New ‘must read’ report shines a light on women and poverty in North Carolina

New ‘must read’ report shines a light on women and poverty in North Carolina

Photo: Steve Liss for the NC Poverty Research Fund

[Editor’s note: In their new report, “We Set People Up For Impossible Decisions: Women and Low Wage Work in NC,” researchers Heather Hunt and Gene Nichol of the NC Poverty Research Fund at the UNC School of Law document some of the myriad ways in which women — who disproportionately battle poverty almost everywhere in the U.S. — are especially burdened by state-level public policy decisions in North Carolina. The following is from the introduction. Click here to explore a PDF version of the full report.]   

O ver 3.2 million North Carolinians are poor or near poor, and many more experience economic instability and challenges over time. We’ve described some of these communities and the hurdles they face, individually and collectively, in our prior research. With this report, we examine the ways that women in North Carolina are caught in the crosshairs of irreconcilable social and economic demands.

This state is not unique in this regard. But conditions in North Carolina strengthen the headwinds faced by women everywhere. The state’s failure to expand Medicaid, for example, deprives hundreds of thousands of women of health insurance. Without health insurance, women of working age can’t access treatments that would enable them to find or keep a job. Low wage work is more pervasive in North Carolina than in other states. The minimum wage is the set to the federal floor and the General Assembly has moved to prevent local governments from raising it. North Carolina has intentionally adopted one of the worst unemployment compensation programs in the country, complaining that such payments amounted to “welfare.” Food stamp benefits have been cut by the state, though no savings resulted, because the benefits are paid for by the federal government. And state taxation schemes have been altered to ensure that low-income Tar Heels pay more while wealthy ones and out of state corporations pay decidedly less.

Given North Carolina’s inadequate childcare system, last year hundreds of thousands of women were forced to forgo job opportunities, experienced employment disruptions, or lost a job because of the lack of affordable childcare. Meantime, an affordable housing crisis, especially in urban areas across the state, has exploded. These and other actions have real consequences, thwarting the ability of women to advance, stifling human potential and economic growth, and making life harder for countless children in the process. As a state we don’t do much for folks at the bottom of the economic ladder. As a policy matter, we double down on the centrality of work but then erect barriers to women’s employment. This is not a neutral or natural way of looking at the world—it happens intentionally. And North Carolina women pay the forfeit.

North Carolina allows the stark challenges of poverty, economic inequality and low-wage work to be visited disproportionately upon women and, often, their children. And the state’s lawmakers seem untroubled by that bleak reality. Most low wage workers are women—relegated to jobs that pay less, deliver fewer benefits, offer less control of their work schedules. Higher percentages of women live in poverty than men. And women of color are impoverished in North Carolina at even higher rates than their White counterparts. Women make, on average, 17% less in wages than men, even though more North Carolina women have a college degree than do men. Four of ten Black women full-time workers are low- wage employees, as are half of Hispanic women workers. Occupational segregation results in notably lower compensation and benefits for jobs primarily occupied by women. Family structure contributes decidedly to poverty, but as low-income women will discuss below, marriage is not the anti-poverty cure-all it is frequently touted to be. Beyond this, as we will also explore, rising threats to reproductive freedom, in North Carolina and beyond, pose daunting challenges to economic as well as social and constitutional equality.

Broadly speaking, we place low-income mothers in an untenable position. Our family policies assume that women will stay at home to care for children but our economic policies demand that they work. And too often, the work readily available to many women fails to provide economic security for them and their families while it undermines their ability to be good parents. Support systems that would help low-income mothers—family leave, paid time off, affordable housing and universal childcare—are either dramatically strained or non-existent. Alexandra Sirota, one of the state’s leading policy experts, put it this way, “the fact that women in poverty are managing these multiple stressors is astonishing.” The lessons of COVID, Sirota adds, have demonstrated that “we know what works and we know we can do it.” The question remains whether we want to.

Click here to explore a PDF version the full report.

Gene Nichol (left) is a professor of law at UNC who teaches courses in the Constitution and federal courts, and helps lead the NC Poverty Research Fund. Heather Hunt (right) is a research associate with the NC Poverty Research Fund, where she studies and documents the many facets of poverty and inequality in North Carolina.