Years ago, a traveling salesman was stuck outside in a thunderstorm, miles from the nearest town. At the next house he came to, a man was standing in the door watching the rain pour. The salesman walked up and asked whether he might be able to stay the night while the storm passed.
“Well,” the man replied, “the only place I’ve got is in the kitchen, and the roof leaks so bad in there you’d get just as wet as staying out here.”
Taken aback, the salesman asked, “Why don’t you fix the roof?”
“Are you crazy?” the man replied. “It’s raining out here!”
“’Course I don’t mean now,” the increasingly frustrated salesman retorted. “Why don’t you fix it when it ain’t raining”?
“’Cause then it ain’t leaking.”
There’s some wisdom in that old country yarn about where North Carolina was when COVID-19 arrived. Our state government is like the roof in the story. We had been through the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth in generations, but leaders allowed our shared home to fall into disrepair. As soon as the storm started, it became even more painfully evident how years of neglect had left our public institutions unable to cope with a crisis.
We also allowed an economic situation to evolve that left far too many families with little or no shelter of their own to fall back on. Big corporations and the ultra-rich did just fine in the wake of the Great Recession, but most families and working people in North Carolina didn’t have the savings to survive without work or income when the pandemic shuttered businesses across the state. Like the traveling salesman, millions of North Carolinians were left out in the storm with little shelter in sight.
Now the combination of broken public institutions and a top-heavy economy are undermining the pace of our recovery. As we document in a recent report, hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians face enormous barriers in their effort to rejoin the labor force. Around 250,000 people in our state, mostly women, can’t work because they don’t have access affordable child care; roughly 100,000 have site concerns about contracting or spreading COVID-19 by working in person, 50,000 lack reliable transportation, and many either can’t access the jobs that do exist or lack broadband needed to work remotely or search for a job. In most of these cases, people of color and women who had the least financial cushion to fall back on when they lost jobs due to COVID-19 face the largest obstacles to rejoining the labor market.
The good news is we have an opportunity to rebuild our collective home. As legislative leaders huddle behind closed doors to hash out a budget, the question is whether they will make the long-overdue choice to fix our public institutions or continue down the path that left us out in the rain when COVID-19 darkened the skies. After years of not passing a budget, North Carolina has billions of dollars sitting in the bank that could be used to help people still struggling to make it through the pandemic. Unfortunately, the proposals made by both the Senate and House failed to tap into those resources and would continue to hand out tax cuts to profitable corporations. State action is also urgently needed to make good use of any potential additional federal support. Years of neglect made it hard for the state to deploy previous rounds of state aid, so investment is needed to get any future relief to where it is most needed.
It certainly hasn’t stopped raining yet, but it’s time to get those hammers swinging to put a new economic roof over the people of North Carolina.
Patrick McHugh is the Research Manager with the Budget & Tax Center.