NC Budget and Tax Center

Approach to disaster relief funding is in need of drastic change

Last week, Congress passed a bill that included over $15 billion in disaster relief funding dedicated to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The bill, which included another provision that extends the debt-ceiling for three months, is in response to a cry from FEMA officials earlier this week who warned that the agency could run out of funds as soon as this weekend. The legislation, which awaits the president’s signature, includes $7.4 billion dedicated to Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts in Texas and Louisiana, another $7.4 billion for community block grants, and $450 million towards Small Business Administration (SBA) loans for damaged businesses.

Although 90 House and 17 Senate Republicans voted against the bill, largely on the grounds of extending the debt ceiling, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that funding disaster recovery efforts in light of Harvey and ahead of Hurricane Irma is a priority.

This action signals a welcome departure from previous stances Congress has taken toward funding disaster recovery. A recent Slate article details the typical contradiction in lawmakers’ attitudes towards federal disaster relief. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hit, then-Rep. Mike Pence expressed his hesitancy in providing disaster relief without spending cuts. In 2012, following Superstorm Sandy, lawmakers in both chambers threatened to withhold relief funding by tying the recovery bill to $17 billion worth of spending cuts.

The way our state and nation are bearing the financial and human costs of natural disasters is drastically changing. In just over the past 30 years, we have seen a significant increase in billion-dollar disasters. In North Carolina, in particular, these events will have disproportionate and catastrophic impacts of many of our poorest and rural communities. And yet without a commitment to investments over the long-term to prepare and plan for these costs, we will be leaving communities aside

After almost a year, Eastern NC is still not whole

Lawmakers have been inconsistent in funding unmet needs for those impacted by natural disasters and have neglected to have serious conversations about ensuring that infrastructure exists to minimize future devastation. This could not be more evident than here in North Carolina where the state was awarded only 1 percent of a $929 million aid request to support recovery and rebuilding efforts for Hurricane Matthew.

It is hopeful that in this emerging bipartisan commitment to helping communities recover, Eastern NC will finally receive some badly needed support. According to the NC Insider, nearly a year after Hurricane Matthew flooded much of the eastern part of the state, almost 3,000 families are still waiting to be bought out of their damaged and flood-prone homes. The state, however, only has enough funding to buy out one-third of the properties. Additionally, only a small number of businesses have received SBA loans and the state lacks funding needed to support low-income homeowners in need of repairs.  The estimated unmet need in the region according to state officials is $450 to $600 million.

We should applaud lawmakers for stepping up and choosing to support communities in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Irma. But if we hope to build a stronger and more resilient North Carolina, we’ll need more than just disaster relief; we’ll need the investments and choices that ensure everyone, regardless of where they live or how much money they make, live in safe and thriving communities.

Brian Kennedy II is a Public Policy Fellow with the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.

NC Budget and Tax Center

Labor Day fact: SNAP helps 1 in 9 NC workers put food on the table

For many working North Carolinians, their wages alone are not enough to make ends meet. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) is a critical tool many working families rely on in order to put food on the table. According to new analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priority, SNAP helps 1 in 9 workers in North Carolina and 495,900 people in working households. SNAP and similar programs are becoming increasingly important as our state economy continues to loose middle-wage jobs. Between 2007 and 2016, North Carolina saw a loss of nearly 81,000 middle-wage occupations and an increase of over 90,000 low-paying jobs.

SNAP helps many workers who earn low wages, who have unpredictable schedules and paychecks, and who are in between jobs.

The report finds that:

  • Many workers and their families participate in SNAP while they are working or are looking for work. SNAP’s program and benefit structure supports work. While many participants work while participating in SNAP, many also apply for benefits to support them while they are between jobs.  Thus, many workers participate in SNAP for part of the year and stop participating when they are earning more.  Three-quarters of the working poor who were eligible for SNAP at some time during the year were eligible for only part of the year, an Agriculture Department study found.
  • Millions of Americans work in jobs with low pay. For example, a recent analysis found that up to 30 percent of Americans work in jobs with pay that would barely lift a family above the poverty line, even if they were working full-time, year-round.
  • Occupations that pay low wages are numerous and many are growing. Six of the 20 largest occupations in the country which together employed about 1 in 8 American workers, had median wages close to or below the poverty threshold for a family of three in 2016:  retail salespersons, cashiers, food preparation and serving workers, waiters and waitresses, stock clerks, and personal care aides). And eight of the ten jobs that are expected to add the most new jobs over the next decade have median wages below the national median, and many much lower.

To learn more about how SNAP supports workers, read the full report here.

2018 Fiscal Year State Budget, NC Budget and Tax Center

State lawmakers take positive step in Hurricane Matthew recovery

Today, the NC General Assembly passed The Disaster Recovery Act of 2017 (SB 338). The bill allocates $100 million to help Eastern North Carolina recover and rebuild from the devastating effects of Hurricane Matthew. Causing massive flooding and damage in 50 counties in the Eastern part of the state, the storm displaced thousands of families and impacted hundreds of thousands of homes and business. Ultimately, there was an estimated $2.8 billion in damages and another $2 billion cost in lost economic activity.

This is the second round of disaster recovery funding the state has pursued. In a December special session, the General Assembly passed the Disaster Recovery Act of 2016, allocating $200.9 million. Since then, Governor Cooper, as well as North Carolina’s Congressional delegation, worked hard to secure a federal commitment to fulfill the state’s unmet need. In May, the Trump Administration announced that they would only allocate $6.1 million of the $930 million North Carolina had requested.

The Disaster Recovery Act of 2017 is a key step in attempting to close the gap left wide open by the federal government. In this round of funding, $20 million will be allocated to addressing housing needs, including the repair of homes for low-income homeowners and renters. Another $20 million will go to the Department of Agriculture for dam, soil, and water systems repairs, and $30 million will go to infrastructure projects managed by local governments and non-profits. $2.7 million will help the Community College System deal with enrollment declines resulting from the storm, and, finally, $22.3 million will be allocated as a match for federal disaster grants.

Although this round of funding is not enough to address the unmet need or the total costs of damages incurred in Eastern North Carolina, it is an important step. If we are to help Eastern NC not only recover, but to become resilient, state lawmakers will have to continue to make these types of investments in the years to come.

Brian Kennedy II is a Public Policy Fellow with the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.

2018 Fiscal Year State Budget, NC Budget and Tax Center

North Carolina’s leaders are abandoning the victims of Hurricane Matthew

Alamance Community Park, in Robeson County, near Lumberton, NC, remained inundated with flood waters on Oct. 16, 2016. Floodwater from Hurricane Matthew came to the bottom edge of the park signs when the storm first hit. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

Alamac Community Park, in Robeson County, near Lumberton, NC, remained inundated with flood waters on Oct. 16, 2016. Floodwater from Hurricane Matthew came to the bottom edge of the park signs when the storm first hit. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

If you have been following North Carolina’s response to the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew, then you know it has been a slow and, at times, disappointing process.

If not, here’s a refresher:

On Oct. 8, 2016, Hurricane Matthew made landfall on North Carolina. The resulting flooding impacted 50 counties in the Eastern part of the state, damaging more than 800,000 homes and over 300,000 businesses, displacing 3,744 residents, and causing closures in 34 school systems. In all, the storm caused $2.8 billion in damages and another $2 billion in lost economic activity.

In December 2016, three months after disaster struck, the General Assembly passed the Disaster Recovery Act of 2016 allocating $200.9 million in state dollars for initial relief efforts. The general understanding was that the state would wait for disaster funding from the federal government, re-evaluate the “unmet need,” and step in to fill any remaining gaps. Assuming the federal government would act as they have done in previous disasters and support the state with a significant relief package, Governor Cooper’s budget allocated only $115 million in state funding disaster relief.

On May 10, 2017, nearly six months later, North Carolina finally heard back from the federal government. The Trump administration announced they would provide only $6.1 million of the nearly $930 million in federal funds that the state needed and requested.

The message was crystal clear: North Carolina would have to take care of itself. Yet, despite being fully aware of the $930 million in unmet need in Eastern North Carolina, legislators in both the Senate and House responded by allocating only $150 million in each chamber’s budget.

Now that you’re caught up, you’re probably wondering, “Who will pick up the slack and fund relief in Eastern NC?”

The answer? Not your legislators. Read more

2018 Fiscal Year State Budget

If we care about our children, why do we lunch shame?

Have you ever watched an 11-year-old, short a dollar, pleading with the cafeteria worker to “please let me pay you back” in order to avoid the embarrassment of handing back over his hot meal?

I have. And it’s heartbreaking.

This school year, a Buncombe County elementary school made headlines when a student was threatened with being excluded from the school’s field day as punishment for unpaid lunch debt. While this particular incident gained national attention, “lunch shaming” – the practice of punishing or embarrassing students who do not have enough money for lunch – is prevalent in schools across the state and nation.

In far too many schools, it is common practice to shame children for failing to come up with the $2 or so that a hot meal at lunch costs. In many cases, their meals are thrown away and children are forced to eat an alternative (often a cold sandwich). In some of the more extreme cases, students are forced to work off their debts. Using shame by distinguishing them from their peers who are able to pay is not acceptable. And in many situations, children avoid the embarrassment altogether by skipping meals.

This year, the NC Senate’s budget proposed eliminating categorical eligibility in SNAP (formally known as food stamps), which threatened free and reduced lunches for up to 51,000 children. State legislators have not only failed to address the issue of childhood hunger, they have actively taken steps to make it worse.

Our leaders are also missing the larger picture, to the detriment of our communities and children. If we, as a state, value the health and well-being of our children, we should be focusing on how to ensure that no child, anywhere, is ever hungry.

Thankfully, there are policies that can help us to achieve this goal. One way is to make sure that food and nutrition services in schools are not based on receipts alone but are funded fully. House Bill 891 sought to make school breakfast and lunch available, free of cost, to any child who wanted it. Other states such as New Mexico have passed legislation to prevent lunch shaming and to prioritize feeding children.

At the federal level a policy that allows for universal provision of breakfast called community eligibility is available to North Carolina school districts.  More than 700 schools in North Carolina participated and even more are eligible for the program.

It’s time that we take the fight against childhood hunger seriously.

In North Carolina, 1 in 6 households with children are food insecure, making school lunches a critical source of nutrition for many students. Denying children of a nutritious meal, for whatever reason, is not in line with our state’s values.