RALEIGH — His words put a lump in my throat. While standing in line at a service establishment, I couldn’t help but overhear an employee ask her customer how things were going. In a wavering voice, the man replied, “Well, if I could get a job, things would be a whole lot better.” Then the employee asked the man if he and his family were still living with his mom. He nodded and stared at the floor.
So did I. It was heartbreaking. And it is the reality for millions of Americans.
For many of the unemployed, prosperous times are a cloudy memory. More than 46 million Americans now feed their families with the aid of government food stamps. Look around you right now. Roughly one of seven people is relying on others to help pay for food. More than 18 million have been added to the food rolls since 2008.
And the trend is up, not down. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers food stamps — known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — reports June enrollment was 3.3 percent higher than at the same time last year. The cost of SNAP is staggering: $75 billion for the year that ended September 2011.
In North Carolina, we’re near the top of the chart for out-of-work residents. Our unemployment rate is the fifth-highest in the country –— sitting at a seasonally adjusted rate of 9.6 percent in July. That translates to nearly 445,000 sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends, and neighbors who can’t find a job. People are suffering, and food pantries are flooded with requests.
Despite this reality, Gov. Beverly Perdue recently proclaimed to MSNBC that North Carolina has “bounced back.” Just a few days later, Barry Boardman of the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division issued an economic outlook (PDF link) report showing revenues for July and August — the first two months of the fiscal year — at $26 million below the $3.01 billion target. Personal income and sales tax collections both missed targets.
Boardman cautioned against using the first two months as an indicator for the full fiscal year. Still, he offered among his report’s conclusions: “Recent economy-based collections have reflected the slowdown in economic activity. Growth remains positive, but is weaker than it was six months ago.” And there was also this: “Concern is warranted as economic headwinds persist, increasing the difficulty for revenue collections to keep pace with the revenue forecast.”
It can be tempting to give in to frustration and give up. It can be tempting to hunker down, think only of ourselves, and simply hope for the best. But I say don’t give in. I say do the opposite — take a leadership role in helping turn this state around.
First, let’s deal with what’s staring us in the face and help those in immediate distress. Donate to a pantry. Pay someone’s grocery tab. Tell a school nurse to call you when a child doesn’t have a coat. Put something extra into the church’s offering. Don’t expect thanks. Don’t ask why others don’t do something. Just do it yourself.
Second, let’s set a course for the future. Learn more about the reforms necessary to stabilize our state’s economy and put people to work in a thriving private sector. Start by reading “Our Best Foot Forward,” an easy-to-digest new book by John Locke Foundation President John Hood. As Hood explains, the effort must include reforming the tax code to make it fair and friendly to investment and growth. Carve-outs for favored groups and industries must go.
Every North Carolinian, whether working for someone else or building a business of her own, has a right to the fruits of her labor as well as an obligation to fund necessary, core services. Every business needs to know its contributions to the economy and its community are valued and encouraged, and that its path won’t be impeded by a penalizing tax code and a regulatory web laden with more costs than benefits.
Other reforms are necessary as well. But if we don’t get the first one underway, the hopes and dreams of people like the man I overheard at that counter will be lost, and his spirit crushed. I won’t be able to look myself in the mirror if that happens.
Donna Martinez (@freemktmartinez) blogs at Right Angles and co-hosts Carolina Journal Radio.