Three Headlines, Two Futures for North Carolina?

About the Author

Maureen Berner

Maureen Berner is a School of Government faculty member. She teaches evaluation and analysis courses for MPA students, and provides similar training and advising to state and local government officials throughout North Carolina.

Main Street PictureThree important headlines for economic and community development officials appeared in the past several days in the New York Times, Washington Post, and, closer to home, the News and Observer.

On December 30, 2014, Raleigh’s News and Observer published the first headline to catch my attention: “Triangle unemployment rate falls to 4.8 percent.” This represents hiring and the potential for wage growth. The year is starting with many signs of economic improvement across the board – improved consumer confidence, strong economic growth nationally in the fourth quarter, sales of consumer goods such as televisions and computers (as opposed to luxury yachts) being strong.

The second appeared just this past Sunday in the New York Times, over the fold and the left, one of the most coveted spots for news to gain national. It read “Lower Oil Prices Offer A Bonanza To U.S. Workers.” (note: the on-line version reads “Benefits,” not “Bonanza”). Families are estimated to save $750 this year due to lower gas prices. The savings was argued to be an “offset to years of weak gains for families and retirees.”

The Triangle does not necessarily represent the state as a whole, and the stories in the New York Times are written many miles away from Manteo or Maggie Valley. However, unemployment has declined overall in the state and the gains due to falling gas prices are surely helping people in every community.

Are we on the edge of an economic expansion in North Carolina?

The third headline, in the Washington Post last Friday, presented a completely different picture: “Majority of U.S. public school students are in poverty.” We have hit a milepost that experts knew was coming, but it is sooner than expected. Nationally, over 50% of all public school children now qualify for the federal program providing free and reduced price school lunch to needy children. The percent of children in the schools who qualify for this program is a familiar statistic for CEDPs when applying for grant funding for economic development. We are now officially a majority child poverty nation.

In this case, the Washington Post headline directly mirrors N.C.. We are also now a majority child poverty state. Here, 56% of all public school children qualify for the free and reduced price lunch program, and it is not restricted to just a few very poor, rural counties. Only 15 counties can boast having less than 50% of public school children qualify. Easy-to-access data at the school district and county level can be found through the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count data center website, although the most recent figures can be obtained through DPI or your local school district.

Are we on the path to continued deterioration of economic conditions in most of our towns? This is a difficult time for CED officials—what headlines best reflect what is going in your town?

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