NC JUSTICE NEWS: Poverty in NC + Fair Wages Delayed + Crucial Conversation

September 27, 2011

POVERTY PREVAILS: Nearly 18% North Carolinians living in poverty

As unemployment levels remain high across the state and jobs fail to accumulate, more and more North Carolinians are feeling the long-term effects of the Great Recession. Currently, nearly 18 percent of the state's population is living in poverty.

According to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the state’s poverty rate has jumped 22 percent since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007, and now is holding at 17.5 percent. The numbers show just how far the recession has reached – both in years and the widespread impact on the population – and highlight the dire need for our lawmakers to quickly and effectively address our state’s economic future.

Although the recession has technically ended, high unemployment rates and a lack of jobs have only perpetuated economic hardship. Nearly 1.6 million North Carolinians were living in poverty last year, and more than 728,000 were living in deep poverty, meaning that a family is earning just half of the annual income threshold ($22,134) identified as the federal poverty line. The poverty rate for children is at nearly 25 percent – having increased by 5.4 percentage points from 2007 to 2009 – and individuals of color were more likely experience poverty overall.

The poverty rate didn’t drop after the previous three recessions until one year after the unemployment rate began to drop. Seeing as that has yet to happen, it remains unlikely that the poverty rate will improve this year. These numbers are undeniable, and offer a clear message: policymakers need to focus on accelerating job creation and public investments in order to help bolster our faltering economy.

FAIR WAGES DELAYED: New H-2B ruling pushed back 60 days

Last week, the U.S. Labor Department delayed the new requirements that would have raised wages for temporary foreign workers starting on Sept. 30. Now, workers will have to wait an additional 60 days to see if their wages will increase by $4 per hour (on average), or whether businesses and local industries will succeed in killing the amendment altogether.

The new regulations were a result of the efforts of many advocacy groups – including the NC Justice Center – to help increase the wage rate for both U.S. and temporary guest workers who are hired by employers participating in the H-2B guest worker program, which allows employers in the U.S. to bring foreign nationals to the country in order to fill temporary nonagricultural jobs. Employers are required to recruit local workers at the prevailing wage before they are permitted to get H-2B visas, and the prevailing wage is supposed to be tailored to the industry and the area of intended employment to prevent local workers from being undercut for foreign competition.

However, in recent years, the program has become a tool for industries to acquire cheap labor and exploit the workers who participate in the program, many of whom barely earn the minimum wage, let alone a living wage. Employers using the H-2B visa program are complaining that such a wage increase will put them out of business. Yet the wage increase would not only restrict the use of cheap foreign labor, but also ensure that U.S. workers are no longer adversely impacted by allowing employers to import foreign workers.

The new regulation was intended to help pay foreign workers a wage comparable to prevailing community salaries for similar work and help U.S. workers in the process. Here's hoping the Labor Department makes it possible for these workers to receive a fair wage as soon as possible.

CRUCIAL CONVERSATION: Addressing mental illness issues

Federal law has long commanded the states to deinstitutionalize persons with mental illness; it’s illegal to use federal money to gather up such individuals and lock them away in big hospitals as was the favored practice during the last century. Unfortunately, building a vibrant, modern and lawful alternative to the old model is challenging, and these challenges are made even tougher when state leaders refuse to tackle the situation head-on and, instead, rely upon quick fixes and half measures.

Join NC Policy Watch and Disability Rights North Carolina for a special Crucial Conversation event on this important topic, featuring Joshua Norris. Norris is the Director of Legal Advocacy for The Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO), a nonprofit that has been in the midst of many of the same battles that now confront North Carolina surrounding services to persons with mental illness. Norris will be joined by Vicki Smith, Executive Director of Disability Rights NC.

The event will be held on Thursday, Sept. 29 at noon at the Marbles Kids Museum at 201 E. Hargett Street in downtown Raleigh. Click here to register for the event.

JOB LOSS: Unemployment increases in 10 of state's 14 metro areas

Christy Zemcik is one of the state’s thousands of unemployed workers. The Charlotte resident has been out of work for two years, after being laid off from an administrative job, and has exhausted her unemployment benefits. Despite sending out hundreds of resumes, Zemcik’s only current source of income is selling her blood plasma, which helps pay for some food, gas and a storage unit for her possessions now that she's been evicted from her apartment. She’s an all too common real-life example of North Carolina's unemployed workers.

The N.C. Employment Security Commission offered its latest monthly unemployment numbers last week, and they show that there are still far too many individuals struggling like Christy Zemcik across the state. Since July, the unemployment rate increased or stayed the same in 68 counties, and went up in10 of the state’s 14 metro areas. As a result, 58 counties have unemployment rates greater than the current state unemployment rate of 10.4 percent.

The latest unemployment numbers are troubling, but of even greater concern is what those numbers say about the future. Over the past year, 80 percent of the state’s counties and 75 percent of the metro areas saw increases in the jobless rates. Public-sector layoffs are only exacerbating the problem, and yet those numbers aren’t always accurately reported. The public-education sector, for example, often lays off staff at the end of the academic year in May, only to rehire some of those workers in August. In turn, many of the public-sector job increases reported in counties and metro areas do not represent actual hires. All they do is mask the crumbling private-sector labor market.


Research & Publications: