Missing the Forest for the Trees

Poverty & Family Economics

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-12-02-42-pmThis was originally published at NCchild.org

Most news coverage of the recently released poverty data from the American Community Survey (ACS) has spun the data as evidence of unqualified progress due to a small drop in the overall poverty rate and the child poverty rate. While we should celebrate success, we should also be sure that small improvements don’t overshadow more important long-term trends. A deeper dive into the data and the experience of real North Carolinians tells a different, more troubling story than what we’ve read in the news so far.

At NC Child, we’re in the middle of convening community meetings across the state to discuss economic opportunity and learn what communities need to thrive. So far, we’ve heard that many communities are still reeling from the recession, and that the lack of affordable child care, affordable housing, and decent jobs is making it difficult for families to get on track.

A closer examination of the data supports the feedback that we’re hearing and shows that we haven’t come close to making up the ground lost during the Great Recession. While the 2015 child poverty rate in North Carolina has dropped to 23.5 percent, down from the post-recession height of 26 percent in 2012, it remains 1.4 times higher than the pre-recession child poverty rate of 16.9 percent in 2007.

We also know that the child poverty rate doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, national and state-level research has consistently shown it takes about twice that amount for families to make ends meet. 48 percent of children in North Carolina live in homes below 200 percent of the FPL, down from 50 percent in 2014, but up from the pre-recession level of 43 percent in 2007. To put that into context, an additional 158,000 children across the state have been pushed below 200 percent of the FPL since the economic downturn.

Despite marginal improvements, the data clearly show that many communities have been left behind in the post-recession recovery along with the children and families that live in them. These communities struggle with underfunded schools, limited health care for children and families, and low-wage jobs with few benefits. This is disproportionately true for communities of color due to systemic barriers like hiring and housing discrimination and a biased criminal justice system.

When these challenges remain unaddressed and we allow entire communities fall behind, that short-circuits progress for all of us.

The good news is that this problem is not intractable—we can come together and create opportunity in communities where children and families are struggling. In the past, we’ve used smart public policy to drastically reduce the number of children without health insurance, to create a world-class early education system, and much more. There’s no reason we can’t come together again to address the lack of economic opportunity that is holding our children and our state back.

Coming together around common solutions is exactly what we want to accomplish at NC Child. As we continue to make our way across North Carolina over the next two weeks, we’ll learn more about what communities need to build economic opportunity. Ultimately, this feedback will inform the creation of a Economic Opportunity Agenda that NC Child will promote with our partners. We believe that this effort will lead to progress that changes our trajectory and begins the long process of building opportunity in all communities across our state.

Rob Thompson is the Senior Policy and Communications Advisor at NC Child. NC Child works across the state of North Carolina to ensure all children are healthy, safe, well-educated, and economically secure by engaging communities, and informing and influencing decision-makers.


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