North Carolina has long had a competitive streak. For the better part of the last century, North Carolina leaders worked to improve the lives of its people and its standing in the nation – an example that other states could aspire to. We founded the first public university system to educate more North Carolinians. We established a nationally recognized early childhood system before many other states even saw the importance of educating children early to reap greater benefits long-term. We began the war on poverty before the nation understood the battle lines had been drawn.
So what happened? In recent years, that competitive streak that has driven North Carolina to create an economy that works for everyone has all but disappeared. Now we’re at the top of the wrong rankings: The latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau released this month showed North Carolina is 12th in the nation for our high poverty rate. And while it is declining, as it should in good times, the number of people living in poverty has not fallen fast enough to make everyone feel like progress is being made. Indeed, in order for North Carolina to be a state that can grow stronger together, we have to address the poverty in our state.
What would it look like for North Carolina to be among the best in the nation in addressing poverty? That would mean an additional 140,000 people having moved out of poverty in the past year. That is 140,000 more people better able to make sure they have a roof over their heads and food on the table. That means 140,000 more people better able to support their local economies by spending more at community stores and businesses. That means 140,000 more people who can perhaps even save some to achieve long-term security.
Our failure to include progress on poverty in our measure of our state’s competitiveness is hurting us all. Everyone benefits when people can make ends meet, when daily struggles to eat and have a safe house don’t crowd out decisions on work. Everyone benefits when people can purchase food and pay rent and utilities – those dollars circulate through businesses and allow companies to do well. Everyone benefits when people can participate in their communities without struggling to get connected to the institutions that serve us all.
It isn’t difficult for North Carolina to make greater progress to reduce poverty. Building pathways out of poverty and strengthening the middle class requires ensuring jobs are available and pay well. When there aren’t enough jobs, or they fall short of sustaining a family or people can’t work, it benefits us all to ensure that everyone can meet basic needs.
The U.S. Census Bureau found that an increase in employment and income gains over the past year improved poverty rates. Food assistance, refundable tax credits for working families and unemployment insurance moved millions more out of poverty nationwide as well.
Our failure to include progress on poverty in our measure of the health of our economy has led us down the wrong path. Rather than ensuring that everyone can do well, our leaders have cut taxes for the few in hopes that the benefits would trickle down. Rather than investing in what works, our leaders have ignored what we know works and cut our collective commitment to preventing child abuse, ensuring access to early childhood education, and connecting workers to job training to advance in their careers.
A decade after the Great Recession began, we should feel the urgency to change directions and build an economy for all. We should be embarrassed to be near the top of the wrong kind of rankings. Every day that passes without taking this on to compete nationally and globally diminishes all of our economic security.
It is time for us to find our competitive streak again and work to bring down the state’s persistently high number of people living on too little and address the concentrations of poverty that affect us all.
Alexandra Sirota is director of the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the NC Justice Center.