Beyond the standard unemployment numbers seen in the news each month, a study of wage inequality provides insight into the situation of poor, employed individuals. The following information from the The State of Working America, 12th Edition published in September 2012 by the Economic Policy Institute, tells the story.
Wage Growth Inequality
- The median worker's compensation (wages and benefits) grew just 10.7% from 1973 to 2011. During the same period, productivity grew 80.4%.
- The bottom fifth of households experienced an increase in annual earnings of 12.3% between 1979 and 2007 whereas average annual earnings grew by 27.7%.
- In 2011, 28% of workers earned poverty level wages ($11.06 or less per hour which would be enough for a family or four to reach but not exceed the poverty threshold). In 2002, 23.1% of workers earned poverty level wages.
- The average wage among poverty level wage earners was just $8.66 per hour.
- 32% of women earned poverty level wages or less in 2011 compared to 24.3% of men.
- The median wage of high school-educated workers in 2011 was: $18.80 for white men and $14.42 for white women; $14.61 for black men and $12.69 for black women; $15.31 for Hispanic men and $12.79 for Hispanic women.
- Only 20.5% of the bottom fifth of wage earners who work at least 20 hours a week and 26 weeks per year are included in the employer-sponsored plan where the employer pays for at least some of the coverage compared to 53.1% of all workers.
In June, the Federal Reserve released a report showing the changes in family fortunes before and after the recession. The following charts come from data in that report and were created by Michael Shapiro, summer research assistant for the center.
The 2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, our most recent source of data regarding poverty, reveal that more and more North Carolinians are continuing to struggle financially to meet their basic needs. Here are the numbers:
- 17.5% of North Carolinians are in poverty, meaning that in our state more than 1,627,000 people are poor. The federal poverty level for a family of four was $22,314 in 2010.
- Worse still, 1 in 4 children are poor.
- If you consider race, the statistics are even more alarming: 27.7% of African Americans, 31.2% of Native Americans, and 33.9% of Latinos are in poverty.
- 13.1% of families receive food stamps.
- Median household income dropped to $43,326 in 2010.
NC by the Numbers
While most communities experienced increasing poverty during the Great Recession, we know that poverty is not a new problem for many Americans, and many North Carolinians. But some states fare better than others when it comes to the numbers. So where does North Carolina stand?
- 13th highest percentage of people in poverty (according to data from the 2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates).
- 10th highest rate of children in poverty (according to data from the 2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates).
- 5th highest rate of unemployment (according to April 2012 statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics).
- 9th highest rate of food insecurity (calculated by the number of households experiencing uncertainty of having or inability to acquire enough food to meet their needs based on the 2010 Household Food Security Report published by the United States Department of Agriculture).
- 24th highest rate of homelessness (according to 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development based on point in time count).
- 10th lowest median income (according to the 2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates).
- 30th in rate of foreclosures (according to April 2012 Foreclosure Rate Heat Map from RealtyTrac).
Reports indicate that today more North Carolinians live in urban areas than rural areas. According to the 2010 Census, more than 6.3 million North Carolinians live in urban areas, just over 66% of the population.  This includes Charlotte, the "urban area" in the US with the fastest rate of growth.
While urban poverty continues to present challenges, the poverty rate in some of North Carolina's most urban areas is lower than the state average. In Mecklenburg County, 15.6% of residents are in poverty, and in Wake County, the rate is  Of the 61 counties with poverty rates above the state average, 7 counties are considered "urban areas" and the rest are rural. More than 1 in 4 residents experience poverty in 10 counties – Bertie, Columbus, Halifax, Hertford, Richmond, Robeson, Rutherford, Scotland, Tyrell, and Warren – and all are rural areas of the state. In these 10 counties, child poverty often hovers near or above 40%.
The North Carolina Commission on Workforce Development, using a slightly different system to categorize counties as either metropolitan, micropolitan, or rural, reports that 71% of the state's population lives in the 40 metropolitan counties where 76% of the state's total employment can be found.  In the 29 counties considered rural that contain 7.7% of the state's population, only 6% of the state's employment opportunities can be found. The report indicates that while the bulk of unemployed workers during the recession lived in metropolitan areas, workers in micropolitan areas (small cities of 10,000 to 50,000 people) had the highest rates of unemployment. Rural areas whose employment opportunities are often focused in one dominant industry struggle greatly with the closure of a single plant or departure of one company. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the unemployment rate in rural North Carolina is 11.8% while the unemployment rate in urban North Carolina is 10%.
Another challenge unique to individuals facing rural poverty include health access and outcomes. While the issue of access to hospitals, doctors, and preventive care has long been a challenge in rural areas, particularly for poorer individuals, the North Carolina Institute of Medicine reports that death rates in the most rural areas of the state, even when adjusted for age, are among the highest, including deaths caused by chronic lung disease, motor vehicle injuries, other unintentional injuries, and suicide. 
 The Census classifies areas of 50,000 or more people as "urban areas," areas of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people as "urban clusters," and the rest of the land outside of urban areas and clusters as "rural."
 Data used was obtained from the 2010 Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates. The 2010 American Community Survey Data is only available for counties with a population of 65,000 or greater.
 State of theNorth Carolina Workforce, the North Carolina Commission on Workforce Development, June 2011, http://www.nccommerce.com/Portals/11/Documents/Reports/2011%20SOTW%20Full%20Final%20Report%2052311%20909am.pdf.
 Death Rates by a Rural-Urban Gradient, NC Medical Journal, http://www.ncmedicaljournal.com/archives/?running-the-numbers-north-carolina-death-rates-by-a-rural-urban-gradient-4848.