On poverty, listen to the people of North Carolina

Daivante Erskine of Greensboro, who makes $7.25 an hour at Abby’s, stands with other other low-wage workers at a curbside protest in 2015 in front of the McDonald’s in downtown Durham.
Daivante Erskine of Greensboro, who makes $7.25 an hour at Abby’s, stands with other other low-wage workers at a curbside protest in 2015 in front of the McDonald’s in downtown Durham. News & Observer file photo

In the knockdown, drag-out fight between Gov. Roy Cooper and the state’s Republican legislature on Medicaid expansion, there has been little attention paid to a key constituency: the residents of North Carolina. A new survey brings their voices to the table on this issue and larger question about the federal government’s role in addressing poverty.

The survey, conducted by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation, took respondents through an in-depth evaluation of federal poverty programs. The responses from a randomly selected, representative sample of North Carolina voters were illuminating.

The findings indicate North Carolinians support Medicaid expansion and, broadly, a more dynamic role for the federal government in reducing poverty in the Tar Heel state. Sixty-six percent of North Carolina voters favor Medicaid expansion, even after hearing the argument that this would impose burdens on taxpayers. Voice Of the People – a nonpartisan organization that seeks to give citizens a greater voice in policy-making decisions – sponsored the survey.

North Carolinians also showed bipartisan support for raising the federal minimum wage, but not as far as some popular liberal proposals. Seventy-six percent favored raising the minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $9 over a two-year period (including 60 percent of Republicans and 91 percent of Democrats). Six in 10 respondents were ready to go further and raise it to $10.10, but only 3 in 10 Republicans were willing to take that step.

Another problem afflicting low-wage workers is the nonpayment of wages. An overwhelming 89 percent favored a proposal saying that if a company under a government contract is found guilty of not paying wages, the company will lose the right to bid on government contracts (including 77 percent of Republicans and 96 percent of Democrats).

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – commonly known as “food stamps” – is a key federal program for fighting poverty. When told what an average single mother with a child gets for SNAP benefits, 76 percent favored increasing them, including 65 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of Democrats.

However, majorities agreed with the conservative idea of limiting what SNAP benefits can be used for. Sixty-four percent approved of disallowing sweetened sodas to be purchased with benefit funds (including 78 percent of Republicans and 51 percent of Democrats), while 66 percent approved disallowing the purchase of candy (including 76 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Democrats).

The survey also found that 73 percent favor federal funding to make prekindergarten available to all 4-year-olds in low-income families, and expanding the availability of Early Head Start programs to more children ages 3 and under from low-income families. This included 50 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of Democrats.

Eight in 10 respondents also favored an idea currently being promoted in Congress to establish a commission to develop a plan to reduce child poverty by half in 10 years, and to seek to eliminate it within 20 years (including 58 percent of Republicans and 94 percent of Democrats).

What made this survey distinctive is that respondents received a short briefing on the proposals for reforming federal poverty programs and assessed strongly stated arguments both for and against each option before making a recommendation. Both Republican and Democratic congressional staffers who deal with these issues from the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee reviewed the background briefing information and the pro and con arguments to ensure accuracy and balance. Specialists representing the spectrum of opinion on the issues were also consulted.

One fact is clear regarding the results of this survey: The people of North Carolina are concerned about addressing poverty in their state. When they evaluate the options – at least at the federal level – there is a lot of agreement between Republicans and Democrats for taking action.

Whether or not elected officials listen to them is another matter.

Steven Kull is director of the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation and president of Voice Of the People, a nonpartisan group using new methods and technology to give citizens a greater voice in government.