A sobering reminder of what’s at stake in the budget debate

By Chris Fitzsimon - N.C. Policy Watch

The annual Kids Count survey by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that tracks child welfare in states was released this week and couldn’t have come at a better time, as lawmakers are putting a final state budget together and setting priorities for public investments.

North Carolina ranked 35th overall in child well-being and most of the news coverage of the report focused on the 25 percent increase in the number of children living in poverty since 2008, with 566,000 kids in families with incomes below the poverty line, $24,250 for a family of four.

Tens of thousands of more children no doubt live in families with incomes just above the official line, but their parents are struggling mightily to make ends meet too.

Other indicators of how children are doing were a mixed bag and included slight improvements in children’s health care and education measures like the high school graduation rate. But news that more kids are living in low-income families ought to set off alarm bells at the General Assembly.

North Carolina ranks 11th in child poverty rates, tied with Kentucky and Texas. And the report finds that 32 percent of children have parents that lack secure employment. The alleged “Carolina Comeback” hasn’t made it to hundreds of thousands of homes.

Laila Bell of NC Child cited the Great Recession as part of the problem but also correctly pointed to decisions made by state policymakers that have made things worse like the elimination of the state Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers.

Then there are the long waiting lists for NC PreK for at risk kids, the change in eligibility for child care subsidies that kicked thousands of kids out of quality day care, leaving their parents unable to work or go to schools to learn a new skill.

There are the reduced benefits for laid off workers unable to find a job and maybe most glaringly, the refusal to follow the lead of 30 other states and expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and provide health care for 500,000 low-income adults.

The report includes a section on family and community indicators, a reminder of something that too many lawmakers who claim to care about children forget, that children are part of families and helping parents with education, health care, and other supports help their children too.

Raising the minimum wage for workers would help North Carolina’s children. So would requiring paid leave so that staying home with a child with the flu doesn’t mean a loss of several days pay.

There’s simply no reason to have a waiting list for NC PreK, a program that studies have shown improves the academic achievement of at-risk children, the vast majority of them from low-income families.

Both the House and Senate budgets instead include more tax cuts, with the Senate plan costing more than a billion dollars when it is fully implemented. That’s more than then enough not only to eliminate waiting lists for PreK and restore child care subsidies, but to lower class size, keep TAs in the classroom and give teachers a raise.

And the newly proposed cuts come just two years after massive tax cuts for out of state corporations and the wealthy. Even Gov. Pat McCrory thinks the Senate plan is off base since the state just cut taxes significantly two years ago.

Invest that money in children and families for a change.

One of the most contentious education debates this session came over the state’s A-F school grading system that is primarily based on raw scores of a school’s students with very little consideration to how much students’ scores improve.

Not surprisingly 97 percent of the schools that received a D or F had a majority of their students eligible for free or reduced lunch. Kids from low-income families face hurdles every day that middle class children don’t have to worry about.

There are now fierce debates behind the scenes at the General Assembly about what to do about the “low-performing” schools full of low-income kids.

One obvious answer is to help their families lift themselves out of poverty so those hurdles are removed.

The child poverty rate in North Carolina is 2008 was a disgrace. The 25 percent increase since then in the number of children living in poverty is simply a scandal.

Doing something about it ought to be the focus of the budget negotiations underway. Struggling Carolina families and their children are the ones who need a comeback.

Chris Fitzsimon is the founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

By Chris Fitzsimon

N.C. Policy Watch

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