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Perspective | Children in ‘fracturing society’ await legislative consensus

Week by week, news rolls in that North Carolina is on a chest-thumping roll. Two years after COVID-19 disrupted schools, work and daily lives, the state show signs of having bounced back with auspicious resiliency.

Apple, Toyota, VinFast, and Fujifilm Diosynth have led a parade of big companies planning investments of more than $10 billion, promising as many as 30,000 jobs. North Carolina’s entrepreneurship and employment opportunities, as well as quality of life, have propelled population growth of more than 1 million since 2010.

Now, the state’s fiscal analysts project General Fund revenues to be $6.2 billion higher than budgeted for 2021-22. They attribute the revenue surge to strong wage growth, consumer spending, and stock market returns, as millions of North Carolinians, like well-educated, well-employed Americans across the country, have enjoyed rising wealth in housing values and retirement accounts.

And yet, North Carolina remains a state of sharp divisions among its citizens in terms of its economy, its geography, and its politics. North Carolina is not immune to the forces that led The New York Times, in an analysis of uneven economic prospects, to describe the nation as a “fracturing society.”

Population trends serve as an indicator: While its major metropolitan regions anchored by Raleigh and Charlotte became leading national growth centers, 51 counties lost population between 2010 and 2020. Since then, says Carolina Demography, population growth has been “entirely due to more people moving into the state than moving away.”

The pandemic exposed the intensity and consequences of an array of divisions defined by zip codes, race, and social class. The state saw, for example, educators coping with imbalances in access to online services, with families facing food insecurity and with students struggling both academically and emotionally from disrupted school routines.

In North Carolina, one in five children lives in poverty, as defined by federal standards. Nearly six out of 10 public school students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, thus including youngsters in poverty as well as in near-poor families.  

The prospects for children improved with the enactment of the American Rescue Act of 2021, which expanded the federal child tax credit for one year from $2,000 to $3,600 per child under age 6 and $3,000 per child up to age 17. Instead of a one-time pay-out like an income tax refund, the law provided for monthly payments. Research showed that most recipients used the funds for child care, food, housing, and other basic needs.

Despite research estimates that the expanded tax credit had cut child poverty by 30% to 40%, it expired at the outset of 2022. For North Carolina families and children, that’s a setback. The Biden administration proposed to extend the credit for another year, but it has languished in the stalemate over the Build Back Better package. Congressional Republicans have opposed the package as a bloc.

In the Senate, in which Democrats need all 50 of their votes, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has called for the child credit to be linked to a work requirement for parents. Which leads to another issue: the need to address the availability and affordability of child care and preschool so that more parents can work.

In Smart Start, North Carolina has a statewide, local-focused delivery network for services to young children and their families. In NC Pre-K, the state has a proven model for early education.

And yet, barely more than half of eligible students are enrolled in NC Pre-K.  During the pandemic, pre-K enrollment fell. The state has a waiting list of thousands for child care subsidies. Child care workers earn such meager pay that they cannot afford it for their own children.

The fate of the expanded child tax credit rests in Washington, where attention has been diverted to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a looming Supreme Court ruling on abortion. Meanwhile, in North Carolina, with its higher-than-anticipated revenue collections, an opportunity is at hand for Democrats and Republicans, business and education leaders, to forge a consensus for early childhood action in the legislative session that resumes next week.  

Ferrel Guillory
Ferrel Guillory serves on the board of directors of EducationNC and is professor of the practice emeritus at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.