Are you in the middle class? Maybe you own a house, or lease a car, or send your kids to private school. You might have a retirement account, or enough spare cash to rent an Outer Banks condo for a week in the summer.
But increasingly, chances are, you are not middle class. According to a recent report, North Carolina is one of the top states where the middle class is dying. Although by definition, middle class should comprise about half of all income earners, the field of people in our state who can afford to live comfortably, is decreasing.
Incomes have decreased for those who are neither in poverty or rich. In NC, that reduction is nearly twice the national average. More workers are employed than in recent years, but the bulk of new jobs are in low-paid arenas such as retail. Women, of course, bear the brunt of that inequality, with Latinas making half of what white men earn.
The minimum wage in North Carolina is $7.25 an hour. Groups are working to push that higher, to bring it in line with actual household needs, but those efforts have not gained traction locally. North Carolina has the lowest union membership in the country, which often leaves workers without advocates. Women — particularly women of color — often face situations where even full time employment cannot pay the bills.
In NC, the rich are getting richer. The top earners in our state now make 3.3% more than they did four years ago. And they also benefit from recent tax breaks that shifted much of the tax burden to lower-income families. The end of the state Earned Income Tax Credit took more money from poor families who needed it, and rewarded the top 20% by decreasing their tax rate.
Nationally, the gaps among poor, middle income, and rich families are increasing. Right now the upper class’s net worth is $650,000, while the middle class has $98,000. Low income families on average have $10,000.
That’s an enormous disparity. And it’s only getting worse. Statewide policies that end food stamp benefits for unemployed workers and deny others healthcare only serve to increase the wealth gap. One out of five kids in our state need food assistance. Of those, 80% have parents who work. There’s no good reason why families who work hard should be denied stability.
What’s to be done? Lawmakers must ensure they think of all North Carolinians when they pass legislation — not just those who donate to their campaigns. Voters must communicate their dissatisfaction — both at the ballot box and by communicating directly with their representatives. And business owners and communities must ensure they pay workers a living wage — not just the minimum it takes to keep a worker behind a register or in a seat.