New data can give context to how much North Carolinians have lost in the pandemic

RALEIGH (Sept. 17, 2020) — New data released today from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which was collected before COVID-19, and an analysis of data from its ongoing Household Pulse Survey and other sources shows the importance of policy choices that address hardship during both expansions and downturns.

Between 2018 and 2019, North Carolina’s poverty rate fell by just 0.4 percentage points and median household income rose by 4.6 percent. North Carolina’s poverty rate was 13.6 percent and remained above the national poverty rate of 10.5 percent, with the 13th highest poverty rate in the nation. Health care coverage across the state declined and housing costs increased — trends that accelerated this year’s severe health and housing needs due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The economic expansion that ended with the COVID-19 pandemic left many people behind, and many of the North Carolinians who never benefited from recent economic growth are now on the front lines of the pandemic, working at child-care centers, grocery stores, and in other low-paid jobs,” explained Logan Harris, Senior Policy Analyst at the NC Budget & Tax Center. “Without policies that target the root causes of poverty and racial inequities, we know that growth on its own does not create shared prosperity. Now communities across our state are faced with extreme levels of hardship, and our federal and state policymakers must act decisively to help families and individuals, especially those in Black, Latino, Indigenous, and immigrant households.”

Hardship was felt more acutely by North Carolinians of color and people with very low incomes, who were already struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic. The new Census Bureau data shows sharp inequities in poverty rate by race in 2019. The poverty rate in North Carolina was:

  • 26.2% for American Indian and Alaska Native people
  • 22.1% for Latinos
  • 21.5% for Black people
  • 9.4% for white people
  • 7.7% for Asian people

More up-to-date data from this summer show a reversal of some of these trends and a rise in hardship across North Carolina. Data collected by the Census Bureau’s new Household Pulse Survey in July 2020 shows:

  • 12 percent of adults    reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the past seven days.
  • 17 percent of adults with children reported that their kids sometimes or often didn’t eat enough in the past seven days because they couldn’t afford it.
  • 27 percent of adults who live in rental housing reported that they were behind on rent.
  • 30 percent of all children in North Carolina live in a family that is either not getting enough to eat or behind on housing payments

Data collected by the NC Division of Social Services show that the percentage of North Carolinians participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or “food stamps”) program increased by 20 percent from February to August 2020 based on state administrative data .

Here’s what policymakers can do:

  • Federal: Congress must act swiftly to provide more federal relief that matches the extraordinary need that households and our economy face. That includes boosting vital assistance programs such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and housing assistance, extending enhanced federal unemployment benefits, and allocating additional aid to states and local governments that can help prevent further layoffs and cuts to core public services.
  • State: Lawmakers must meet the demands of the moment by advancing bold policies to build antiracist, equitable, and inclusive communities and an economic recovery that extends to all people. This means providing housing and utility assistance, ensuring families can put food on the table, ensuring a sound basic education and safe learning environment for students, providing safe and affordable child care, expanding Medicaid, and providing targeted assistance to people with the lowest incomes.

“North Carolina needs decisive action to address the harms caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and to build a recovery that lifts people out of poverty instead of further entrenching inequities,” said Alexandra Forter Sirota, Director of the NC Budget & Tax Center. “Our policymakers did not use the last economic expansion to build a robust safety net to address hardship, which means that more people are suffering now. We can and must make different policy choices that put people first and focus on the well-being of all over the profits of the few.”

The NC Justice Center is a progressive research and advocacy organization whose mission is to eliminate poverty in North Carolina by ensuring that every household in the state has access to the resources, services, and fair treatment it needs to achieve economic security.

For more information, contact Logan Harris, Budget & Tax Center Senior Policy Analyst, at or (919) 856-2153; or Mel Umbarger, Senior Communications Specialist, at