SC health care advocates push Medicaid expansion

Medicaid Expansion Organizer’s Toolkit

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Overview

Gov. Nikki Haley’s refusal to accept Medicaid expansion for South Carolina must be challenged, whether we can win that battle or not. The numbers, common sense and decency are on our side.

In her refusal to accept the nine-to-one match in our tax money, Gov. Haley asks, “What good do the nine dollars do us when we can’t come up with the one?”

Truth is, South Carolina could raise the Medicaid match simply by eliminating the $300 sales tax cap on cars, boats and airplanes. It’s not the lack of revenue that may kill Medicaid expansion; it’s the rigid ideology that has promoted the idea that government is bad. That mindset threatens not just healthcare, but education, tax policy, environmental regulations, and so on.

If Medicaid is expanded, about 250,000 South Carolinians who make around $16,000 a year (138 percent of the federal poverty level) will be provided health coverage.

The Affordable Care Act cuts federal payments to SC hospitals by $2.6 billion. These cuts were supposed to be made up by the expansion of Medicaid to keep poor people out of emergency rooms by providing them with insurance. If South Carolina refuses to expand Medicaid, hospitals will lose this funding for the poor but still will be required to provide services to them.

Unless Medicaid is expanded, childless adults who are not disabled and make less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level – about 185,000 people – would be in health insurance limbo. They would not qualify for regular Medicaid nor the new federally subsidized insurance programs.

(Read more in a story in The State. See Health Care Fairness for SC for more information and links to your legislator.)

Democrats and hospital associations want the state to accept up to $11 billion in federal money over the next several years to expand South Carolina’s Medicaid program. Federal officials would pay 100% of the program’s billion-plus dollar annual cost for the first three years, gradually decreasing to 90% in 2020 . When our bill kicks in, it will be less than could be raised by lifting the 3% sales tax on cars, or by closing any of a number of other special interest tax loopholes.

House Republicans have an alternative plan that would pay hospitals up to $35 million to steer uninsured patients to community health centers, free health clinics and rural health clinics. Lawmakers also pledged to give those health centers and clinics an extra $10 million in state money to care for those uninsured patients.

This is part of a $83 million Republican plan created by Rep. Brian White (R-Anderson) to reduce costly emergency visits and to support rural hospitals and free clinics. His plan calls for only $8 million in new spending as part of next year’s budget. The remaining money would come from federal sources and cash the state Department of Health and Human Services has on hand.

While health care advocates welcome the proposal to increase support to community health centers, the Republican proposal is one-time-money, not a recurring budget item, and WAY short of the billions promised by Medicaid expansion.

Who Decides?

The House has refused to pass a bill that includes Medicaid expansion. Therefore, the focus of the debate on Medicaid expansion is on the Senate Finance Committee. Medicaid expansion has a better chance of passing in the Senate than the House, and we are focusing our immediate efforts on the Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee (see list below).

There are 23 members of the Senate Finance Committee – 14 Republicans and 9 Democrats. We need 3 Republicans to vote out a budget that includes Medicaid expansion.

The Senate Finance proposal will then go to the Senate floor for consideration, at which point all Republican senators should be lobbied.

If the House and Senate do not agree on their respective bills, the question then goes to a conference committee, which will try to reach a compromise.

Should a compromise that includes Medicaid expansion be reached and passed by both bodies, the next step is the Governor’s Office. Gov. Haley has pledged to veto any bill that includes Medicaid expansion. As a political face-saving move, she could let it become law without her signature.

If the governor vetoes the bill, the legislature can override her veto with a two-third’s vote of both bodies.

The state legislature decides whether to accept the expansion funds — and can do so only if it can muster the two-thirds majority to override the governor’s promised veto. Because all the Democratic legislators support the expansion, we must target Republicans.

Of the 124 House members, 83 must vote yes to override. With 48 Democrats and 76 Republicans in the 124 House seats, we must convince 35 Republicans to vote yes.

In the 46-seat Senate, 31 votes are needed for an override. With 27 Republicans and 19 Democrats, the override vote requires the support of 12 Republicans.

What can I do?

Arm yourself with the facts about Medicaid expansion. Health Care Fairness for SC, a coalition of hospitals and health care advocates that includes the SC Progressive Network, has a great web site with all the facts you need to understand the matter and lobby for it. There is also a link to send messages to your representatives here.

We are asking organizers to adopt a Republican legislator. Get outside your comfort zone.  If you don’t have a Republican in your district, find the closest one. Look in your county delegation. Recruit five of your friends who agree with you to do the same.

Find your legislator, or look them up by your district here.

Find your senator here, and

  1. Get that legislator to take a position on Medicaid expansion. Many Republicans are saying they are “looking at the options.” This is a way of saying they are waiting to see if a super-majority for the veto is possible before they decide how to vote.
  2. Go to your adopted legislator’s church and discuss the issue with congregants. Do the same with their fellow alumni and neighbors. A listing of Republican legislators, their churches and colleges is here.
  3. After a reasonable effort to solicit the legislator’s commitment to a yes vote, you may attempt to call him out on the question in public. Tactics ranging from letters to the editor, community forums, to pickets or leafleting may be considered. The Network can provide tactical and legal advice on such actions.
  4. Let us know who you’ve adopted, and their response, by calling 803-808-3384 or emailing network@scpronet.com.

If you have questions or need help, contact the SC Progressive Network at 803-808-3384.

To join an e-list for organizers working on Medicaid expansion, email network@scpronet.com.

See Health Care Fairness for SC for more information.

Goals

We want to get the Medicaid expansion passed.

Short of that, we want to:
•  Take the governor up on her position that community health care centers are a better alternative than “Obamacare,” and push for a recurring budget and increased funding for the centers and rural hospitals.
•  Use the opportunity to identify allies and broaden our base of support for movement for rational change in South Carolina.

See our web site for more about the SC Progressive Network. Join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Senate Finance Committee

List of Republicans on the finance committee. Click here for bio and local contact information.

Leatherman, Hugh K., Sr., Chairman (Florence, Darlington)
Peeler, Harvey S., Jr. (Spartanburg, Union, York)
Courson, John E. (Lexington, Richland)
O’Dell, William H. (Abbeville, Anderson, Greenwood)
Hayes, Robert W., Jr. (York)
Alexander, Thomas C. (Oconee, Pickens)
Grooms, Lawrence K. “Larry” (Berkeley, Charleston, Berkely, Colleton)
Fair, Michael L. (Greenville)
Verdin, Daniel B. “Danny”, III (Greenville, Laurens)
Cromer, Ronnie W. (Lexington, Saluda, Newberry)
Bryant, Kevin L. (Anderson)
Cleary, Raymond E., III (Charleston, Horry, Georgetown)
Campbell, Paul G., Jr. (Berkeley)
Davis, Tom (Beaufort)

Medicaid expansion would benefit SC’s small businesses

By Frank Knapp
President, S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce

The debate is underway over whether to expand the federal-state health insurance program, Medicaid, to more uninsured low-income South Carolinians.

Opponents of expansion, made possible by the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, are led by Gov. Nikki Haley’s director of Health and Human Services, Tony Keck, who runs the state’s Medicaid program. Mr. Keck’s public position is that the issue is not about cost but about making more of our citizens healthy. He argues that expanding Medicaid is an inefficient way of achieving that goal.

In December, I attended a forum where Mr. Keck explained that having health insurance was not a good predictor of health outcomes. Therefore the state would do better in promoting health by concentrating on education and jobs while encouraging our citizens to make better personal choices about their behavior.

But in response to a question I posed, Mr. Keck admitted that a low-income person’s health would be better if he had Medicaid than if he did not. “But at what cost?” he quickly added.

Mr. Keck’s almost reflexive response reveals that the tactic of arguing that Medicaid isn’t the best way to improve health is really an effort to misdirect the debate away from the real issue — cost.

If we remove the partisanship over Obamacare and admit that improving the level of education, size of paychecks and behavioral decisions of the state’s low-income citizens is an admirable but daunting goal that will take decades to achieve, the primary objection to expanding Medicaid to improve health today is cost.

Opponents of expansion say that the state can’t afford its eventual 10 percent share of the Medicaid expansion. Mr. Keck’s actuary projects that the cost to the state could be up to $1 billion by 2020.

Proponents of expansion point to a study that projects that economic activity in the state will increase by $3.3 billion and 44,000 jobs will be created from expanding Medicaid. This increase in economic impact would result in the state actually taking in more revenue than it would spend on the expansion through 2020, contradicting Mr. Keck’s analysis. After 2020 the state’s budget would experience a small net loss due to expansion.

Unfortunately, this cost debate has largely overlooked an important factor associated with not expanding Medicaid — the cost to our small businesses.

Many low-income employees work for our state’s small businesses, and expanding Medicaid will result in reduced costs to these employers.

First, there is a significant cost to a small business when workers are not on the job because they are sick or have to care for family members who are ill. Even employees who don’t miss work when they are sick are less effective. Workers with health insurance for themselves and their families miss less work due to illness and are more productive. Clearly expanding Medicaid to cover low-income workers will economically benefit their small-business employers.

Second, small businesses that want to offer health insurance to employees will find it more affordable under a Medicaid expansion. Small employers with Medicaid-eligible workers will have fewer employees to cover on a private group health plan and thus have less in premiums to pay. In addition, with expansion the cost of the employee’s private insurance will drop due to a reduction in the hidden tax on every health insurance policy, which pays for the uncompensated care for the uninsured. Based on projections by Milliman, the actuarial firm used by Mr. Keck for his cost projections, the reduced premiums could be up to $1,000 per year for family coverage.

The third benefit of a Medicaid expansion involves the requirement of the Affordable Care Act that businesses with 50 or more employees either offer health insurance or pay a penalty. Workers on Medicaid are not counted toward the total number of employees, so the Medicaid expansion would mean that even many small businesses with 50 or more employees could avoid paying a penalty for not offering health insurance.

While our state officials continue to debate the cost of expanding Medicaid, that debate must include the cost to small businesses for not doing so.

Activists from across SC to meet for Network’s organizing conference Feb. 23

Progressive Organizing Conference

Growing the grassroots in South Carolina

Feb. 23, 10am – 4:30pm
Brookland Baptist Conference Center
1066 Sunset Blvd., West Columbia

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See photos from last year’s conference here.

The SC Progressive Network and the SC Legislative Black Caucus are offering a day-long activist training conference Feb. 23 in West Columbia. Participants will focus on significant policy issues being considered by the legislature, with an emphasis on building a progressive movement.

“We must do more than lift up just and rational social and economic policies,” said Rep. Harold Mitchell, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. “We have to build a popular movement with the power to make the necessary changes.”

The conference will address the challenges and opportunities posed by the increasingly conservative leadership in South Carolina that believes government is the problem.

Member organizations will offer brief reports on recent victories and current projects. This is an opportunity to share and inspire fellow activists with the good work going on across the Palmetto State.

RSVP for lunch ($10) required by calling 803-808-3384 or emailing network@scpronet.com. You can also RSVP or share on Facebook.

Medicaid Organizing Packet with Power Point presentation: $10 (optional).

PROGRAM

10am – Registration

10:30 - Brief reports from member groups and discussion led by community activists:

Reproductive rights: Will Biggers, Planned Parenthood
Ethics reform: John Crangle, Director, Common Cause SC
Environment: Bob Guild, environmental lawyer and Sierra Club activist
Labor: George Hopkins, labor historian and SC Progressive Network’s Lowcountry representative
Immigration: Ivan Segura, Council of Mexicans in the Carolinas
Education: Roger Smith, Executive Director, SC Education Association
Voting reform: Brett Bursey, Director SC Progressive Network
LGBT rights: Ann Wilbrand, SC Equality

12:30 – Lunch catered by Tio’s (optional). $10 RSVP at 803-808-3384

1 – Keynote speaker Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter

1:30 – Health Care and Medicaid Expansion: Former Columbia Mayor and Medicaid lobbyist Bob Coble, SC AIDS Task Force Director Dr. Bambi Gaddist, and health care economist Lynn Bailey will facilitate the discussion. The governor’s refusal to accept our federal tax dollars back in the form of a 90 percent match for expanding health care coverage to over 300,000 low-income South Carolinians provides a great opportunity to illustrate the cost of free-market ideology as social policy. Participants will get an organizing packet that will help them organize educational forums on this issue in their communities.

2:30 – Medicaid expansion strategy discussion. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter will facilitate.

3 – Politics and power in the Palmetto State. A discussion about how political parties, elections and grassroots activism figure in to building an effective progressive movement. Former State Superintendent of Education Dr. Jim Rex will join the discussion. He helped launch the new Free Citizens Party. Should be a spirited session.

4 – Network business meeting. Nonmembers welcome.

Court rules that SC voter ID law does not, in fact, require photo ID

By Becci Robbins
SC Progressive Network Communications Director

Following the federal court ruling that approved a substantially modified version of South Carolina’s voter ID law, SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey called the venture “very expensive theater.”

The ruling begins by noting “South Carolina’s new (photo ID) law…does not require a photo ID to vote.”

While Gov. Nikki Haley crowed, “This is not just a win for South Carolina, this is a win for our country,” and state Attorney General Alan Wilson hailed the ruling as a vindication of Republican state legislators, the law the court approved is not the one that went to Washington.

District Court Judge Bates said in his opinion, “Act 54 as now pre-cleared is not the Act 54 that was enacted in May 2011,” when signed by Gov. Haley.

While the Court acknowledged “an absence of recorded incidents of in-person voter fraud in South Carolina,” it found that “preventing voter fraud and increasing electoral confidence are legitimate” reasons for the law.

“After several years of divisive and racially charged debate on this unnecessary law,” Bursey said, “after $2 million in taxpayer money spent defending it, and several million more dollars to implement it, our photo ID law will not require voters to have a photo ID to vote.”

The original law allowed a voter to claim a “reasonable impediment” to not having a photo ID, and left it to the county board of elections to determine whether the reason was legitimate. Today’s ruling said that the reason for not having a photo ID “is to be determined by the individual voter, not the poll manager or county board. So long as the reason given by the voter is not a lie, an individual voter may express any one of of the many conceivable reasons why he or she has not obtained a photo ID…voters with the non-photo voter registration card…may still vote without a photo ID.”

Judge Baker wrote, “It is understandable that the [Dept. of Justice] and the intervenors [including the SC Progressive Network] in this case, would raise serious concerns about South Carolina’s voter photo ID law as it then stood.”

The governor’s victory dance notwithstanding, Judge Baker concluded, “One cannot doubt the vital function that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has played here. Without the review process under the voting Rights Act South Carolina’s voter photo ID law certainly would have been more restrictive.”

Calling it political theater, Bursey said, “The grandstanding on this issue by the governor and the Republican majority of the legislature comes at a very real cost to taxpayers, voters and election workers. It is partisan politics at its worst.”

The law will go into effect in 2013.

Delores Freelon has been jumping through hoops for more than a year trying to obtain a SC photo ID. In August, she testified in front of the three-judge panel in Washington, DC.

Network Director makes case for voter-owned elections

In wake of SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s spending of campaign cash, SC Progressive Network invited conservative groups to join in a press conference on Oct. 9, 2012, to ask for an independent investigation of the matter. SC Gov. Nikki Haley just days earlier returned $10,000 in improperly used campaign funds. With public frustration and disgust growing, the time is ripe for real reform in SC politics.

Piñata Politics Just Tempest in a Tea Party Pot

By Becci Robbins

Talk about falling down the rabbit hole. At this time last week I was making a gift for my friend Donna Dewitt to celebrate her retirement from the SC AFL-CIO. And what says party like a piñata?

Yes, the piñata was my idea. I made it. I filled it with candy and Bobby Bucks. I videotaped its predictable demise. I sent the clip to friends to amuse them in these most un-amusing times. Who knew it would go viral?

The breathless response has been over the top, a sad commentary on the echo chamber that is the Internet.

Was the piñata in poor taste? Yes. Was it malicious? No. Am I sorry it caused some people to lose their minds? That’s their problem.

My only regret is having put a dear friend in the position of having to defend a piñata she did not know about or ask for. Donna works harder at a thankless job than anyone I know. She doesn’t deserve the heat she’s taken, including death threats and a promise from Gov. Nikki Haley on national TV to “continue beating up on unions.”

To fixate on unions instead of dealing with the critical problems we’re facing is to use the tired politics of distraction. I should have expected it from the governor, whose favorite posture is that of victim – first of racism, then sexism, now union thugs.

While Haley has made an odd habit of union-bashing, for me she crossed the line when she used her last State of the State address to proclaim: “Unions are not needed, wanted or welcome in South Carolina.” Instead of a message to unite all of us who call the Palmetto State home, she served up a campaign speech of red meat. It was inappropriate. And insulting.

When the governor bashes unions, she’s bashing my colleagues. She’s bashing my friends. She’s bashing my family. She’s bashing me. So forgive me for taking it personally, but I’ve had enough.

The piñata was intended as comic relief among friends after a long day of talking about the state budget, our election system and workers’ rights at the SC Progressive Network‘s annual spring conference. The party was a chance to unwind and honor Donna, our longtime co-chair. For the governor to use the incident for political gain is predictable but unfair, and more than a little ironic.

After all, Donna didn’t do anything as shameful as cut funding for education and mental health services. She didn’t gut environmental regulations or stack boards with corporate cronies. She didn’t show contempt to the Supreme Court. She didn’t campaign on a promise of transparency and then routinely sanitize her paper trail. She didn’t lobby for a corporation while being on their payroll. She didn’t use her power like a bludgeon.

Donna smacked a piñata. Which is, good people, what happens to piñatas. I made one of a Corporate Fat Cat for John Spratt’s retirement party, and it, too, got smashed. Why didn’t it go viral? Because nobody could make political hay out of it.

And that’s exactly what the governor is doing. Yesterday I got an email solicitation from her office inviting me to watch the video and contribute $250 to fight “Big Labor.” The email mentions President Obama twice. Talk about tasteless.

The governor will get no apology from me. But I offer one to Donna for putting her in an awful position. She could have risked hurting my feelings by refusing to play along at the party. Or she could have thrown me under the bus when she started catching heat. She did neither. As a labor leader, she knows something the governor doesn’t: solidarity matters most when it’s inconvenient.

Sorry if this flap has embarrassed any of our members. Please know that Donna and Network Director Brett Bursey have made the best of the rare media attention. (Watch Brett on Fox and Donna on CNN, for starters.)

It may not be pretty, but at least people are talking about organized labor in South Carolina. It’s a conversation that’s long overdue, and it’s up to us to keep it honest.

Becci Robbins is SC Progressive Network Communications Director. Reach her at becci@scpronet.com.

Note to Nikki: Unions do have a role in SC

By Erin McKee

President, Charleston Central Labor Council

In her State of the State address last week, Gov. Nikki Haley stated, “We’ll make the unions understand full well that they are not needed, not wanted and not welcome in the state of South Carolina.”

Gov. Haley was born in 1972. The Central Labor Union in Charleston was chartered in 1912. The majority of labor unions in this state have been on this Earth longer than our governor. Union members in South Carolina pay taxes (and her salary), and the majority have higher wages, health benefits and retirement, which enable them to take care of their families.

Unions are needed in South Carolina. Union members are the only workers protected from at-will employment. Union members want to work with management to make their companies safe, have a contract that everyone can understand, have a grievance procedure (like due process) and protect workers.

Unions are the anti-theft device for workers. Is our state better off with low-wage jobs and no benefits? What will that do to our tax base over time, what will that do to our children, what will that do to our middle class? When labor was strong so was our middle class. What will happen to small businesses when people don’t make enough money to shop? Do we really want the big business world to take over and have more companies keeping wages so low that the workers need public assistance while they make record profits?

Gov. Haley chose a union facility to have her inauguration. She works in a Statehouse painted by the Painters Union, gets her mail from the United States Postal Service, which has the Postal Workers Union, the National Letter Carriers, the Mail Handlers Union. Most of what she buys more than likely came through the Port of Charleston, where the International Longshoremen’s Association handles cargo. She likely uses AT&T which has the Communications Workers of America union.

UPS workers who deliver packages to her office are represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The power she consumes is provided from SCE&G whose workers are represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Some of our very large companies like Kapstone, Mead Westvaco, Bowater, International Paper are union as are our firefighters and lots of our construction workers.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers did the solar panel job at Boeing in the heat of the summer. Many in our wonderful symphony in Charleston are members of the American Federation of Musicians.

We’ve got union members at our military bases and VA hospitals. Gov. Haley should be representing everyone in South Carolina including union members.

We feel like we are being taxed without representation, yet you support right to work which makes us represent those who do not pay their share for the costs of the benefits they receive.

I ask the governor, as one mother to another, to please stop attacking union members as unwanted and unneeded as our children watch the news and wonder why you say bad things about their hard-working parents.

Campaign reform advocates call for clean elections measure on SC ballot

Most South Carolinians are now feeling the effect of unregulated corporate cash that has flooded the state with record numbers of nasty political ads. While most bemoan the devolution of the campaign system – including some GOP candidates – some are redoubling efforts to do something about it.

Advocates for campaign finance reform will hold a press conference on Jan. 20 at 1:30pm in the lower lobby of the State House on the second anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that deregulated limits on corporate campaign donations and fueled record spending in the SC Republican presidential preference primary.

John Crangle, Director of Common Cause of South Carolina, will address the implications of the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

“Most people disagree with the Supreme Court rulings that corporations are people and money is speech,” Crangle said. “Amending the US Constitution is going to take some time, but we can address this corruption on a state level now by passing clean elections.”

Rep. Joe Neal, Co-chair of the SC Progressive Network, will speak about the Clean Elections Act that he reintroduced this week. (See more at the Network’s web site.)

“The Clean Elections Act has been introduced in every legislative session since 2000,” Neal said, “but now I think people are waking up to reality that public offices are on the auction block.” Over 90 percent of the candidates for the state legislature that spend the most money win.”

“South Carolinians who are disgusted with the flood of unregulated cash that is corrupting our political system have a way to fight back,” he said. “The Clean Elections Act will allow people to run for office without having to accept corporate, private or PAC money, and still run a competitive campaign.”

Rep. Neal’s legislation calls for putting clean elections on the general election ballot this November.

Citizens who are concerned about money corrupting our political system are invited to attend the press conference.

Tell Them gears up for 2012

As the South Carolina Legislature resumes its legislative session, we at Tell Them, a member of the SC Progressive Network, are excited to begin a new year.

Tell Them reached a significant milestone in 2011 when the network grew to more than 10,000 members. Our focus on prevention has resonated with mainstream South Carolinians committed to creating a stronger, healthier state.

Over the past few months, we have made numerous updates to the Tell Them website in order to better facilitate direct communication between our members and our elected officials.

It now has a variety of new features, including:

  • Young People’s Bill of Rights: Tell Them believes that every young adult in South Carolina deserves the right to uncensored reproductive health education and access to services. We have developed 9 key rights that we strive to protect.
  • Get Local: Visit your regions’ page to learn more about the issues currently impacting your community and the actions you can take to have your voice heard.
  • Learn the Facts:  Use this new section get the facts about the economics of teen pregnancy, access to reproductive healthcare, comprehensive sex education, and more.

We will be using this new website, expanded field support, outdoor and print advertising and social media to educate the public, and ultimately lawmakers, about serious threats to basic individual rights.

One of these very real threats in South Carolina is the H. 3408 – The “Refusal of Care” Act, also known as the “Freedom of Conscience” Act. This legislation would give health care professionals the legal right to put their moral and religious beliefs before the health and well-being of their patients. You can also download some examples of how this legislation will affect patients in South Carolina. Our top priority this session is defeating the passage of this bill, and we need your help to be successful.

Click here to take action now on H. 3408.

It’s going to be a busy year for Tell Them and one we hope you will want to share with us.

New South battles old poverty as right-to-work promises fade

By Margaret Newkirk and Frank Bass

Oct. 11 (Bloomberg) — Nineteen years ago, when BMW announced a new factory off Interstate 85 in Spartanburg, South Carolina looked like the king of smokestack recruiting.

The world’s biggest manufacturer of luxury vehicles would make the city a “Mecca of foreign investment in the United States,” The Independent of London predicted. It would see a rush of industry chasing Munich-based Bayerische Motoren Werke AG. Downtown would spring to life. I-85 would be America’s Autobahn.

“Oh, they were going to solve all of our problems,” said Cynthia Lounds, director of community economic development at Piedmont Community Actions Inc., a social-service agency.

Today, South Carolina is one of the most impoverished states in the nation, becoming the seventh poorest in 2010 from 11th in 2007, according to recent U.S. Census data. Its percentage of residents living in poverty shot to 18.2 percent from 15 percent in that period. In downtown Spartanburg, near- empty Morgan Square features a used clothing store and two pawn shops.

South Carolina and other southern U.S. states topped the nation’s poverty rankings, a sign of trouble in the so-called New South known for its growth and ability to lure employers with laws restricting union organizing. The South was the country’s only region with an increase from 2009 to 2010 in both the number of poor and their proportion of the population, the census said.

‘Downward Pressure on Wages’

The numbers show that even as South Carolina trumpeted coups like BMW, the state’s stance toward organized labor has depressed living standards, said Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, North Carolina.

“There’s been this kind of undertow of low-wage jobs all along,” Kromm said. “There have been successes in luring industries, there’s no question about that. But it brought an overall downward pressure on wages.”

Job creation is at the center of the 2012 presidential campaign. South Carolina on Jan. 21 will play a key role as host to the first Southern primary in the race to select President Barack Obama’s Republican challenger.

The effect of right-to-work laws on wages has been the subject of intense debate for years. The National Right to Work Committee, for instance, says that employee compensation rose faster in states with those laws, according to the organization’s website.

Boeing Battle

South Carolina’s rising poverty rate coincides with a dispute over expansion of a Boeing Co. plant in North Charleston. The National Labor Relations Board sued Boeing Co. over its decision to locate a 4,000-job factory there, saying the move was intended to punish union activity at its base in Washington State.

“It’s like the Obama administration can’t come up with anything else to stifle business growth in this state,” said Lewis Gossett, president of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance.

Hostility to organized labor was at the core of the region’s strategy for attracting jobs: South Carolina joined the ranks of right-to-work states in 1954, outlawing contracts that require union membership or dues, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

‘Come on Down!’

The state marketed its non-union labor in the unionized North, said Brett Bursey, executive director of the SC Progressive Network, an activist group based in Columbia. One industry recruiting poster from the 1980s, he said, showed a man in a T-shirt and a swelling belly. “South Carolina has no labor pains,” it read. “Come on down!”

The fight over Chicago-based Boeing’s efforts to expand in North Charleston has revived the issue. With the state’s unemployment rate at 11.1 percent in August, compared with 9.1 percent nationwide, even some critics of the state’s labor stance want the Boeing plant to stay open.

“There’s not a lot of debate about that around here,” said Joseph Darby, a pastor of Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston who criticized what he said is the state’s emphasis on low-skill work over education. “The area is so starved for jobs.”

Like much of the Southeast, South Carolina lost construction employment during the recession. Its textile industry continued to bleed jobs as well: Union County, about 20 miles from Spartanburg, had the state’s fourth-highest unemployment rate after a sock factory and a mill closed in 2009 and 2010. The county also lost a 150-job Disney distribution warehouse it had lured from Memphis 12 years earlier with tax breaks. Disney moved the operation back to Tennessee in July.

Warehouse Work

“I’m just waiting to see what God has in store for me,” said Joan Bobo, 49, who worked at the facility since it opened. “I’m experienced in warehouse work. I haven’t found anything yet.”

South Carolina has seen good business news in the past year. Manufacturing employment in August was up 11,000 jobs from a year earlier, including 1,600 new jobs at BMW. The state beat out North Carolina for a Continental Tire company factory on Oct. 6. It’s getting an Amazon distribution center near Columbia.

BMW’s South Carolina plant directly and indirectly supported 23,050 jobs in 2007 and 2008, generating $1.2 billion in wages, according to a study by the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The automaker’s direct employees at the plant accounted for 2.2 percent of the state’s manufacturing employment, the study said.

Expectations ‘Exceeded’

“Since announcing our BMW operations in South Carolina in 1992, and beginning production in 1994, our expectations have continually been exceeded,” Max Metcalf, a spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Some of the new jobs in the state, though, have carried a downside. Employers began hiring through staffing agencies, instead of directly. The jobs were temporary and lower paid than permanent positions. At BMW, the difference was $15 per hour compared with $15.50, Metcalf said. The company needs the flexibility to respond to demand, he said, and recently moved many temporary workers to permanent status.

While South Carolina’s private businesses have added employment, the state lost 15,700 government positions in the year ending in August.

Juanita Dixon, 33, lost her seven-year government job in February. A community-college graduate and mother of two, Dixon earned $10.25 an hour, paid vacation and insurance as a medical assistant at a county rehabilitation center. Budget cuts closed it, she said in a phone interview.

Five Applications Daily

Dixon put in five job applications daily, she said. When BMW’s staffing contractor held a job fair at a hotel, she applied and was told the wage was $13 an hour.

She passed a written test, but failed a physical one. “You have to put tires on a car, and you have to do so many in so much time,” Dixon said. “They said, ‘You can reapply in a year.’”

Dixon now works at Spartanburg’s new Adidas Distribution Center, earning $9 an hour doing factory warehouse work. She got the job through a staffing agency in September: “It’s a temporary job for three months,” she said.

When BMW arrived in the city, the look of the place was transformed, said Lounds, of Piedmont Community Actions. Factory workers tooled around town in cars bought with employee discounts.

“There were more BMWs around here than Fords,” she said.

Drawn by BMW

Out on I-85, BMW now employs 7,000, nearly twice the 4,000 promised in the 1990s, said Metcalf, the spokesman. The automaker attracted more than 40 suppliers to the state, spurred investment in the Port of Charleston and invested $750 million during the recession in Spartanburg, which now has 277,916 people, according to the census.

Yet the I-85 “autobahn” of industry didn’t materialize, said Holly Ulrich, senior scholar at the Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs at Clemson University.

“Those predictions were made during the boom years for South Carolina and the South, before a series of national economic catastrophes,” Ulrich said. “I haven’t seen evidence that it happened.”

On Sept. 27, five days after the census poverty numbers were released, the first-term Republican governor, Nikki Haley, tried to boost morale. She ordered state workers to change the way they answered the phone.

By the next morning, callers to an unemployment office in Spartanburg heard the new message: ‘It’s a great day in South Carolina.”

–Editors: Flynn McRoberts, Stephen Merelman

To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Newkirk in Atlanta at mnewkirk@bloomberg.net; Frank Bass in Washington at fbass1@bloomberg.net. To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net.

Town halls expand Network’s voter ID campaign

The SC Progressive Network is holding a series of community forums titled “Voter ID and the new Jim Crow.” Network Director Brett Bursey will moderate. Each event will include a Q&A session and instructions for activists to work the issue in their community.

The forums will address the moving target of DOJ pre-clearance, and where we should put our efforts to try and stop it. The meeting will recognize photo ID as a symptom of larger problems, and will focus discussion on sharpening a strategy to address The Big Picture.

The Network is planning a statewide summit on Oct. 29 in Columbia to sharpen our focus and efforts. Details and agenda to be posted as they become available.

Call  803-808-3384 or email network@scpronet.com for details or to schedule a meeting in your area.

•  •  •

Sept. 12, Florence: 7pm at Poyner Auditorium, 319 South Dargan St.

Sept. 15, Beaufort: 6:30pm at Golden Corral, 122 Robert Smalls Pkwy. or Hwy. 170. Come early if you want to have dinner.

Sept. 20, Charleston: 7pm at ILA Hall, 1142 Morrison Dr.

Sept. 22, Greenville: 7pm at Furman University, Younts Conference Center.