NC JUSTICE NEWS: Food Hardship + Budget Chopping Block + LaRoque Investigation

November 22, 2011

FOOD HARDSHIP: Food stamps serve as critical tool for families

The term "food hardship" is foreign to many individuals. For others, it’s part of every day life, and never more so than during the difficulty of the Great Recession.

On the eve of Thanksgiving, a new report from the NC Budget & Tax Center - a project of the NC Justice Center - shows just how extreme those hardships have been for thousands of families across North Carolina. The state had the sixth-highest rate of food hardship in the country in 2010, with nearly 2.2 million people – or 1 in 4 North Carolinians – experiencing food hardship.

Certain programs have been enough to help keep families afloat. The state’s food stamp program (Food & Nutrition Services) has provided support by helping low-income families purchase basic groceries through a monthly benefit based on income and household size. Due to job loss and mandatory reduced working hours, thousands of North Carolinians have become eligible for the program since the start of the Great Recession. In turn, the state has added more than 870,000 citizens to its food assistance program – a little bit more than the entire city population of Charlotte.

The report also tracks data on food stamp enrollment in all 100 counties and unemployment rates over the course of the recession. Food stamp participation has skyrocketed in all counties of the state, with Dare, Jones, Pender, Gates, and Duplin counties experiencing quadrupled enrollment since September 2007.

Hunger is not only extremely dangerous to those experiencing it – it’s also costly to the state at large. It creates what the BTC report calls a “hunger bill,” when one looks at how areas such as education, health, and productivity can be directly affected by food hardship. Last year that food bill reached $5.44 billion.

Food stamps aren’t enough to keep all families out of food hardship. Policymakers must also recognize that reducing hunger reduces state costs and, most importantly, saves lives.

CHOPPING BLOCK: A real look at the budget cut data & numbers

Throughout 2011, North Carolinians have been inundated with numbers and information. Not all of it has been clear or accurate, and interpretations of the state budget have only created more confusion.

Just last week, the Office of State Budget and Management reported that 1,629 state workers were receiving severance payments resulting from layoffs. Yet many jobs relying on state funds are not included in the report, such as the 1,200 teacher assistants who lost their jobs since the budget passed in June. Nor does the report show that not all of the cuts have been made yet, or how closely public and private sector jobs are intertwined – when laid-off public-sector workers no longer have money to spend, private businesses suffer. According to analysis by the NC Budget & Tax Center, the state will likely lose nearly 30,000 jobs in the next two years, and nearly half of those jobs will be in the private sector due to public sector cuts. None of these subtleties are shown in these early job reports.

A new web-based resource is attempting to distill this mass of data and misinformation with a one-stop repository for localized facts about how budget cuts are impacting communities around the state. Together NC’s On The Chopping Block features unemployment and poverty data, as well as local news stories showcasing the impact of budget cuts. This is information reported by newspapers, state agencies, and citizens. It cuts through the politics to show the actual, ever-evolving effects of the state budget.

OLDER WORKERS: The importance of unemployment benefits

With the expiration date of federal support for extended unemployment benefits looming ever closer on the horizon, there has been a focus in recent weeks on the individuals who rely on these benefits to survive. Veterans are among the most vulnerable, while others are the ones who have been in the work force the longest.

Older workers made up nearly one-fifth of the state’s labor force last year, and although older workers are less likely to be unemployed than their younger counterparts, workers in North Carolina over the age of 55 who lose their jobs remain unemployed for much longer. These workers have lengthy work histories, and yet it can be incredibly difficult to find comparable work, particularly during a recession. They exhaust their benefits and many workers are forced to retire early, despite being without any stable safety net.

Unemployment insurance provides critical support to these workers – without threatening the financial security of retirement savings. Unemployment insurance represents less than 40 percent of an average worker’s wage, but recent data has shown that these benefits kept 3.2 million Americans out of poverty in 2010. It may not seem like a lot of money, but it can mean everything for a person trapped in limbo between poverty and modest security.

At the moment, unemployment benefits last 26 weeks, but federal legislation allows states to receive full federal funding for benefits for 34 to 73 weeks after state unemployment programs have been exhausted. Extending the benefits will protect nearly 70,000 North Carolinians who would otherwise lose that support in January 2012, including the older workers who could face significant, life-altering challenges without this support.

LAROQUE INVESTIGATION: Tillis calls for ethics probe

State Rep. Stephen LaRoque has had better years. But the publicity surrounding the Kinston Republican has been a long time coming, and it’s not over yet. Not even close.

In August, N.C. Policy Watch released its extensive investigation "Public money, personal gains", which uncovered questionable practices at LaRoque’s two small economic development non-profits, of which LaRoque was the sole employee. The report found LaRoque had been paid as much as $195,000 a year as an employee without the knowledge of several board members, and that the non-profit loaned federal money to LaRoque’s associates. NC Policy Watch also found that LaRoque’s for-profit company LaRoque Management Group took a $200,000, no interest loan from the non-profit, and that LaRoque failed to report that loan on the non-profit’s most recent tax return.

All of the drama surrounding the lawmaker came to a head last week, when House Minority Leader Joe Hackney sent a letter to House Speaker Thom Tillis requesting an independent investigation into LaRoque’s business dealings. Shortly there after, Tillis told the Raleigh News & Observer that he plans on having the bipartisan House Ethics Committee look into questions concerning LaRoque.

NC Policy Watch will be following the investigation closely, so keep an eye on their website for updates.

CAMPAIGN FOR BETTER CARE: Event in Chatham County

Join the NC Justice Center and AARP NC on Thursday, December 1 for the next Campaign for Better Care community luncheon and make your voice heard on one of the most important, complex issues in North Carolina today.

The Campaign for Better Care aims to make improvements in the health system for older adults and build a strong, lasting consumer voice for better health care. Come and share your experiences about what you think needs to be changed in our health system and take advantage of the expertise offered from the AARP and the Seniors’ Health Insurance Information Program (SHIIP) and more.

The free event will be held from 10:00 a.m.- 12:30 p.m. at the Eastern Chatham Senior Center in Pittsboro. To reserve your seat, contact local partner, Eastern Chatham Senior Center at 919-542-4512 or Nicole Dozier at nicole@ncjustice.org or 919-856-2146.

CRUCIAL CONVERSATION: NC Policy Watch looks at marriage discrimination amendment

Next May, North Carolina voters are scheduled to go to the polls to vote on one of the most important and controversial constitutional amendments to ever be placed on a state ballot. The proposed marriage amendment states that “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”

Recent polls indicate, however, that despite significant support for the amendment, most North Carolinians feel that same sex couples should be eligible for legal recognition. Why the disconnect between voter attitudes and the apparent substance of proposal? And what are anti-amendment advocates going to do about it?

To learn the answers to these questions and more, please join NC Policy Watch and Equality NC for a very special Crucial Conversation luncheon on Tuesday, November 29. The event will feature Evan Wolfson, founder and President of the national nonprofit, Freedom to Marry — the campaign to win marriage nationwide, and two of North Carolina’s foremost constitutional scholars and experts on the proposed amendment, UNC Professors of Law, Maxine Eichner and Holning Lau. Executive Director of Equality NC Stuart Campbell will also join in on the conversation.

Click here to register for the Nov. 29 event, held from 12:30-2:00 p.m. at the Marbles Kids Museum at 201 E. Hargett Street in downtown Raleigh.

 

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