Shelter-at-home orders protect people; lifting them would invite a spike in COVID-19 cases, deaths

On Tuesday, hundreds of protesters gathered in Raleigh to protest the stay-at-home order, claiming that the mandated closure of many businesses was causing unnecessary harm to the economy. On the same day, it was declared that the virus is the leading cause of death in the nation.

Public health experts agree that physical distancing is the most effective tool we have to prevent the spread of COVID-19. When restrictions are eventually eased, it is nearly certain that there will be a spike in cases, so they must only be eased once a series of measures are in place, including widespread testing and contact tracing for positive cases, increased health care capacity including workforce and beds, ample personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks and ventilators, and ideally a safe and proven treatment or vaccine.

When COVID-19 cases began appearing in North Carolina in early March, data models predicted that the pandemic would peak in the state in late April. Since then, the updated state-wide models have shown that if physical distancing continues beyond April, the peak will shift to mid-to-late-May, evidence that physical distancing is working. The peak will continue to shift in this way until restrictions are eased. This is why it’s so important for us to “buy time” to ensure that every corner of our state and nation is fully prepared, because there will be more cases and more deaths.

COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on our state and nation in recent months, particularly among communities of color, which have experienced disproportionate rates of illness and death as a result of the virus. In addition, individuals and families are facing numerous challenges including unstable housing, food insecurity, interpersonal violence, anxiety and depression, and difficulty making ends meet. The hardships to individuals and families brought on by COVID-19 are real.

Despite these serious challenges, reopening businesses would only create more hardship. Read more

The public’s health depends on a strong safety net

Image: AdobeStock

Times of crisis, like the public health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, bring out the strengths and weaknesses of people and societies. Some manage their fear and anxiety by stockpiling household items like toilet paper, while others gather virtually to identify needs in their neighborhoods and mobilize to deliver sustenance and supplies to medically high-risk neighbors.

Crises like this also magnify the strengths and weaknesses of the public policies and systems in place to deliver services and supports. What happens when non-essential businesses close and everyone is instructed to stay at home to stop the spread of the virus? People lose their jobs and the dominoes fall from there. Essential needs like shelter, food, electricity, and child care all become more difficult to meet.

For people to remain healthy and sheltered in place, they need to live in safe and affordable homes, have access to affordable health care and nutritious food, and have the means to otherwise support their families by paying for utilities, household essentials like cleaning supplies, and internet access so their children can continue learning. An equitable response to this crisis depends on a robust safety net that would allow all people—regardless of their economic status—the resources to shelter-in-place with their families.

Our communities are beginning to understand what public health practitioners have long understood: The ability for our communities to thrive is tied to the ways in which we promote health through our public investments. Less understood is the system for delivering those supports.

After the hardship of the Great Depression, many of our nation’s key social programs were born, including the widely used Social Security program, unemployment insurance, the Food Stamp program (now SNAP), public housing, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which guaranteed cash payments for dependent children in families with low incomes.

Since then, we have seen the proliferation of well-known and broadly supported programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Housing Choice Vouchers, Head Start, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program. These programs deliver essential goods and services to the tens of millions of families that qualify for them.

And yet, barriers to accessing these programs abound, ranging from weekly reporting to strict food allotments to the most baffling restriction – the requirement to report work hours in order to receive basic necessities such as food assistance and health care. Tying essential services to employment cannot be the way forward, and yet employer-sponsored health coverage is the source of coverage for the overwhelming majority of Americans with health insurance, and has recently resulted in thousands becoming uninsured in addition to unemployed.

Housing, health, food, basic incomes – these are all rudimentary rights, but we have created public policies that make it impossible for families to stay connected to these basics. Take, for example, the problem of the low stock of staple foods at grocery stores due to panic purchasing. Current restrictions on food purchases are so strict under some assistance programs that nutritionally at-risk and medically vulnerable pregnant women and children under 5 are more likely to leave a store empty-handed than they are for the program to bend enough to fit the current reality and help them get nutritious food in their bellies.

It is vital that our communities stay healthy and safe, not only during crises. This means ensuring that everyone can access the supports they need for their families to grow and thrive long after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. It shouldn’t take a crisis for us to recognize how truly interconnected we all are to each other, and that our safety and health are inextricably linked to the safety and health of our neighbors.

State and federal policy responses to the COVID-19 virus

This blog post will be regularly updated to capture key policy responses to the COVID-19 virus. (Last updated 1:45 p.m. Tuesday, March 24)

Reports from Budget & Tax Center Staff

This post summarizes steps taken thus far at both the federal and state levels. Scroll down to see a list of steps taken so far, or click on the following links to bring you directly to a specific section:

COVID-19 provides a sobering reminder of how much we need effective and well-resourced governance at the state and federal levels. Particularly in times of crisis, we need an infrastructure that delivers a coordinated, seamless response and reaches each and every person in the community.

The coming months will test federal and state leaders’ ability to blunt the impacts of this global pandemic and contain the harm to the health, well-being, and economic security of people.

Decades of tax cuts have left us vulnerable to a moment like this. Conservative leaders in Raleigh and Washington have given huge tax breaks to rich people and multinational corporations instead of building the systems we need to respond with a coordinated and collective set of programs.

Years of policies that attacked the very institutions that are so critical now have made the response more fragmented and challenged.  Our public health agencies are under-resourced for the growing complexities and services needed in the face of this new coronavirus pandemic coming on top of a very bad flu season. Our public schools haven’t received adequate resources to provide classroom materials and technology in school, let alone outside of it, and many school personnel are worried about their ability to make ends meet in this time. Indeed, many workers will struggle to make ends meet if their hours are scaled back, they get sick, or they lose their jobs because our policy choices have failed to provide access to affordable health care, paid sick days, and a strengthened unemployment system.

COVID-19 is likely going to have an even broader economic impact going forward and could push the United States into a full-blown recession.  Strengthening our programs that can automatically stabilize the economy by helping people make ends meet is critical, as will be aid for states to maintain balanced budgets without dramatic cuts to programs and services needed now.

In short, North Carolina will need a robust policy response at the state and federal level.

Read more

This Pi Day, why the pie is shrinking and what it means for North Carolinians

As people celebrate Pi Day (3/14) today around the world, the Budget & Tax Center is revisiting some of our most telling pie charts for North Carolina from the past year.

These graphs show us that, like pi, there are some things in North Carolina that are constant: that we need a collective commitment to well-being for everyone in the state, and that it hurts us all when we prioritize tax cuts for the wealthy few and don’t invest enough in our public institutions.

Income, as evidenced by the latest data, is increasingly concentrated at the top.  More than 51 percent of all income in the state in 2018 went to the top 20 percent, and 23 percent went to the top 5 percent.

 

North Carolina’s collection of revenue — that provides things that everyone needs like health care and education — relies less on income tax from personal and corporate sources. This contributes to both our upside-down tax code and, over time, our tax code’s inability to keep up with the needs in our communities.  This is in part because, as noted above, income is growing at the top. Read more

N.C.’s ‘rainy day’ funds need a boost this Hurricane season and ahead of the next downturn

Image: Adobe stock

North Carolina legislators are considering a bill that would distribute dollars to some taxpayers from a revenue surplus coming in over conservative projections, due to the stock market gains of a few. This flawed strategy would distribute to individuals small amounts of funds that would instead have a much larger impact if applied to one of the many needs in our state, such as ensuring our communities are resilient in the face of the next natural disaster or economic downturn.

The state’s savings reserve, often called the Rainy Day Fund, should be the obvious vehicle to hold these dollars for the greatest good of North Carolina. In June, the balance reported by the State Controller’s office totaled approximately $1.2 billion, down over 30 percent from the prior year and well below what could be needed in the near-term.

First, with the successive hurricanes Matthew and Florence, efforts to build up the state’s savings has met with the ongoing pressures created by underinvestment in the infrastructure —planning and affordable housing, particularly — which results in higher rebuilding costs.  North Carolina’s hurricane season is well underway, with the damage of Hurricane Dorian still being assessed.

Last week’s Hurricane Dorian is likely to be just the first of several this year, climate experts have predicted. With ongoing efforts to recover from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence last year, our legislators should be looking to increase the amount we’re saving as a state, not looking to threaten our state’s financial solvency through one-time redistributions.

Second, during the Great Recession, the state cut funding for basic services, including public schools, in order to make up for the $2.5 billion budget shortfall, in order to balance the state budget. That is precisely the purpose of building a strong Rainy Day Fund – to prevent a budget shortfall that would result in a cut in services by having funds available during recessions or other unexpected events that cause a decline in revenue.

With some economists predicting that a U.S. recession is imminent, it would be the fiscally responsible thing to build up our state’s dwindling savings rather than advance this gimmick of a bill.

What’s more is that our state is operating on a continuation budget, which means no funds have been appropriated to the Rainy Day Fund for the fiscal year currently underway. Instead our General Assembly has chosen to pass smaller, piecemeal budget bills so they can avoid coming to the table to discuss what public investments are needed to build thriving communities.

Lawmakers’ decisions about where to allocate tax dollars have tangible effects on our state. Similarly, decisions about where not to allocate funds — like preparing for the next devastating manifestation of climate change, or the next economic downturn — have long-term effects for all of us whose well-being is on the line.

The revenue surplus is ultimately the result of our state’s wealthy becoming even wealthier, and policymakers would do well to strengthen the connections to opportunity for everyone.

Suzy Khachaturyan is a Policy Analyst at the Budget and Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.