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Highest increases of homeless children seen in states like North Carolina where austerity policies predominate

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. On Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

There are now 1.2 million homeless students in the United States. That’s an increase of 10 percent from last year, according to the National Center for Homeless Education, and that’s up 72 percent from the start of the recession in 2008. Some states, like North Carolina, have been particularly hit hard.

Joining us to discuss child homelessness in North Carolina are Annabelle Suddreth and Tazra Mitchell. Annabelle is the executive director of A Child’s Place, a nonprofit organization based in Charlotte, North Carolina, that works to erase the impact of homelessness on children and their education. And Tazra Mitchell is joining us from North Carolina as well. She joined the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center in August 2011 serving as a public policy analyst whose policy interests include fiscal policy.

Thank you both for joining us.



DESVARIEUX: So, Annabelle, let’s start off with you. You’re on the ground there in Charlotte, North Carolina. Can you just give us a sense of what it’s like working with children who are homeless? Can you share a story of a family that’s been affected by homelessness?

SUDDRETH: Sure. Homelessness impacts children in devastating ways. They’re more likely to be sick. They’re more likely to be hungry. They’re more likely to fall behind in school. And they worry more than other, housed children that something bad is going to happen to them or their family. And so just having those burdens on shoulders really impact children, so much so that the national graduation rate for homeless children is less than 25 percent. So just because you don’t have a safe, stable place to live at night means you’re not likely to graduate from high school, which we know continues to exacerbate your earning potential and, really, your ability to break out of the cycle of poverty.

Homelessness can affect anyone. Usually it happens because someone has lost a job, someone in their family has gotten sick or passed away, or some other effect that just tilts that financial balance. And, unfortunately, the families who end up homeless didn’t have savings to help them get through that challenge. So homelessness can really impact everybody.

Some of the challenges that our kids face are unmet medical and dental needs. So they’re in school with their tooth hurting or unable to see the board. We have families who have to separate so that the dad will stay in a men’s shelter, women and children will stay in the women’s shelter, and then adolescent males typically have to go live with another family member somewhere else because they’re too young for the men’s shelter and too old for the women’s shelter. And so just the normal strength that a family typically has are sometimes eroded due to homelessness.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Tazra, I want to get to you and I want to talk a bit more about the policies that have gotten us to where we are today. We have North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and the Republican-controlled legislature. They’ve passed a host of tax cuts and budget cuts which critics have labeled an attack on working people. Can you provide for us an overview of state economic policies which have impacted North Carolina children?

MITCHELL: Sure. So North Carolina’s economy has been much slower than several other states’ economies to grow after the Great Recession process because our economy was overconcentrated in manufacturing and textiles. So we still have the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the nation. We have the tenth highest poverty rate and child poverty rate in the nation.

But that didn’t really stop legislators from enacting policies that have been to the detriment rather than the benefit to North Carolina’s families and children. Our legislative session began in January. And within the first two weeks they passed a radical restructuring of our unemployment insurance system that really helps folks make make ends meet as they struggle to find work, find a job, and gain a foothold on the economic ladder. So any child [incompr.] any child who lives in a household with an unemployed parent, they’ll suffer as a result of this restructuring, because it drastically reduced benefits. And as a result [incompr.] more than $700 million from the federal government in benefits that could go to the long-term unemployed in North Carolina.

They also, like you said, passed a series of tax cuts that on average will shift taxes away from higher-income people towards low-income people. Part of that tax plan was not destroying the state’s earned income tax credit, which is really one of the state’s most powerful antipoverty tools in the state. It goes to families who work but who earn low wages. And it really helps parents avoid raising their children in poverty.

They also eliminated the child care independent tax credit.

Really, the tax plan that they passed gives a huge windfall to the wealthy and profitable businesses at the expense of lower-income and moderate-income people. It also drains available revenues that the state can use to invest in programs that help children. As such, they passed a budget right after this tax plan that really puts North Carolina on a path to mediocrity. We just don’t think that it will move the state in the right direction.

And talking about homelessness, last year, state lawmakers, they decided to take millions of dollars that we received in a settlement with some of the nation’s largest market servicers. Instead of using that to help struggling homeowners, the used those millions of dollars to plug a budget gap. So they’re definitely making economic decisions that are not going to move North Carolina’s families forward and really help families gain a foothold on the economic ladder.

DESVARIEUX: But, Tazra, you’re going to have people arguing that it’s not the policies; this is just a product of the recession. You know, we’ve fallen on hard times, and the most vulnerable populations, they’re going to be the ones that are going to be hit the hardest. What’s your response to that argument?

MITCHELL: So, you know, the recession ended almost five years ago. We’re technically in an economic recovery. And, you know, North Carolina’s economy, like I said, we were overconcentrated in certain industries that make it harder for us to get back to where we started when the recession first hit.

But there are definitely economic policies that lawmakers can put in place to move North Carolina forward. Fiscal austerity is not going to work. We need to make sure that we’re investing in policies that put North Carolinians back to work, that put them in job-training programs so that they can [incompr.] new skills for the jobs of a 21st-century economy. We need to make sure that we’re investing in education. Right now we’re spending more than $500 million below what we were investing in education.

And of course low-income people are going to be hit hard by the recession, but so our middle-income folks, and we have to make sure that that’s not forgotten.

Like I said, we are in an economic recovery. Our poverty rate is higher now than it was before the recession hit. Our median household income, which is the income directly in the middle of the income scale, it’s well below–it’s about $4,200 below what it was when the recession hit. So our economy is growing, but those gains are going to the top, and they’re not filtering down to the middle and to the bottom. And there are policies like tax policy that can make sure that our economy grows stronger. You know, failing to adequately invest in the engines of a strong economy will hold our state back, but it will also, you know, cause even more long-term economic pain to our state.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. I want to get back to the issue of child homelessness and put this in a national context. We have the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They’ve come out with a report which finds that the federal sequestration will cut $938 million for housing vouchers. It’s the largest shortfall on record. I’m going to ask you, Annabelle, how will the federal sequestration cuts affect child homelessness?

SUDDRETH: Affecting homelessness starts at the base–in your community, identifying and helping children who are homeless; looking at city policies on affordable housing and zoning; and things that will allow children to have homes to live in. It goes to the state level as well in policies around education and making sure our teachers are compensated appropriately so that homeless children can get the education that will get them out of poverty. And then, of course, at the federal level, when there’s not enough rental subsidy funds, our families cannot make ends meet. If you do the math on even minimum wage for a 40 hour a week job, which–most of our families are not getting 40 hours a week, because of benefit concerns–there is no way that you can pay rent, fuel for transportation, clothing, food costs, and all the basics that families just need to live.

So it affects our families at every level. With every cut, it just compounds the issues for the families of homeless children.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Tazra, I want to get your opinion on this. How can federal policies reduce child poverty and homelessness?

MITCHELL: Well, for starters, policymakers should be very careful not to dismantle the safety net that’s in place to help families making ends meet. I’m talking about food assistance, housing assistance, energy assistance.

As you know, right now there is a debate in Congress around SNAP, which is formally known as food stamps. The Senate passed about $4 billion in cuts to the program over the next ten years. The House passed about $10 billion–or $40 billion over the next ten years.

We really have to be careful not to dismantle the safety net, because our economy has not fully recovered. Right? And families really depend on these programs to make ends meet until they can find a job, until they can get back on their feet. And when we pull back on these investments too quickly before the economy fully recovers, it’s not going to help keep poverty in check. It’s only going to grow economic hardship.

You know, we know that families often make a lot of trade-offs between whether they can pay their mortgage, pay their rent, and whether or not they’re going to use those dollars to put food on the table, to put their kids in child care, or to pay for healthcare.

As families continue to struggle and as the economic gains continue to accrue to the top, we need to make sure that we don’t dismantle the safety net. But we also have to to look at the long-term gain. We have to make sure that we’re investing in policies that support workers, that create good jobs, that create jobs that pay a living wage that can support a family. But also, at the federal level we need to make sure that Congress picks a responsible path forward. They can’t–they need to make sure that they include new revenues and not just cuts whenever they’re looking at addressing the federal deficit, because cuts really do harm families, and children especially.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Tazra Mitchell, thank you so much for joining us.

MITCHELL: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And Annabelle Suddreth, thank you for joining us as well.

SUDDRETH: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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