Sometimes political rhetoric can embed itself in the psyche of a nation. Almost 40 years ago, Ronald Reagan changed the country with one simple sentence: “government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem.” Since then, Americans of both parties have harbored a default lack of trust in the government that is supposed to protect them and buttress their security. For the last decade, this libertarian mindset has been the operative assumption of public policy in North Carolina.
As Jonathan Chait explained in a recent piece, the Republican Party was not always synonymous with anti-government conservatism. But by 1994, the right-wing takeover of the national GOP was complete. A parallel transformation took place in the state of North Carolina, with the hard-right politics of Jesse Helms gradually overtaking the more moderate Republicanism of Western North Carolina and the urban business community. 2010 was a watershed moment in the state’s journey toward libertarianism. For the first time since the 19th century, anti-government absolutists won control of state government.
They immediately set about dismantling public structures that had supported progress in the state. In their first budget, they enacted cuts of 15-18% to all UNC campuses and reduced the budget of the community college system by 10%. Those cuts were left in place. Likewise, they fired thousands of teachers, cut funding for classroom supplies by 50%, and hammered per-pupil spending. Again, these cuts have stayed in place for the long term.
As a result, public education in North Carolina has declined in quality and affordability. Test scores and the racial achievement gap are headed in the wrong direction–a stark departure from the trend that reigned from 1976-2010. Higher education has also suffered. Tuition at UNC-Chapel Hill has increased by a startling 50%, and every other campus is getting more out of reach for middle-class families. To add insult to injury, Republicans also cut financial aid for the poorest students. Once the pride of the state, North Carolina’s education system is now shabby and neglected.
One of the central targets of Republican budget cuts has been aid to the poor and disabled. The fateful 2011 budget cut services for Medicaid recipients including, cruelly, eyeglasses. North Carolina’s mentally ill have seen the Division of Mental Health cut by 17%. The cut to mental health has come alongside a steady rise in suicides in the state. GOP leaders have maintained a tireless blockade of Medicaid Expansion, leaving the state’s rate of uninsured residents exactly where it was before the Affordable Care Act passed even as other states have brought their rates down.
Senator Republicans have been spirited in their attacks on anti-poverty programs. Often representing impoverished and isolated rural districts, they have repeatedly sought to slash supports for poor Tar Heels. It was they who introduced a 2015 bill that kicked over 100,000 North Carolinians off of food stamps. This at the same time that Greensboro has been rated as one of the hungriest cities in the country. As chair of the Senate Health Committee, Senator Ralph Hise attempted to dismantle Community Care of North Carolina, an award-winning program that has improved the health of Medicaid recipients. But Hise is far from the only North Carolina Republican who has targeted social programs.
It is impossible to fully account for this damage without thinking of who financed North Carolina’s “conservative revolution.” That would be multi-millionaire heir and political kingmaker Art Pope. Pope inherited a company that deliberately sets up shop in low-income communities and that has accepted public subsidies to build stores where clerks are paid poverty wages. While more thoughtful than his most strident critics think, he is committed to a Randian philosophy of extreme just deserts. The legislature he backed financially has delivered for him ideologically.
The poor, the sick, and those seeking a good education have paid the price.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.