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Josh Bergeron: As economy improves, don’t forget about those left behind

While it’s generally true that Rowan County’s economy is doing well, many of our community’s residents are still struggling.

And the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey results released last month prove that.

Consider, for example, that 25.5% of people with related children living in their household lived below the poverty line and nearly 6,000 families in Rowan County had a total household income of less than $25,000 in 2018. It’s a different way to view what’s commonly seen as a good economy.

Across the state of North Carolina, the N.C. Justice Center framed a similar statistic in a different way.

“In 2018, 19.7 percent, or nearly 1 in 5 kids in North Carolina, lived in homes that struggled to afford the basics,” the organization said in a news release citing the American Community Survey.

Far too many North Carolina families still struggle to pay for basic expenses like food and childcare, said Brian Kennedy II, Senior Policy Analyst with the N.C. Justice Center’s Budget and Tax Center.

There’s more for policymakers to do in a good economy than try to bring new businesses and developments to town.

When the economy improves, barriers for people who struggle to make ends meet don’t disappear. Before they can benefit from an improving economy, many still need to overcome barriers like access to good jobs, transportation and paying for childcare. And while there are resources for people to obtain job training at no cost — the N.C. Manufacturing Institute is a good example — there’s still the challenge of making sure people are aware of opportunities.

“Addressing poverty through proven policies that connect people to good jobs and reduce the harmful effects of hardship can boost our economy and improve the well-being of our state,” Kennedy said in a news release.

What does connecting people to good jobs look like in Rowan County? One good example is the Better Jobs for Better Lives initiative between county commissioners and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. County commissioners invested $100,000 in the program years ago. And at the start of this year, the college reported that 500 Rowan residents had received services through the program, with 111 receiving scholarships totaling $65,000. Those scholarships helped provide training in areas such as medical billing, coding, truck driving, manufacturing and medical services.

But there’s still more work to do. The city of Salisbury and Rowan County government, for example, should examine how their public transportation systems could better serve the people who need them. And it’s critical that policymakers examine whether there are ways to improve regional public transit options, which will require the cooperation of state and federal officials, too. The city of Salisbury has heightened its focus on ensuring affordable housing lately, and that’s another wise step. Mayor Al Heggins is right in saying that downtown Salisbury shouldn’t become “another Manhattan” — a reference to New York City’s high rent prices.

The economy is still humming at a healthy clip for Rowan County and North Carolina, but people are being left behind. And it’s critical that government, business and nonprofit leaders work to minimize that.

Here are some other statistics in the 2018 data about Rowan County:

• An estimated 21.9% of people who were employed in Rowan County in 2018 worked in education, health care or social assistance, which was a plurality. The next-highest percentage was for people who worked in manufacturing, 14.6% of the employed population.

• Of workers 16 and older who lived in Rowan County, 80.7% drove alone to work, 12.1% carpooled, 0.2% took public transit, 1.2% walked, 1.8% got to work through other means and 4% worked at home.

• The average travel time to work was 27.2 minutes.

• 88.1% of people had health insurance coverage and, of those, 59.4% had private health insurance.

• 12% of employed people 16 years and older were government workers.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post. Email him at josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com.

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