It’s the time of year when we count our blessings, take stock of the year behind us and set goals for the year ahead. Unfortunately, far too many N.C. families are looking back on a year of hardship.
According to the latest U.S. Census data, N.C. families continue to struggle even five years into the official economic recovery. North Carolina ranks 11th highest in overall poverty rate in the nation. With more than 1 in 4 North Carolina children overall and more than 1 in 3 children of color living under the poverty line, our state also ranks 12th highest in child poverty.
The numbers are bad enough, but it’s even more discouraging when we look behind them at the individual members of our community affected. These are our neighbors, plagued by the constant stress of deciding which bill they can pay and which they will have to miss this month. The mother wondering how she’s going to afford to pay for child care while she works or if she’ll be able to put food on the table for her children each night.
The Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, but North Carolina’s poverty rate and median income remain statistically unchanged. This means we’ve made no progress toward reducing poverty or raising middle-class living standards since 2009.
Fortunately, poverty is not an incurable disease. There are policies proven to help lift people out of poverty while also improving the overall economy. According to a recent report by the Coalition on Human Needs, our nation’s safety net programs are effective in keeping millions out of poverty and in keeping many from becoming more deeply poor. But they do not reach everyone in poverty, and recent cuts have left them less able to help those who need it.
Federal nutrition assistance programs like SNAP and WIC (for women, infants and children) and Head Start are essential to increasing family economic security. But they are already victims of insufficient funding, and even that is constantly under attack
So are state programs. During the economic recovery, we saw the elimination of the N.C. Earned Income Tax Credit, which helped lift 900,000 low-income workers out of poverty by allowing them to keep more of what they earned. We also saw changes to child care eligibility guidelines that made thousands of low-income families ineligible for the child care subsidies that allow parents to go to work and support their families. Our state’s leaders have also rejected Medicaid expansion and passed a lop-sided tax plan that shifted the tax burden off wealthy individuals and onto the rest of us.
At the same time, we haven’t addressed the issues that keep low-wage workers trapped in poverty. North Carolina minimum-wage workers still earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25. And, despite stereotypes, many of those workers are not teenagers working after school for extra cash. They are adults supporting families. Raising the national minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would lift nearly 6 million people nationwide above the poverty threshold and help the families of nearly 14 million children, while saving $4.6 billion in SNAP expenditures and adding $33 billion to the economy. In North Carolina, 21.9 percent of children have at least one parent who would benefit from this raise.
Other workplace policies also need to catch up to our modern workforce. Under N.C. law, workers aren’t guaranteed the right to earn paid sick days, leaving 1.4 million workers facing difficult choices when they or their children get sick.
To move forward, we must invest more in programs that help lift families out of poverty. And we must look harder at the systemic challenges that trap families there in the first place.
Poverty is not incurable, but it can be chronic and cross-generational. Curing it will require political will. For our state’s children and our future, let’s hope that North Carolina’s leaders find it in the year ahead.
Beth Messersmith is N.C. campaign director for MomsRising.org, a grassroots organization with more than 37,000 N.C. members.