What do North Carolina’s children need in order to get a solid start in life, and what priority should children have in the annual legislative competition for state funds? Child advocates like us are pressed every year to tell the legislature what we think is most important for our state’s 2.3 million children to grow into thriving, successful adults. And every year we make the case for a range of effective, research-based policy solutions in health care, early childhood education, child care and child safety.
But after 30 years of working to make North Carolina the best place to be a child and to raise a child, we can say this without reservation: our children will most surely thrive when we support the families and the communities in which they live. We cannot separate the fate of our state’s children from the reality of their parents’ lives, the condition of their neighborhoods, and the opportunities available or missing in their communities.
Unfortunately, many children in North Carolina are growing up in families living on the brink and in communities facing deep and persistent barriers to success and prosperity. These families live in small towns and rural areas, but also in suburbs and city neighborhoods. They are striving to make ends meet, but low-wage jobs with few benefits are often the only ones available to them.
Many of these communities have been left behind in other ways, too: schools are under-resourced, child care options are few and far between, and health care services for children and adults are limited. These challenges perpetuate economic hardship generation after generation. Two recent studies of economic mobility, one from Durham-based MDC and one from Harvard, lay out the daunting challenges facing young people in the future. The Harvard study shows that many North Carolina communities, including Forsyth, Mecklenburg and Wake counties, are among the worst in the country when it comes to intergenerational economic mobility.
The good news is that we can overcome these barriers and create opportunity in communities where it doesn’t exist. There is solid research about the kinds of resources all communities should have in order to provide children a strong start. Our state budget should be a catalyst for making that happen, but we’ve got a long way to go.
Last session the General Assembly maintained recession-era levels of investment in children’s health and education, in spite of the economic recovery. Legislators implemented additional cuts to state revenue rather than boosting investments in children’s health and education. And they failed to close the health insurance coverage gap, leaving thousands of parents without health care and vulnerable to devastating medical debt.
In 2016, North Carolina’s leaders have the opportunity to do better by our state’s children.
We can get young children off to a strong start and enable their parents to work by expanding access to child care subsidies—in effect a need-based scholarship for high-quality child care for the children of working parents. There were 21,049 eligible children on the subsidy wait list as of March 2016.
This year the legislature should go above and beyond Gov. McCrory’s proposal to fund 400 more slots in Pre-K for four-year olds. That amounts to four slots per county; there are thousands of children waiting for space in the program.
Access to health care for parents is a vital and often missing link in a family’s financial health. The legislature and Gov. McCrory should create a state plan to close the health insurance coverage gap and save working families from devastating medical debt.
We can boost low wages by restoring the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit and strengthening the Child Tax Credit.
Gov. McCrory and the legislative leadership need to renew our state’s commitment to our children. Our hope is that the governor and legislative leaders will embrace decisive change in the state budget to ensure that all children have the opportunity to achieve the American dream. Anything less is a disservice to our state’s future.
Michelle Hughes is the executive director of N.C. Child.