As the state begins recovery efforts following Hurricane Matthew, we begin to see unexpected damages. These damages are beyond the ruin of physical structures. These damages are not the effects of harsh winds and high waters. Instead, they are the years old damages – the damages of persistent poverty, underinvestment, and systemic neglect.
But what does poverty have to do with recovery from Matthew? While the hurricane itself did not distinguish between the rich and the poor, the ability of communities and families to recover will depend largely upon just that.
A recent N.C. Budget and Tax Center report (“North Carolina’s Greatest Challenge—Elevated Poverty Hampers Economic Opportunity for All”) finds that 1.6 million North Carolinians live in poverty – that’s a poverty rate 15 percent higher than before the Great Recession. North Carolina has the 12th highest poverty rate, child poverty rate, and deep poverty rate in the nation, and people of color, women and children are more likely to be in poverty than their white, male counterparts. Additionally, the report found that in North Carolina in 2014, the 20 counties with the highest rates of poverty were all rural. North Carolina had a serious issue with poverty even before Matthew hit.
In “Poor, Displaced and Anxious in North Carolina as Floods Climb After Hurricane,” New York Times reporter Jess Bidgood highlights the disproportionate impact the hurricane had on our poorest communities. The story notes that families with vehicles, or who could afford moving trucks, were able to evacuate their families and valuables. Additionally, workers with paid time off or savings are able to absorb the financial burden that comes with evacuation and recovery. Families in poverty and without savings or paid leave policies were more likely to lose valuables and essentials and have fewer means to replace them. Families living paycheck to paycheck can barely afford a day off, let alone weeks out of work. Even FEMA admits it will only be able to provide very modest short term support for even the neediest families.
In “Flooding from hurricane hits lower-income North Carolina residents hard,” Washington Post reporters Chico Harlan and Angela Fritz drew attention to some of the pre-existing inequalities that will impact recovery. The story cites the Corporation for Enterprise Development for the premise that half of the households impacted by the flooding don’t have enough saving to handle even the short-term flood related expenses. It also notes that in some places, like Lumberton, years of segregation have resulted in some of the damage falling along racial lines – similar to the disparities seen in the post-Floyd flooding.
In the aftermath of Matthew, Gov. Pat McCrory noted that “sadly, the poorest of the poor in North Carolina are the ones who are being hurt the most by these floods.” He’s right.
It is often in times of disaster that ideological divides vanish and are replaced with common sense and a human drive to mend broken communities. But once the flood waters recede, schools are back on schedule, and people are back to work, it is far too easy to return to “business as usual.” It is critical that we acknowledge and address the systemic and persistent inequities that many of these communities have so long faced on a day-in and day-out basis.
Earlier this week, the North Carolina Justice Center released a statement calling on state leaders to address the needs of residents most affected by the storm. Its central message: If state leaders truly want to help North Carolina recover from this disaster, they will not end at repairing physical structures. A true recovery means fixing the broken systems that have disadvantaged so many people before, during, and after the hurricane.
Let’s hope state leaders listen and heed this call to action.
Brian Kennedy is a Public Policy Fellow at the N.C. Budget and Tax Center.