At various times in our state’s history we’ve been compared to Rip Van Winkle, the lethargic sleepy-head, or the Dixie Dynamo, a fast-moving, progressive economic engine. Right now we are more the former than the latter.
The April national unemployment rate was 14.7 percent; most believe it more accurately around 18-20 percent. North Carolina’s rate will closely track the national statistics, as more than 1 million North Carolinians have filed for unemployment.
Now that we are in Phase Two of reopening everyone is eager to restore our economy and the prosperity we enjoyed prior to the epidemic. But how, and how long will it take? First, some cautions: This pandemic isn’t going away and some experts believe it might even get worse, since we’ve been staying home and haven’t had much contact with others. Despite optimistic hopes, the vaccine for COVID-19 is months away. Even when approved and mass produced, the only way to eliminate the virus is for all 7.5 billion of us on the planet to be inoculated. Count on at least two years for that.
Some are predicting that most of us will get coronavirus before it is eliminated. The ones most at risk are those over 65 and those with chronic health conditions, like diabetes, COPD, respiratory and heart problems. The mortality rate is highest among them. The rest of us will recover.
Our twofold goal has to be to protect those most at risk while also getting our economy back on track. I leave to scientists and medical experts the first task, but I have some ideas on the latter.
Another truth: Many of the businesses or nonprofits that previously employed people won’t survive. Those that do will come back slowly, molasses slow, before becoming strong enough to rehire former workers. Count on at least a year before we fall below double-digit unemployment, and even that will require help — large amounts of financial pump-priming. Like it or not, this help can only come from government, and the longer we wait, the more we suffer.
Let’s go back to the future. When “The Great Depression” created an economic fallout in 1929 the unemployment rate soared to 20 percent. Sound familiar? It was ultimately World War II that ended the Depression, but the nation had been on a path of economic improvement beforehand.
Drive around most towns in our state and you can see evidences of the Works Progress Administration, Public Works Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, New Deal programs through which our government spent billions of dollars and put millions of people to work. Their works include Reynolds Coliseum at N.C. State; Hanes Park in Winston-Salem; water systems in Wilmington, Rocky Mount and other communities; baseball stadiums in Greenville, Kinston, Rocky Mount, Wilson, Durham and other towns; courthouses aplenty; and funding for the arts, music, drama and writers.
AmeriCorps is the modern-day cousin to those agencies. There are many eager to get back to work, get a paycheck and do something worthwhile. You may call this concept socialism and perhaps it is; we are dreaming to believe reopening alone will restore our economic health. North Carolina needs another World War II stimulus similar to what The Marshall Plan was for Europe. Let’s call it CarolinaCorps!
We’ve got plenty of pent-up needs and lots of available human capital. We need leaders willing to take bold action to awaken Rip and restart the Dynamo. Doing nothing is not an option.
Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and creator and host of NC SPIN at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 12:30 p.m. Sunday on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.