Time to refocus on rebuilding the “infrastructure of opportunity”

Time to refocus on rebuilding the “infrastructure of opportunity”

education-budget-400State lawmakers return to Raleigh Monday night for their summer session and they have a lot to talk about, HB2, education, teacher and state employee pay, economic development, Medicaid and the state budget for starters.

If members of the House and Senate want to make this a productive session, they could do a little reading before they come to town, starting with the list of more than 160 corporations demanding a repeal of the anti-LGBT law HB2, the Raising the Bar series and other analyses from the N.C. Budget & Tax Center, and a new report from MDC, “North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity.”

That ought to be one of the priorities of the General Assembly after all, making sure that all families in North Carolina have the opportunity to succeed. But that’s not happening now in the state, as the MDC report documents in great detail.

The vast majority of children born into poverty in North Carolina stay in poverty. They are unable to move into the middle class as adults, much less into the upper income levels. And it is not because they are not working hard. It’s because many of them are not earning enough.

The report finds that one adult with one child in North Carolina needs to make $21.63 an hour to support their family, but only one in four full time jobs pay that much.

The report also finds there is a strong correlation between education and income, which is no surprise. Research shows that nearly half the children born into the poorest quartile of families who don’t get a four year degree stay in that bottom quartile while only 10 percent of children who were born into the same circumstance but earn a degree remain in poverty.

And there are also differences based on race. African-Americans and Latinos have higher poverty rates and less educational attainment overall.

The MDC report is chocked full of revealing data that should prompt conversations, from the breakdown of gaps in jobs that are available and people with the credentials to fill them, to eight in-depth profiles of communities and the specific challenges they face.

The report makes broad recommendations and action steps to help communities and they make sense, including using data to identify problems people face moving from education to a well-paying job, making the investments to address the problems, and learning from places that are having success in improving upward mobility for their residents.

State lawmakers can take some lessons from the report too. They aren’t spelled out specifically but they jump out of the charts and anecdotes throughout the report.

Education is the logical place to start. It’s time for legislative leaders to stop playing with the numbers to defend their inadequate investments in education at all levels and start making schools a priority in the budget again, ahead of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.

Teacher pay is a vital part of that puzzle but not the only one. Public schools need more funding for textbooks, supplies, teacher assistants, school nurses, etc. Community colleges and UNC schools need more support too. Enough with the “discretionary cuts” forced on UNC every year.

Lawmakers can also help by rebuilding the tattered safety net that low-income families are forced to rely on as they struggle to get back on their feet. That means reversing the draconian cuts to unemployment insurance and food assistance programs.

It means more funding for day care subsidies so parents can afford to go to work or back to school to acquire a skill that can lead to a better job. And surely it means expanding Medicaid to provide health care for 500,000 adults who currently can’t afford it, not to mention the thousands of jobs that expansion will create.

It means more investment in services for people with mental illness and addiction disorders too and a reversal of cuts to public health programs, like tobacco prevention initiatives.

All that and more is possible if lawmakers will stop the tax cutting frenzy and make investments instead. And they while they are it, they need to address the regressive tax shift they have created in the last few years by reinstating the state Earned Income Tax Credit that helps low wage workers. It’s the least they can do.

North Carolina is the only state that has created an EITC and then abolished it.

This is nowhere near an exhaustive list and it may not all be possible this summer. But it’s time to start turning the state’s policies back towards that infrastructure of opportunity that MDC identified.

And of course they should kick things off by repealing HB2 that is costing the state thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of investments in the economy, not to mention sanctioning discrimination against our friends and neighbors and family members.

Here’s hoping for a legislative session focused on investment and education and opportunity—for everybody in North Carolina.