The spectacle of Republicans churning out bills on such diverse subjects as cursive writing, voter ID, drug testing for welfare recipients and allowing guns in bars heartens some, amuses others and bewilders more than a few.
But one group must view the political circus with a different emotion: bitterness. They are the state’s unemployed workers. There are 435,000 of them trapped within one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, 9.2 percent. The number of North Carolina’s unemployed is now 90 percent higher than when the Great Recession began in December of 2007.
That’s more than five years of heightened want and worry and sometimes misery. Republicans tapped that anxiety by campaigning on promises of bringing more jobs to North Carolina. It worked. They won control of both the state House and Senate in 2010 for the first time in over a century. In 2012 they added the governorship with a victory by Pat McCrory, another candidate who ran on a jobs platform.
But the promise of more jobs has so far proven an empty one. The unemployment rate has held between 9.6 and 9.2 percent for the past 15 months.
The number of jobs in the state has increased, but that growth has been outstripped by a growth in population. The result has been stasis and frustration.
John Quinterno, who analyzes the state economy as a principal of the Chapel Hill-based consulting firm, South by North Strategies, said of the lack of movement in the jobless rate, “It’s the labor market equivalent of watching paint dry.”
Meanwhile, the supposed saviors of the unemployed have used their newfound power to hammer and heckle them. The legislature rejected an extension of federal unemployment assistance and cut benefits instead. That came after a debate in which some Republicans implied that what the unemployed really need is a spur to get off the couch and back to work.
It’s hard to fully express how wrong this is. It fails morally and economically, and ultimately it will fail politically. In the meantime, the jobless can only wonder what new torment their public servants will serve up.
Two years ago, Republicans let a temporary sales tax increase expire at a cost of $1 billion in state revenue saying it would put money back into the private sector and jump start the economy. It didn’t.
In 2011, they committed to foregoing more than $330 million annually in state tax revenue by exempting the first $50,000 in income earned by most businesses. Republicans said it would stimulate small businesses and create jobs. If it has, it’s hard to notice.
This year they rejected an expansion of Medicaid funding that would have pumped more than $1 billion in federal money into the state economy annually and created as many as 25,000 new jobs, mostly in health care. Meanwhile, the governor’s budget proposes cutting 3,000 teacher assistant jobs.
In fairness it must be noted that state Republicans – their campaign talk and legislative speeches aside – really can’t do much to spur the state’s overall economy. It’s caught in a long, nationwide slowdown. But state lawmakers and the governor can make things worse for the unemployed. On that front, unfortunately, they are having an impact.
The trouble with the Republican approach is they are talking to company owners and CEOs about lower taxes and reduced regulation, but ignoring people who are out of work.
The state should be saving, even adding public jobs, not cutting them. Unemployment benefits should be maintained and extended, not cut back and cut off. There should be more help for training and tuition for the unemployed. Business must be given more incentives to hire and be encouraged to use innovative approaches such as job sharing.
Unemployment isn’t stubbornly high because unemployment benefits are too generous. They’re meager, and almost all of the unemployed would prefer to be working. Evidence of that desire can be seen in how many of the formerly unemployed have accepted work beneath their talents and value because they want the dignity of work in any form.