Is this the worst thing North Carolina has done to vulnerable people in modern times?

Unemployment insuranceThere are clearly a lot of strong contenders in the dark contest mentioned in the headline above. The state’s ongoing decision to deny healthcare to hundreds of thousands of struggling people is a tough one to beat. So are the decisions to underfund and privatize our public schools, demolish our state environmental protection agency, enact laws to institutionalize discrimination against LGBT North Carolinians, spur the spread of deadly weapons, disenfranchise tens of thousands of people, further erode the reproductive freedom of women, target and demonize immigrants and a dozen others.

As a press conference that took place across the street from the General Assembly made clear yesterday, however, there has been no attack on people in need that has been more direct and devastating in its impact in recent years than the 2013 decision by Gov. McCrory and state lawmakers to raze the state’s largest and most important middle class safety net program — its unemployment insurance system.

Senator Bob Rucho

Senator Bob Rucho

The numbers highlighted at yesterday’s event were truly stunning. Since the massive cuts were approved early in 2013 (cuts that a national expert has described as the most devastating unemployment cuts enacted by any U.S. state in the 80 year history of unemployment insurance) the programs has all but ceased to exist.

Consider the following:

  • Only 1 out of 10 unemployed workers in the state is now collecting unemployment insurance. Prior to 2013, the number was 1 out of 3.
  • The average benefit for those lucky enough to be amongst the 10% has plummeted to $235. This represents just 27% of the state’s average weekly wage.
  • The maximum benefit period has been slashed from 26 to 13 weeks. It may be cut further in the coming months. Despite this, nearly a third of all unemployed workers in the state have been unemployed for more than 26 weeks.
  • In 2005 — the last year North Carolina had comparable unemployment rates to the present —  the state paid out $867 million to unemployed workers to help keep their heads above water. Last year, the state paid out about 25% of that amount.
  • North Carolina is now last in the nation in the time it takes for unemployment benefits to start flowing.

When asked by reporters about these data yesterday, one of the chief legislative architects of the cuts, Senator Bob Rucho of Charlotte, rejected out of hand the idea of revisiting the 2013 changes. Perhaps this is because Rucho, the chair of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Unemployment Insurance, has never once allowed his committee to even hear from an unemployed worker in any of the committee’s 16 meetings it has held since October of 2013.

The bottom line: North Carolina has paid off the debt to the federal government it ran up during the great recession and amassed a surplus in its unemployment insurance trust fund. Having done this, it has cut already low taxes on employers, but not made any changes at all to its bottom-of-the-barrel benefits. At some point, the state would probably be better off it is just got down to brass tacks and had an honest discussion about whether it even wants to have an unemployment insurance system at all. As things stand now, it is mostly just pretending.


Day Three of “Altered State: How 5 years of conservative rule have redefined North Carolina”

altered-state-bannerIn case you missed it, be sure to check out today’s third installment in our new special report: “Altered State: How 5 years of conservative rule have redefined North Carolina.” Today’s story, “Yanking away the ladder: Legislature blocks and cuts programs that help people climb out of poverty,” is written by reporter Sarah Ovaska-Few and it tells the real life stories of average North Carolinians who have suffered mightily as the result of the anti-government policies implemented by the state’s conservative political leadership. Here’s the opening:

“David Turner’s spine and back issues cause him nearly constant pain and distress, keeping him inside his house most days and unable to meet with clients for his web design business or care for his two children.

A medical test would clear Turner for steroid shots to lessen the pain, but the $5,000 price tag is too steep for the Gaston County family with an annual income of less than $20,000 and no health insurance.

The Turners are stuck in what’s known as the Medicaid expansion gap, a hole created when North Carolina’s legislature rejected federal money that would have expanded the program to cover a half-million of the state’s lowest-income adults.

The Turners essentially make too little to qualify for federal subsidies that would make health insurance on the open market affordable and aren’t sick enough to get health care through the existing Medicaid program, which primarily serves low-income children, elderly and disabled persons. (Their children are enrolled in Medicaid.)

‘We’re hanging on by a thread,’ said Karen Turner, who has diabetes but delayed treatment so the family can afford her husband’s pain medications.

If David Turner had access to medical care, there’s a good likelihood that he would be able to work more, earn more, pay more taxes and better support his family. North Carolina is one of 20 states that has not expanded its Medicaid program to cover poor adults, even though the federal government would cover most of the costs. North Carolina accounts for 10 percent of all the nation’s adults that fall into the Medicaid gap, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

A central element in the five-year reign of conservatives has been a fundamental change in how state government views and treats its poorest and most vulnerable citizens. The 2013 decision to reject Medicaid expansion is part of a broad effort to cut, limit or eliminate programs that provide ladders to help poor families climb out of poverty and find better futures.”

Click here to read the entire story.


Taking stock and giving thanks (video)

At some point over the Thanksgiving holiday, most of us will take a moment to take stock of the many blessings in our lives. Countless residents in the Triangle will likely give thanks to the fine folks at Urban Ministries of Wake County.

The non-profit provides food, transitional housing, medical care, prescription medications, financial assistance and other support services for close to 20,000 families and individuals in Wake County every year.

Anne Burke, the long-time executive director, will be retiring at the end of this month after 26 years at the helm.

Burke joined us last weekend on News & Views to reflect on the growing demands on her organization and the continued need for a strong, social safety net for North Carolina families.

And for those politicians who think of those receiving benefits as “takers” she offers this blunt assessment:

“Have you ever been hungry? Have you ever faced your children across the table, and realized there’s nothing to put on the table to eat? And these are families that live in our community.  They live in every community across this country,” said Burke.” And food stamps have become a life line for them, especially in this time of unemployment. And how in the world do expect for someone to live without some protection of unemployment insurance?”

As she prepares to turn over the reins, Burke adds that this holiday she especially thankful for Urban Ministries’ volunteers and the clients she has come to know.

To hear an excerpt of  Anne Burke’s interview with Chris Fitzsimon, click below. To hear the full interview or download a podcast, visit the Radio Interview section of the NC Policy Watch website:

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