NC JUSTICE NEWS: Public Transportation + New Poverty Measurement + The Fracking Debate

November 8, 2011

TRANSIT PLANS: Investments should support all individuals

Public transportation can transform a community. Investing in public transit can help create jobs, enhance the mobility of residents, and create enormous opportunities for community development and connectivity. North Carolina is already in the throes of planning for upgrading and extending public-transit options, such as high-speed rail and bus rapid transit. Today, Durham voters will vote on a proposal for a half-cent sales tax hike that would be earmarked toward a transit effort.

However, new transit plans must be considered carefully if they’re to benefit an entire community, regardless of an individual or family’s income bracket. Research has shown that if policymakers don’t tread carefully, building transit stations can transform neighborhoods in negative ways as well. Housing becomes more expensive. The areas surrounding transportation hubs become increasingly gentrified, and tend to attract high-income residents, which creates a challenge for the low-income residents who rely on public transportation to commute every day.

Nearly 60 percent of North Carolinians traveling to work on public transportation earn less than $25,000 every year. These are the individuals who most rely on affordable commuting options. Living near a bus or train stop could help them save money on transportation, but only if they’re still able to live affordably in close proximity to a transportation hub.

Transit plans must include components that help keep individuals from losing easy access to these critical services. Local policymakers could establish a housing trust fund to finance existing and new affordable housing units near planned transit hubs, or establish a fund that would purchase property near stations, where affordable housing could be preserved or produced. Such considerations will allow public transit to protect its citizens and change communities for the better.

NEW POVERTY MEASURE: Are the changes enough?

Yesterday, the U.S. Census Bureau released the new Supplemental Poverty Measure as a response to the flaws of the existing official measure, the Federal Poverty Level. Developed in the 1960s, the Federal Poverty Level has long been outdated, and hasn’t been extensively revised to accurately reflect modern times. It still only uses food to determine hardship – not child care, transportation, housing, health care, or other expenses that are standard for most families – and doesn’t acknowledge any geographical variation in the cost of basic necessities across the country.

The new Supplemental Poverty Measure – which is not a substitute for the Federal Poverty Level – is a step in the right direction in reexamining poverty measurement. However, it doesn’t paint an entirely accurate portrait of poverty in some of the poorest areas in the U.S.

Under the new measure, poverty in the South drops from 17 to 16.3 percent, and nationally, poverty increases by one percentage point under the measure, mostly driven by increases in the Northeast and Western parts of the country. The new Supplemental Poverty Measure considers regional housing costs, which are indeed cheaper in the South than larger metropolitan areas such as New York City. However, workers caught in a low-wage economy will still see extreme pressure on a household budget, particularly in areas such as North Carolina, where housing costs are lower but work-related transportation costs can be much higher than that of other cities. In addition, the new measure captures individuals who are facing extreme economic hardship, and does not account for the much broader base of low-income families.

Although the new measure isn't without its flaws, exploring a new measure to evaluate poverty is essential. The Supplemental Poverty Measure takes into account shelter, clothing, and utilities, and calculates total income after taxes, public benefits, and work expenses, unlike the Federal Poverty Level, which uses gross pre-tax income as its measure. Although poverty measures still have a long way to go, these incremental adjustments are crucial in properly evaluating poverty in the United States.

CARLENE MCNULTY: Consumer attorney awarded Countryman

Carlene McNulty, a staff attorney and Director of Litigation at the NC Justice Center, was awarded the National Consumer Law Center’s Countryman Consumer Law Award this past weekend. The award has been given annually since 1990 to a public interest attorney whose special contributions to the practice of consumer law have strengthened and affirmed the rights of low-income Americans.

This is the top honor for consumer attorneys in the U.S., and richly deserved by McNulty, who has helped co-counsel numerous class actions against predatory lenders. Last fall, McNulty and a team of litigators settled three class action lawsuits against payday lending companies – including Advance America, the country’s largest payday lender – for a total of $43.75 million for more than 364,000 class members. The landmark case was the largest settlement against payday lenders in the United States, and McNulty and her co-counsel were honored with the Public Justice Achievement Award for their work in the North Carolina Payday Lending Litigation this past August.

ECONOMIC DISPARITY: Moore County faces poverty increase

NC Policy Watch recently traveled to Moore County, an area of North Carolina that reveals a startling economic reality for thousands of individuals who are barely getting by – in what appears to be one of the state’s most affluent counties.

Although Moore County is well-known for its golf resorts, upscale retirement villages and equestrian farms, the latest U.S. Census poverty data revealed that 18.5 percent of Moore County’s population lived in poverty in 2010. This means nearly one of every five Moore County residents is living in poverty, which is defined as a family of four living off less than $22,314 a year, or an individual making less than $11,139.

What’s perhaps most troubling about the situation in Moore County is the lack of obvious contributing factors to the major uptick in poverty. Moore County saw the biggest jump in poverty in North Carolina, but not for just one reason. Instead, the numbers have ballooned for the various reasons that many communities across the U.S. have seen such extreme shifts in income – well-off households cutting back on consumer spending, individuals losing their jobs and being forced to depend on their emergency and retirement funds, and already poor households attempting to find work in a dwindling economy.

Click here to read the personal stories of Moore County residents that have struggled in the Great Recession to stay afloat.

SPEAK NC VIDEO: Cuts could close schools for blind, deaf students

Speak NC, a campaign documenting the positive impact of state programs and services on families and communities throughout North Carolina, continues with a powerful video focusing on the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh. The Governor Morehead School, along with schools for the deaf in Wilson and Morganton, face the specter of closure following the passage of the 2011 state budget.

All children in North Carolina deserve the opportunity to get a sound, basic education. That’s why past elected officials created three schools dedicated to the education of deaf and blind children across the state. These schools currently serve around 200 children who receive a specialized education that includes work training and life skills not taught in mainstream schools. Unfortunately, this year's budget requires the Department of Public Instruction to close one of the three schools by 2012. According to the President of NC Chapter of the Federation for the Blind, Gary Ray, unemployment among the blind is already at 70 percent. If the state closes one of these schools, that could number will likely go up.

This is the ninth and final video in a series produced by Together NC. Visit Speak NC at www.speaknc.org to see all nine videos.

CRUCIAL CONVERSATION: NC Policy Watch events across NC

NC Policy Watch is taking November by storm with three Crucial Conversation events across the state this month

On Thursday, Nov. 10, NC Policy Watch will address “fracking,” the name given to the process of hydraulic drilling for natural gas in shale formations. After a blitz of publicity and legislative proposals, fracking is being touted by proponents as some kind of magic bullet for North Carolina’s ailing economy. Others, however, worry that fracking could bring terrible harm to the state’s already fragile environment.

The event will feature Carol French and Carolyn Knapp, dairy farmers from Pennsylvania and founders of the Pennsylvania Landowner Group for Awareness and Solutions (PLGAS), and Grady McCallie, Policy Director of the North Carolina Conservation network. Join NC Policy Watch at the Junior League of Raleigh at 711 Hillsborough Street at noon. Click here to register for the Nov. 10 event.

Mark your calendars for two other Crucial Conversation events in November. On Nov. 14, Policy Watch's Chris Fitzsimon and Rob Schofield will travel to Fayetteville to address what a year of conservative control has meant to the NC General Assembly this year. Policy Watch will be back in Raleigh on Nov. 29 to tackle the marriage amendment debate. Details will be unveiled shortly, so keep checking the NC Policy Watch website.

 

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