Bean: Fairness cuts both ways

Feb. 23, 2013 @ 10:10 AM

An Associated Press story Monday turned me from reader to researcher. The story has been written many times, many different ways. It was about the Republicans in North Carolina moving quickly the first few weeks of 2013 on several issues. In no particular order, those issues include whether to expand Medicaid, reduction of jobless benefits and changing the state’s earned income tax credit.

This time there was something different, however. It was more than about numbers and positions. A woman from Henderson was mentioned, someone who would be directly impacted if state Medicaid expansion did not take place. She was quoted as saying, “I’ve worked all my life. I’m not a lazy person. I’m just sick. I’m falling apart.” Hers is a sad story.

To someone who in a period of less than 10 years has been registered as a Democrat, a Republican and most recently an Independent, putting a face on the problem was powerful. It personalized the issues facing state legislators.

There are too many poor, who due to situations too numerous and varied to mention, need assistance. Most of us know someone who has, does or will need assistance. That assistance could come through Medicaid or unemployment benefits.

The headline even had a screaming element to it too. “GOP tackles cuts to social safety net early.”

Being a person not swayed by emotion when it comes to issues of politics or government, I wanted to know more than just the talking points.

I started by examining one of these issues: unemployment benefits, how much and how long.

This recession has been tough on too many people. The challenges for the unemployed are obvious. Even those fortunate enough to remain working find themselves with increasing work loads and expectations, while for the most part toiling without pay increases for several years.

Having said all that, just how much is the right amount to pay a person per week who has lost his or her job? How many weeks should that person receive assistance? Given that every state has its own standards and those standards vary significantly, any amounts of time or money are very arbitrary.

Critics of the N.C. GOP consider it unconscionable that the state could turn its back on needy recipients at a time like this. Just ask the Henderson woman interviewed in the AP story.

A Google search, however, indicated that along the Southeastern Seaboard, North Carolina’s former maximum benefit of $535 per week is 45 percent higher than the average for the states of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The other state maximums for weekly benefits are Virginia, $378; South Carolina, $325; Georgia, $330 and Florida, $275. Even the new lower maximum for North Carolina is seven percent higher than the average of the other four states.

The most generous states in the United States provided unemployment benefits for up to 99 weeks. North Carolina was one of those states.  When the maximum number of weeks was lowered, North Carolina still ranked in the top five.

The former $535 maximum a week is equivalent to earning $13.38 per hour, meaning it doesn’t make sense to take a job paying less than that. The new $350 per week equates to $8.75 an hour.

Finally, of the Southeastern Seaboard states again, North Carolina has the highest unemployment. Coincidence?

The issue has names and faces to it, but it also has dollar signs and a sense of fairness. That fairness cuts both ways.

For too long politicians have been very astute when expounding what they don’t like about the opposing party. It’s time to flip that. We need less criticism and more solutions.

A weakened economy put us in this position and tough decisions are necessary. We need to do the right things, difficult things. We also need to do them the right way, which means that compassion doesn’t get relegated to the back seat of the bus.

Rick Bean is publisher of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6501 or rbean@heraldsun.com.