NC county data: Massive gap between haves, have-nots — even before April’s jobless surge

Coronavirus

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — With North Carolina moving into the second phase of the reopening process, a group says massive economic disparities existed between the state’s 100 counties well before the coronavirus crisis.

In its county-by-county economic snapshots, the state Budget & Tax Center concluded that not every county benefited during the sustained economic growth that preceded the massive coronavirus-caused economic contraction — and those disparities likely will become even more evident during the recovery.

Read the County Economic Snapshots here.

“There’s a lot of talk about getting back to normal,” said Leila Pedersen, a policy analyst with the group. “What we recognize is that normal wasn’t working, so we really need to get creative and we really need everyone to contribute solutions.”

The state was starting its shift into a modified Phase Two of reopening Friday, with the statewide stay-at-home order ending, more businesses permitted to reopen and some other social distancing guidelines relaxed.

Coincidentally, the move was to take effect hours after the state Department of Commerce said seasonally adjusted unemployment in North Carolina reached a record 12.2 percent in April — the only full month under the stay-home orders, marking increases of 7.9 percentage points from March and 8.1 percentage points from last April.

The number of people employed fell by 643,157 from March to April, with the North Carolina Justice Center — which oversees the Budget & Tax Center — calling April the worst month for job losses in the history of the state and saying they were more than 10 times worse than the worst month of the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

The Budget & Tax Center collected its data before the pandemic, and Pedersen says the goal is to use it as a yardstick to measure progress during the recovery.

“We’ve enjoyed job growth uninterrupted (for nearly 10 years), and in the past two months, we’ve seen nearly all of that job growth completely wiped out,” Pedersen said. “And what we know is that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and this is going to continue to be a problem past the public health impact. The economic impacts will be even longer, so we’re hoping this study will help target some policy solutions into communities that were struggling even before the pandemic, and we know will struggle even more throughout the next couple of months and possibly years.”

One of the key findings, Pedersen said, was the correlation between a county’s population change and other socioeconomic indicators like poverty rate, median wage or education level.

While the state’s population increased 11 percent over the past decade to 10.6 million — much of that in larger cities — it fell in 30 counties.

For example: In Wake County, where the population increased by 22 percent over the past 10 years, only 8.4 percent of people live in poverty. In Nash County — where the population grew by less than 1 percent during that span — 14.2 percent of people live in poverty.

The average life expectancy is 6.5 years longer in Wake County (81.6 years) than in Nash (75.1).

And in 86 counties, the rate of people without health insurance exceeds 10 percent, she said.

“What that shows us is the inequality that we’re experiencing today is likely to widen even further as metropolitan areas experience economic growth and more rural areas, where population is declining, continue to struggle,” she said.

The study also found the richest 5 percent of households in the state have an average income that is 28 times greater than that of the poorest 20 percent, and 20 percent of children in the state lived in poverty in 2018.

Among the solutions Pedersen recommended: promoting rental assistance to help address disparities in housing, improving the unemployment insurance program to distribute higher amounts for longer periods of time, and “make sure public resources and dollars are being targeted in these communities where we know economic hardship was the greatest and will continue to be really a struggle going forward.”

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