This year’s budget stalemate — filled with political bargaining and finger pointing — has neglected the many needs of North Carolina’s children and parents. Instead, legislative leaders forged ahead with special interests as their chief priority.
By many measures, our policymakers have ignored the responsibility they have to children and families across our state.
Take, for instance, preventable deaths among the youngest North Carolinians. Recently released data show that in 2018, North Carolina’s infant mortality rate continued to decline slightly, reaching 6.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, representing a 4 percent reduction from the previous year.
While initially this three-decade low might prompt some celebration, closer examination reveals more to the story. Black infants born in 2018 were 2.4 times more likely to die before their first birthday than white infants, and black infants in eastern North Carolina were slightly worse off, being 2.6 times more likely to die before their first birthday.
Two of the leading causes of these deaths are due to preterm births and low birthweight. These conditions are often related and due to complex factors that are not well understood. However, research continually underscores the mounting evidence for what many of us already know — that healthy babies need healthy parents.
Just last year, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that states that expanded Medicaid saw greater reductions in infant mortality compared to states that did not expand Medicaid, and that greater reductions were observed among black infants.
These reductions were nothing to shrug off, either. There was a 14 percent decrease in average infant mortality rate for black infants born in expansion states, while non-expansion states experienced a decline of less than half that.
To be clear, this was not because infants were becoming newly eligible for Medicaid. Medicaid expansion directly affects only adult eligibility for the program, and in North Carolina it would provide more than 500,000 adults with quality and affordable health care coverage.
Yet leaders in the General Assembly have turned a blind eye to the mounting evidence and have rejected Medicaid expansion for our state.
When our youngest residents do make it out of infancy, poverty and the dangers it poses for healthy development persist.
Recent Census data show that among all North Carolinians, 30 percent of Latinx, 26 percent of Native American, 25 percent of black, and 11 percent of white people live in poverty, and 21 percent of children overall live in poverty. For a family of four in 2019, this meant living on less than $25,000 per year.
These figures largely represent a decline in poverty across the state; however, they are symptoms of larger problems that have gone unaddressed. In particular, wages are not keeping up with the rising costs of health care, housing and child care, particularly for North Carolinians earning already low wages. Earning a livable wage is not as simple has having full-time employment, and millions of families face tough choices each month about which basic needs they’ll forego in order to make ends meet.
Lawmakers have many policy tools they can put to use to address these challenges. These include investing equitably in public schools, supporting working families, and allocating adequate dollars to ensure that all North Carolinians live in safe and non-toxic communities.
Instead of investing in the proven strategies that would help our state thrive, the N.C. General Assembly has once again turned a blind eye to widening economic and racial disparities across our state.
Healthy people need healthy, thriving communities, and our elected leaders should resolve to meet their commitments to constituents when they return to work this Tuesday.
Suzy Khachaturyan is a policy analyst with the Budget & Tax Center and North Carolina Justice Center in Raleigh.