- in Weekly Briefing

The assault on the social safety net and the right’s remarkable proposed substitute

It didn’t take the conservatives running North Carolina government and their political allies long to get down to it. The 2013 session has scarcely begun, but the top priority is already front and center: Slashing the state’s torn and threadbare social safety net.

It’s really an amazing state of affairs. Think about it: In a state with record numbers of unemployed people, record numbers of uninsured people, record numbers of poor people and record corporate profits in many corners, the top priority for state legislative leaders and the McCrory-Pope administration is to make sure that people-in-need have less on which to survive.

It’s really as simple as that. The first major bills out of the box in 2013 do two things: 1) Impose unprecedented cuts to unemployment benefits and eligibility for people out of work through no fault of their own, and 2) Make sure that a half-million low-income North Carolinians trying to survive without health insurance do not receive Medicaid coverage.

To make matters even more remarkable, a huge proportion of the benefits rejected under these bills would be paid for in their entirety by the federal government! North Carolina would merely be getting back the tax dollars its citizens have paid rather than allowing them to go to other states.

Under the unemployment insurance bill, 170,000 North Carolinians would be denied federally-funded extended benefits during the second half of 2013. The U.S. Department of Labor is so concerned about the legislation that it took the extraordinary step of issuing a statement of its own yesterday castigating the plan.

Under the bill to reject the Affordable Care Act, 100% of the cost of expanding Medicaid to 500,000 uninsured low-income people would be borne entirely by the feds for the first three years. After that, the figure would remain at 90%. Conservatives, however, even rejected a proposed amendment to the bill in the House Health and Human Services Committee yesterday that would have ended the Medicaid expansion as soon as it cost the state a dollar.

The right’s alternative plan

Fortunately, the folks leading this charge to undermine the safety net do have an alternative plan for people in need. They call it canned food.

This is not a joke.

Two weeks ago, the chief lobbyist for one of North Carolina’s largest and most powerful employer groups (the N.C. Retail Merchants Association) stood before a bank of cameras at a press conference sponsored by the North Carolina Chamber and told reporters that North Carolina’s unemployment insurance system (average benefit $292 per week) was “too luxurious.” The lobbyist also complained about a new unemployment insurance tax on his members of $21 per employee, per year. He went on to allege that such a tax would prevent 50 employee grocery stores from “capitalizing their stores” and hiring new employees.

Mind you, 50 multiplied by $21 equals $1,050. That’s $1,050 per year. The national grocery store trade association FMI reports that the median weekly sales total for an American supermarket in 2011 was $384,911. That’s more than $20 million per year. According to the lobbyist, that tax will have a grievous impact on such businesses.

It would be bad enough in and of itself that the merchants lobby was advancing such an argument, but last week, the group doubled down on its embarrassing stance. On Wednesday February 6, the group called its own press conference at the General Assembly to promote its solution for “fighting hunger” in North Carolina: A canned food drive.

You read that right: The same lobbyist for the same powerful group (members include Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Harris-Teeter, Food Lion and scores of other giant companies) that argued in favor of unprecedented and draconian cuts to the state’s modest unemployment insurance system in order to avoid a tax of $21 per employee per year, stood once again before the capital press corps and said the following:

North Carolina ranks in the ten worst for the percentage of children under 18 who are lacking food on a regular basis. Our members work with local food banks throughout the year to help combat food insecurity in a variety of ways, and it is critical that we do whatever we can to raise awareness of this important issue facing North Carolina.”

The group even arranged for a convoy of giant 18 wheeler trucks representing various grocery and drug store chains to park (empty by all appearances) outside of the Legislative Building to complete the P.R. dog and pony show.

But it was not just the Retail Merchants’ lobbyist that spoke at the food drive press conference. He was joined at the event by none other than House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. After exchanging transparently wary greetings (the men are competing ferociously for attention in the run-up to the 2014 U.S. Senate campaign), both trooped dutifully to the podium to lament North Carolina’s abysmal food insecurity statistics. Both men also expressed dismay (or, at least, they read the words on their prepared notes place in front of them) that large numbers of children go to bed hungry in North Carolina each night.

Again, this is not a joke. Serious men who are devoting their days to cutting off unemployment benefits for struggling families and resisting federal assistance to provide health insurance to a half-million uninsured people are suggesting that the answer to hunger in our state is donated canned food.

Oh, and fast food too – at last week’s event the Retail Merchants also made sure to let the media know that KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and IHOP had donated a few thousand dollars of gift cards and that McDonald’s had donated “$1,000 in Egg McMuffins and smoothies.”

Aid to slackers?

Of course the question that went unasked and unanswered at the canned food press conference is this: “What makes the recipients of canned food donations worthy of such charity?” After all, according to Tillis, Berger and several conservative lawmakers, large numbers of the state’s unemployment insurance beneficiaries are milking the system by avoiding a genuine search for work. What makes canned food seekers any more deserving? Don’t these people (and presumably their hungry kids as well) need to get off of their duffs and get to work – maybe even at the fast food chains that are donating gift cards?

Seriously, the whole discussion is enough to make a person ask a couple of pretty fundamental questions: #1) is there any future at all for services to people in need in North Carolina? And #2) how do these guys look in the mirror every morning?

Fortunately, there may be at least a glimmer of hope when it comes to divining an answer the first question. Today, Food Lion launches its annual fundraiser for children and adults with disabilities. No word yet on whether conservative lawmakers think the beneficiaries of these efforts will be deserving of the help.

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
[email protected]