Gov. Pat McCrory may win re-election because of Hurricane Matthew. The storm changed the subject from House Bill 2 and allowed him to employ the powers of his office and show compassion for those left homeless and jobless by the storm.
If that puts him over the top, it will be deeply ironic. For the governor sprang into action on this storm after ignoring another one that has battered rural eastern North Carolina for years. It is a storm of unemployment, poor health care, failing schools, a loss of population and an environment degraded by massive hog and poultry farms.
The governor’s hurricane response reflected his lack of attention to that other, unnamed storm of economic ill winds. He announced the availability of Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA), a program notably without the draconian changes Republicans passed and McCrory approved for regular unemployment insurance.
DUA provides benefits for 26 weeks instead of the current 13 weeks for regular unemployment. And, at the governor’s order, the jobless won’t have to comply with the legislature’s annoying new requirement that they contact five potential employers a week, instead of the previous two. Weekly benefits, however, remain chopped to a maximum of $350 per week, down from the previous $535.
The title Disaster Unemployment Assistance underscores the meanness of the changes to regular unemployment assistance. The sudden loss of a job is a disaster to most workers regardless of whether flooding or fallen trees come with it. The DUA rules should be the state’s regular approach. Provide help quickly. Provide it for up to half a year. Treat the recipients as adults tapping an earned benefit and trust that they’re looking for work without requiring that they document their search.
Yet even the “disaster” program retains the state’s miserly maximum benefit. While McCrory gets credit for responding to Hurricane Matthew, he should also have to explain to some storm victims why their emergency unemployment benefits have been cut by $185 per week.
He could also explain to all of rural North Carolina why he’s not pushing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. North Carolina is one of 19 states holding out. That has left between 300,000 and 500,000 people, many of them in rural eastern North Carolina, more vulnerable to medical problems related to a natural disaster or the personal calamity of a serious medical problem. The toll of deaths that could have been prevented if sick people had access to Medicaid far exceeds the toll of Hurricane Matthew.
The lack of Medicaid expansion also has left the economies of rural regions more vulnerable. The influx of federal money would help struggling rural hospitals and create thousands of health care-related jobs. Jason Gray, director of the office of Research and Innovation at the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, said Medicaid expansion would bring $1.8 billion into the state’s 40 poorest counties between 2016-20. “That’s a hell of an economic stimulus in anybody’s book,” he said.
Gray said rural North Carolina areas have the means to build their economies, but they need help to coordinate regional efforts and properly apply for federal grants.
Finally, McCrory has come around to seeing the need for a special session, but people in hard-hit counties are left wondering why it’s taking the legislature so long to respond. Republican legislative leaders reacted with urgency in calling a special session to block a Charlotte ordinance protecting the rights of transgender people (and in the process produced the man-made disaster of House Bill 2).
State Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, a Democrat whose northeastern district includes five counties eligible for disaster assistance, said federal relief has been slow to arrive and the Republicans who lead the legislature have been slow to fill the gap.
“They responded within two weeks to Charlotte, but something that has impact on poor counties happens and it’s just amazing that it takes them this long to get a session called,” she said.
McCrory has formed a committee to respond to the hurricane, but the focus is more about immediate actions rather than long-term steps that would make rural areas more resilient when big storms hit. This limited and reactive approach is especially concerning given the threat climate change poses to the the coast and the coastal plain. Most scientists expect storms to become stronger and more frequent, but the state is being run by people who are skeptical about climate change and environmental regulation.
Matthew brings into the open how the state’s neglect of infrastructure and safety net programs compounds the hardships of poverty. Perhaps what the governor has seen and the legislature will eventually contemplate will show them that budgets are not just about numbers and fiscal restraint. What the state does with its spending and programs is about helping people hit by storms, whether natural, medical or economic.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, firstname.lastname@example.org