In HB 1105, General Assembly leadership acknowledges that North Carolina families and communities face enormous hardships, but makes only token gestures to help people survive the COVID-19 pandemic
North Carolina can and should allocate the remaining federal COVID-19 relief funds to meet the pre-existing needs that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. However, the proposed appropriations in HB 1105 fall far short of acknowledging the scale of current need, much less setting the state up for a strong, inclusive recovery. After months of inaction, the General Assembly continues to take half steps toward addressing a range of crises.
- Families facing utility disconnection and eviction: Over 1 million North Carolina utility customers are at risk of having vital services disconnected, and thousands of renters could be evicted, but HB 1105 includes no new dollars for rent and utility assistance. Instead, this bill makes explicit that the money Gov. Cooper already dedicated to rental and utility assistance is included within a range of possible uses for funds. These one-time, non-recurring funds will not maintain or create enough safe, connected and affordable housing to meet the need. The General Assembly still needs to pass HB 1200 or similar funding to ensure that at least $400 million will be directed to people most impacted by the housing crisis.
- Families struggling to put food on the table: Small investments for nonprofit food assistance organizations is insufficient when applications for that help have increased by 15%. This bill proposes allocations that include $3 million in a food prescription program and $6 million for food banks. ABAWD (Able Bodied Adult Without Dependents) currently can’t get extended food assistance without meeting extra work requirements; North Carolina has banned waivers that previously allowed ABAWD to receive benefits if they met less-stringent general requirements. Eliminating that ban on waivers would would addressing food insecurity in North Carolina in the long term, and wouldn’t cost the state additional money. However, this provision is absent in this bill.
- A sound basic education and safe learning environments for every child: Privatization measures continue with the expansion of so-called Opportunity Scholarship vouchers and failing virtual charter schools. These privatization schemes continue to undermine our traditional inclusive public schools. The provision to hold harmless public schools facing lower enrollment is helpful, but this bill would worsen the state’s continued violation of the state’s constitutional requirement to fund a sound, basic education for all children.
- Safe, affordable child care for young children, educators and working families: This bill includes a small $8 million increase in child care assistance for families, and a modest $35 million commitment to assist providers. These funds are targeted at remote learning opportunities, which are available only for Pre-K children, and so offer no support for parents of children up through age 3. Assistance to families does not come close to meeting the needs of the 13,400 eligible families currently on the waiting list. Also absent from this bill is bonus pay that early childhood educators — whose average hourly wage is $10.50 — need to get by.
- Affordable health care for those in the coverage gap: The bill does appropriate funds to Community Health Centers and reduces costs for providers who service people without health insurance. But he reality is that since North Carolina failed to expand Medicaid, it is also failing to reach everyone who was — and now is — in the coverage gap. Medicaid expansion should be a key pillar in our response to this pandemic; it will draw down federal funds to support health care needs now.
- Families that are unable to make ends meet: A small, one-time payment of $335 covers less than 8% of what a family of four needs to cover the basics for one month. Limited resources should be spent on cash assistance that is targeted to low-income families facing evictions and utility shut-offs, including families who had such low incomes that they were not required to file a 2019 tax return. As it stands, these dollars won’t go far enough and will miss those most in need.
Years of underinvestment have left us playing catch-up during this public health and economic crisis. The Band-aids in HB 1105 would not be as necessary if we have been truly funding public services for years. It turns out that there are harsh consequences to cutting taxes for the rich and big corporations:
- Legislators in 2012 could have chosen to invest $500 million in building affordable housing. Instead lawmakers gave a tax break on pass-through income. (The provision subsequently repealed due to bipartisan agreement that it was poorly targeted). Had lawmakers used the money for housing, communities would have had more affordable rental options.
- If legislators had chosen in 2013 to drive dollars back into public school budgets rather than cut taxes for the rich and big corporations, schools would have had technology budgets and infrastructure that could support remote learning in this pandemic. Schools would also have health and support personnel on staff to support children’s recovery from the trauma of this pandemic.
- In 2013, had legislators raised the minimum wage and boosted the pay of every educator from early childhood through post-secondary education fewer North Carolina families would be living paycheck-to-paycheck. Instead, lawmakers cut taxes for the rich and big corporations.
- If legislators in 2013 hadn’t reduced access to, and cut the value of unemployment insurance, so that employers didn’t have to pay higher taxes to address their debt, state unemployment insurance would more fairly compensate workers who have lost their job due to COVID-19. The benefits would have lasted longer would have been more accessible.
- If legislators had expanded Medicaid in 2014, more people would have had access to affordable health care and prevention to manage chronic conditions that make some North Carolinians more at risk for COVID-19. Expansion would have drawn down federal dollars; instead North Carolina has a patchwork of charitable care to meet the health needs of the state’s uninsured, people who are essential to our collective recovery from this pandemic. Because of job losses thus far, an estimated 825,000 North Carolinians would benefit from Medicaid expansion.
Alexandra Sirota is the Director of the N.C. Budget & Tax Center. Her colleagues Heba Atwa, Logan Harris, Suzy Khachaturyan , Patrick McHugh, Leila Pedersen, Mel Umbarger and Chanae Wilson ll contributed to this post.