There 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.
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.