This Fourth of July found North Carolinians confronting great economic uncertainty. The business closures and reduced economic activity that are necessary to control the COVID-19 outbreak also cost many families their source of income and sense of financial security. Around a holiday that frequently invokes ideas of freedom, it seems appropriate to consider what President Roosevelt described in his 1941 State of the Union address as “freedom from want.” Freedom from want is the freedom to live without the debilitating worry of wondering where your next meal will come from, whether you will make next month’s rent, or whether the loss of a job or work hours will abruptly put your family on the edge of poverty.
One measure of this freedom is a community’s liquid asset poverty rate, which measures the percentage of households without sufficient liquid assets to subsist at the poverty level for three months in the absence of income. Even before an abrupt loss of income became an all-too-common reality in our state, too many North Carolinians were not living free from want. Due to policy decisions that fail to ensure North Carolinians’ wages are sufficient to meet basic needs — and policies that, in fact, penalize savings in public benefit programs — 42 percent of all North Carolina households experience liquid asset poverty, with rates twice as high for Latinx and Black households as for white households.
In short, too many in our communities lack a cushion to cope with disrupted income, making programs like SNAP and TANF an essential lifeline for North Carolinians coping with lost employment. With stabilizing federal and state policies such as extended Unemployment Insurance benefits and the eviction moratorium set to expire, however, families who have so far weathered the economic storm may soon be facing even more challenging times ahead in the absence of state and federal action.