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Helping the poor? Four measures to reconsider

North Carolina’s lawmakers can’t provide all the solutions for effectively tackling poverty in the state. But they can do some things to help, and as important, they can avoid doing some things that will harm. Here are a few things they’re considering – or have already pushed through this legislative session – that will hurt the poor and working class. They should reconsider.

•  Eliminating the Earned Income Tax Credit: N.C. lawmakers have signed off on a bill to cut the state EITC to 4.5 percent of the federal credit in tax year 2013 and to get rid of the credit thereafter. They are wrong to do so. The credit helps stabilize families, providing modest support for taxpayers who work but earn low-income wages. Nearly 900,000 working North Carolinians claimed the credit in 2012; they live in each of the state’s 100 counties. Getting rid of the state EITC is effectively a $105.2 million tax hike on those hardworking families. The credit helps boost the power of the federal EITC, which lifted 5.7 million Americans out of poverty last year – 3.1 million of whom were children. The EITC lifted more than 290,000 North Carolinians – half of them children – above the poverty line in 2009-2011. A $3,000 boost in income from the EITC during a child’s early years is also associated with a boost in educational achievement that is equivalent to an extra two months of schooling, according the N.C. Justice Center. This is a tool that works and should be preserved.

•  Reducing eligibility for pre-K: N.C. legislators have pushed to reduce eligibility for the state’s prekindergarten program, changing the income cutoff to about $23,000 for a family of four. The current cutoff is about $50,000 for a family of four. That change would slash the number of eligible N.C. children by at least a third. Lawmakers should drop this effort. Quality pre-K has been proven to increase student achievement in school.

•  Giving up federal jobless benefits: The federal government was poised to send $780 million to unemployed North Carolinians from July 1 to Dec. 31, until lawmakers decided to cut state jobless benefits. But if the legislature delays those cuts just six months – doesn’t repeal them but just delays them – the feds will agree to send that $780 million to North Carolina.

Delaying state changes won’t hurt much and it will help struggling North Carolinians who spend the money on groceries and other basic needs. North Carolina is apparently the only state giving up the federal cash. It doesn’t have to be. There’s still time before July 1 to do the right thing. Delay the change.

•  Medicaid expansion: It is too late apparently to do anything about expanding Medicaid with money the federal government would provide. State lawmakers have already rejected expansion, for mostly ideological reasons because of opposition to Obamacare, and Gov. Pat McCrory has signed a measure into law that turns down the funds. It’s a shame. That money would have provided help to thousands of poor people in the state who are in need of health care. Other states with Republican legislatures and governors were more prudent. Governors like New Jersey’s Chris Christie decided for the good of his state and for poor people in need of health care to accept a federal deal that makes more people eligible for help.

In North Carolina, 500,000 people might have been helped.

Still, legislators and the governor have work to do in fixing the state’s Medicaid program. As they do, they should find ways to help more of the poor have access to it.

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