More evidence of a disconnect

More evidence of a disconnect

- in Fitzsimon File

More than one in four children in North Carolina lived in poverty in 2011 according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau Thursday.

Overall, 17.9 percent of people in the state lived below the poverty level last year. That’s up from 17.4 percent in 2010 and the 14th highest level among the 50 states.

And like most poverty numbers, they don’t tell the whole story.

Living in poverty means earning less than $11,484 as an individual. The poverty level is $23,021 for a family of four. Thousands of North Carolina families earn just above that poverty wage and are not reflected in the numbers.

People of color are suffering disproportionately, with 28 percent of African-Americans living below the poverty line and 34.9 percent of Latinos.

And maybe most shockingly, more than 737,000 people in North Carolina live in deep poverty. That means they lived in households with incomes less than half of the federal poverty level.

Rep. George Cleveland made headlines earlier this year for suggesting that there is no such thing as extreme poverty in North Carolina.

If there is anyone in the state still inclined to believe that nonsense, the Census numbers ought to change their minds, unless they somehow believe supporting a family of four on less than 12,000 a year is not abjectly and shockingly poor.

Thursday’s data puts more definitive numbers on the disturbing reality of poverty in North Carolina that should have been a focus of state lawmakers’ efforts in the last two years.

But they governed as if they either weren’t aware of the widespread poverty in North Carolina or didn’t care, and their actions are inexcusable in either case.

Virtually everyone agrees that educational opportunities are a key part of any long term anti-poverty agenda, yet the General Assembly slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from public schools and locked thousands of at-risk kids out of pre-k programs that have proven to help low-income children succeed.

They cut need-based scholarships at the university system and allowed community colleges to refuse to provide low-interest federal loans to students who need them. They abolished the N.C. Teaching Fellows program that provided scholarships for bright high school students interested in becoming teachers.

But it wasn’t just the cuts in education. Lawmakers slashed services and programs that low-income families need now, from health care screenings for poor women to services for people with a mental illness or developmental disability.

They also made deep cuts to Medicaid, particularly in the 2011 session. They withheld unemployment benefits for unemployed workers for weeks in a ridiculous political fight with Governor Perdue and are now threatening to slash benefits again to repay a loan to federal government.

There was a piece of good news in the Census numbers. The percentage of young adults aged 19-25 in North Carolina with health care coverage increased by almost three percent from 2009 to 2011.

There’s little question that increase came as a result of the provision of the Affordable Care Act already in effect that allows children to say on their parents health plan until age 26.

The General Assembly went out of its way to address that in 2011. The first bill they passed was to try to exempt North Carolina from the ACA and force the attorney general to join other states in a lawsuit to overturn it.

The lawsuit ultimately failed of course as the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the bulk of the Affordable Care Act. But now the same politicians are calling for its repeal, which would mean young adults could no longer be covered on their parents’ plan.

It’s a perfect way to sum up what the current General Assembly did address the widespread poverty that plagues North Carolina—virtually nothing, except on occasion passing ideological legislation that would make things worse.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.