the lowest recipiency rate for this important stabilizer in weak labor markets.
- North Carolina is the 9th hungriest place in the nation, but state lawmakers prohibited the state from seeking a temporary year-long waiver from the federal SNAP time limit for 77 counties that are facing persistently weak economies. More than 100,000 childless, non-disabled adults could lose their food assistance if they can’t find work or meet another exemption rather than having modest financial support to put food on the table.
- Fewer and fewer needy Tar Heel families are able to access TANF cash assistance due to a weakening safety net but lawmakers did nothing to reverse this trend. There are only eight families in North Carolina receiving cash assistance for every 100 families with children in poverty—down from 74 in 1996 when welfare reform began. This makes it more difficult for families to make ends meet and support their children’s healthy development.
- State lawmakers kept year-over-year spending flat in the pre-kindergarten program that serves low-income and at-risk 4-year olds. There are more than 50,000 at-risk 4-year olds* in North Carolina but only 28,400 pre-k slots exist—which is down from 34,876 slots in 2009. And there are 7,260 children stuck on the waiting list. Failing to serve every child seeking pre-kindergarten creates immediate challenges for families seeking quality, affordable early childhood experiences and long-term challenges as children miss the chance to show up ready to learn in kindergarten.
- State lawmakers approved a slight tax shift (yes, another one) but failed to restore the state Earned Income Tax Credit. Zero families were able to claim the state EITC in 2015 due to its elimination whereas nearly 1 million families—and their nearly 1.2 million children—claimed the tax credit in 2014. This working family tax credit allows families to keep more of what they earn so that they can make critical purchases—like gas and child care—while also supporting key health and lifetime outcomes for children.
- State lawmakers refused to pass Medicaid expansion. As such, lawmakers gave up over 40,000 new jobs by 2020 and blocked nearly 500,000 people from gaining affordable health care coverage. Expansion would not only allow more low-income North Carolinians to access the health care that they need but would also be an important engine for economic growth that benefits us all.
To build an economy that works for everyone, North Carolina’s policymakers must enact policies that protect families from hardship and provide pathways out of poverty all year long, not solely during the holiday season. Policymakers on both sides of the political spectrum who only lift up the plight of struggling families at the end of the year, or when it is convenient, will never be able to build a robust response to poverty. Nor will they be able to claim credit for strengthening economic performance.
After all, eliminating poverty cannot be a part-time effort; it has to be a sustained, comprehensive one.
*This is a conservative estimated based on 2013 ACS Census Bureau microdata. It includes 4-year olds living in families with earnings below 75 percent of the median by family size. It is a conservative estimate because it does not include children who qualify based on non-income categories such as military status or English as a second language.