The war on the poor becomes a war on the middle class

Jul. 20, 2014 @ 11:33 AM

There are a lot of competitors when it comes to listing and ranking the most hard-hearted and destructive acts of the last couple of General Assemblies and the first year and a half of the Pat McCrory administration. There were the cuts to education, the attacks on teachers, the attacks on voting rights, the shameless gerrymandering, the attacks on reproductive freedom, the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, the reckless disregard of our fast-failing natural environment, the absurd decisions to abet the spread of guns, the giveaways to predatory lending companies, the huge tax shift away from the wealthy and profitable corporations and toward the middle class and the poor and the cuts to the civil and criminal justice systems – just to name a few.
And then, of course, there was the truly remarkable and shameful decision to decline billions of federal dollars that would have created thousands of jobs and provided access to affordable health care for hundreds of thousands of uninsured North Carolinians of modest income. By most measures, it’s hard to think of an action that can top this one for simple and direct cruelty in the service of ideology.
And yet, as a powerful new report from the analysts at the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center reminded us recently, there is another contender – one that involved not just preventing the easy and logical expansion of the societal safety net, but that affirmatively and aggressively dismantled it.
The act in question, of course was the shredding of North Carolina’s once comparatively decent unemployment insurance system – a system that had been dragged slowly and painfully from being one of the nation’s stingiest and least effective toward the middle of the national pack over the past few decades.
Last winter, state leaders imposed unprecedented cuts to that system that may very well have been the deepest and harshest in American history. Last summer, those cuts went into effect and tens of thousands of families suffered mightily. This summer, the law has made things even worse as the result of additional cuts.
As of July 1, North Carolinians who have lost their job through no fault of their own will be able to receive a maximum of only 14 weeks of unemployment insurance compared to the previous maximum of 26. No other state offers fewer weeks. Meanwhile jobless workers qualifying for unemployment insurance will get nearly $300 less on average each month.
Anytime you cut the maximum duration of an insurance benefit by 46 percent and the average benefit itself by 25 percent (from a modest $301.89 per week to a truly preposterous $227.91) you’re going to wreak havoc with families who depend on it. Unfortunately, there’s even more to the story than that.
The system makes things especially tough for people in the hardest hit, highest unemployment counties. That’s because the new calculation of maximum benefit weeks (now just 14) is a function of the official statewide unemployment rate. But, of course, that lower overall rate – itself a fiction because so much of it just reflects people giving up looking for work – does not reflect life in numerous counties. As the BTC reports: “Today, even as the state unemployment rate declines, there remain 11 counties with unemployment rates above 9 percent.”
Who designs a system like that? Who tells a person laid off from a job in a poultry processing plant in a depressed part of the state that, after a dozen years cutting up chickens, he or she now has three months at a couple of hundred bucks a week to completely overhaul their life?
For decades the political right has been justifiably criticized for waging what amounts to a “war on the poor.” In recent years, however, the war has been expanded. Where once the right crusaded against “welfare” and other public structures designed to lift people out of poverty, now it also seeks to actively undermine structures designed to preserve a strong middle class – things like public education, progressive taxation, consumer protection laws and unemployment insurance.  
Sadly, by all indications, North Carolina is now on the front line in this rapidly expanding conflict. Let’s hope the members of the shrinking middle class decide to fight back before they’re completely overrun.

Rob Schofield is director of research and policy development at N.C. Policy Watch.