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In a speech in Raleigh on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton laid out her plan for improving the economy and reducing income inequality.
But she segued into local politics, too, seeking to boost the campaigns of North Carolina Democrats like Roy Cooper, who is running for governor against Republican incumbent Pat McCrory.
Teacher pay was her weapon of choice for hitting the state’s Republican leaders. Clinton was introduced at her rally by a Durham teacher and by former Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat known for his education initiatives.
"You know, for many years, thanks to people and leaders like Jim Hunt, North Carolina was a leading state when it came to education," Clinton said. "Now, unfortunately, thanks to your governor and the legislature, the average teacher salary can barely support a family."
There are two things here that made our ears perk up. Can the average teacher "barely support a family" on his or her salary? And if not, is it the fault of McCrory and the state’s Republican-controlled legislature?
How much teachers make
The average North Carolina public school teacher made $47,819 in 2014-15 according to the National Education Association, an advocacy group. Both the NEA and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction have estimated the average teacher this school year is making just shy of $48,000.
That’s the equivalent of slightly more than $23 per hour when adjusted to 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.
That’s not the schedule teachers work, but we’ll use it for the sake of comparison since it’s what most people are familiar with.
North Carolina’s cost of living
What does it mean to be barely able to support a family? Clinton’s campaign didn’t respond on the record, but there are a few ways of looking at it.
The average teacher’s salary is more than triple the minimum wage. It’s also enough to keep a family of nine out of poverty. For a more traditional family of four, it’s about double the poverty level.
But the government’s poverty guidelines have faced criticism for being outdated and/or inaccurate. So what about other ways of measuring ways to support a family?
MIT professor Amy Glasmeier created something called the Living Wage Calculator. It takes local-level data on taxes, rent, transportation, food, child care and other costs into account. The formula also assumes non-working adults are providing full-time child care.
Glasmeier has written that it shows "the minimum level of income required for individuals and families to pay for basic living expenses" – a pretty good approximation of what Clinton was talking about.
A single parent making the average teacher’s salary could support one child but would struggle to support two children, according to the living wage calculations.
Likewise, if the teacher is married with a child, an average salary could easily support the child and a stay-at-home spouse.
The salary would still be considered a living wage even if that couple had a second child – here it gets to the level of barely enough – but not if they had a third child and the spouse remained unemployed.
But we didn’t want to just take a calculator’s word for it. So we asked a professor who studies poverty and politics, Duke University’s Anirudh Krishna. He agreed that a teacher’s salary can provide for a family’s basic needs but not much more.
"An annual salary of $48,000 is less than what typically makes for significant intergenerational upward mobility," Krishna said. "Rents or mortgages usually make up for half of that amount, and food and fuel account for much of the rest, leaving relatively little for a rainy day, far less for a child’s college education."
So this part of Clinton’s claim could be accurate or not, depending on how big the family in question is and what you consider to be barely supporting that family – whether it’s simply keeping the children out of poverty or being able to do more.
But is Clinton right to pin the blame on Republicans for not giving teachers even higher salaries?
Since 2010, the average teacher has earned right around the state’s median household income. Republicans took control of the state legislature in January 2011.
In most states, teachers make more. North Carolina is one of the 10 lowest-paying states for teachers, and inflation-adjusted salaries have dropped 10.2 percent in the last decade, according to the NEA. Only three states saw teachers’ salaries fall by more between 2004-05 and 2014-15.
Who is responsible? Both political parties have seen teacher pay rise and fall under their watch in the last decade, although Democrats were in power most of that time.
Under Democratic Gov. Mike Easley average teacher pay grew by thousands of dollars, to $48,454 in 2008-09, his last year in office.
Then the Great Recession happened and in 2009-10, Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue ordered a pay cut for state employees and teachers. That cut was approved by a Democrat-led legislature, and average teacher pay continued to fall every year under Perdue.
Republicans were in charge of the statehouse the last two years of Perdue’s term. Both years, Perdue vetoed the budget and said more money should’ve been spent on education, but to no avail.
Average teacher pay continued dropping after she left office. It reached its lowest point in McCrory’s first budget – the third year of GOP legislative control – when it dipped below $45,000 to 47th in the nation in 2013-14.
But since then, teacher pay has been rising. It’s still not yet back to pre-recession levels, but it could be next year. The House, Senate and McCrory’s office have all said teachers ought to earn more than $50,000 on average in 2016-17.
Clinton said the average North Carolina teacher’s salary "can barely support a family" and placed the blame squarely on Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican legislators.
The average teacher salary of just less than $48,000 is higher than what most households around the state make per year. Yet it’s also right around what’s considered the bare minimum "living wage" for a couple with two kids.
Clinton, however, muddles the political blame. Average teacher pay did hit its lowest point when Republicans controlled both the governor’s office and General Assembly. Yet the only actual salary cuts happened under Democratic control. And more recently, Republicans have raised teacher pay almost back to pre-recession levels.
We rate this claim Mostly False.
Time Magazine, transcript of Clinton speech in Raleigh
Email interview with Anirudh Krishna, Duke University’s Edgar T. Thompson Professor of Public Policy in the Sanford School of Public Policy
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Jan. 25, 2016, "Poverty Guidelines"
N.C. Department of Public Instruction, "Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget 2015-16"
MIT Urban Planning, professor Amy Glasmeier bio
United States Census Bureau, "Quickfacts North Carolina"
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "Living Wage Calculator: North Carolina"
North Carolina Association of Educators, 2013, "History of Salaries in NC"
National Education Association, "Rankings and Estimates 2011-12"
National Education Association, "Rankings and Estimates 2012-13"
National Education Association, "Rankings and Estimates 2013-14"
National Education Association, "Rankings and Estimates 2014-15"
National Education Association, "Rankings and Estimates 2015-16"
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