Rebuilding North Carolina’s middle class

Rebuilding North Carolina’s middle class

Building a strong middle class requires creating jobs that provide family-sustaining wages and offer tools to plan for the future and the unexpected, like retirement and health-care emergencies.

And North Carolina needs jobs. Our state ranked 6th in the nation for most jobs lost since the start of the Great Recession, and the jobs deficit – the number of jobs the state needs to replace those lost during the economic downturn and to keep up with population growth – has grown to almost half a million.

But while any old job might help close this deficit, only good, quality jobs will bolster North Carolina’s middle class and strengthen the economic recovery. Unfortunately, more than 80 percent of the jobs created in the last decade occurred in industries that pay on average less than the Living Income Standard, the North Carolina Budget & Tax Center’s market-based measure of what it actually takes for a family to make ends meet.

So what can policymakers do? More than a dozen leading national organizations that research the economy, job quality and the conditions facing workers have come together to propose a roadmap for building the middle class and bolstering the economic recovery. “10 Ways to Rebuild the Middle Class for Hard Working Americans” lays out common sense policies that value work and build broadly shared prosperity. Number one on the list is: “Make every job a good job.”

In addition to giving unemployed workers a fresh start and stopping such illegal practices as wage theft and misclassification, the list includes the following fundamental pillars that are vital for North Carolina.

First, the minimum wage needs fixing. At $7.25 an hour, this wage buys 30% less now than it did 40 years ago. A recent study showed that restoring the value of the minimum wage would give roughly 646,000 workers in our state a much-needed raise and pump $848 million in consumer spending into the economy.

Second, North Carolina policymakers need to ensure that the state preserves the jobs it already has and create new, quality jobs. Despite being three years into the recovery, North Carolina continues to shed good jobs, both public and private. Local government job losses have increased in North Carolina, which not only increases the number of people out of work but also hurts private-sector job growth as unemployed government workers have less to spend at local businesses. We need to stop slashing good jobs at home, which decimates the middle class, leaves families destitute, and undermines local economies.

Third, the jobs we have should provide all workers with secure retirement plans, good health coverage, and paid leave. Over the past 30 years, reliable pensions have been replaced by thread-bare 401Ks, and the share of workers with health care on the job has plummeted. Thankfully, the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – will go a long way toward making affordable health insurance available to everyone—assuming the NC General Assembly votes to expand Medicaid in 2014, as called for in the federal law.

Moreover, almost half of private-sector jobs in the state do not come with paid sick days to allow workers to care for themselves or their families. Only about one in ten workers can take long-term leave from work to care for a newborn child or a sick family member without losing their entire paycheck. Giving workers the chance to earn paid sick days and access to paid family leave are job-retention strategies that protect families’ economic security and reflect North Carolina’s family values.

Fourth is workers’ right to organize unions. As a “right to work” state, North Carolina has the lowest union density in the country. Research shows the lack of union density tracks closely with the decline in the share of income going to the middle class. In our history, unions were crucial to advancing the interests of the middle class, and in the present they continue to serve an important role in building a strong middle class and staving off the acceleration in income inequality.

Data recently released by the Census Bureau show that in 2011 the middle class lost ground in terms of income for the fourth consecutive year. We need good jobs for North Carolina now. Let’s put in place these pillars for building a stronger middle class.

Each of these policies will honor work, protect our families and drive us forward to a more powerful, sustainable economy.

Sabine Schoenbach is a Policy Analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center.