Poverty

"Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards."

This is a subject I’ve been wrestling with for some time. Years, in fact. I started writing this post several weeks ago and repeatedly had to set it aside and come back to it as I tried to find the right words and the right conclusion….

The 2020 Hawaii Legislative Session is well under away. Given what is expected to be an utter train wreck for some of the most pressing issues facing the people of Hawaii, I thought now might be a good time to broach the issue.

Collaboration is Central to the Legislative Process

As a bill goes through the tedious and groaning process of drafting, public hearings, and debate, it is often important for parties on all sides to share in the pain of compromise to reach agreement before it becomes law.

This collaboration and give-and-take on important issues facing Hawaii and its residents is part of the democratic process. I am often disappointed and frustrated by this process. Over years of doing this work, I’ve learned to temper that frustration in pursuit of progress. That progress may be slow, small, and not nearly enough for my taste, but progress is progress.

Though its a lesson I have to relearn on a seemingly yearly basis, I always go back to the very first time one of my mentors drove the point home for me. Continue reading Urgency or Incrementalism? Bold or Patient?

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When the working-class thrives we all thrive.

Friends Come in All Shapes, Sizes, and Opposing Political Ideas

Years ago I worked for a small insurance agency. The owner and agent is a long-time capitalist.

This former employer and friend of mine loved to talk politics with me. And I with him. He believes when the government gets too involved, when there are too many regulations, too many taxes, it means less freedom.

I staunchly disagreed with him and there were times when our debates would go on for hours. Much to the chagrin of his wife and business partner, who would often scold both of us, “stop talking politics and get back to work!” I adore both of them.

Entrepreneurs Don’t Necessarily Have More to Gain or Lose

The reason I am starting with this story is because whenever I think about labor issues like a Living Wage, or Paid Family Leave, etc. I am reminded about something he said to me once.

Talking about employees versus business owners, he would say owners always take a lot of risk when starting their own business. His implication was that owners, more than employees, shoulder more risk and so deserve greater reward when the business succeeds. I would ask him how well he thought his business would be doing if he didn’t have me there. Would he be as successful?

And I would ask him what he thought would happen to me if his business closed. Being successful, he’s managed to build up savings and equity over the years so that if the business took a turn and he was forced to close down, he’d have a safety net on which to fall back. I, on the other hand, being both young and not making a lot of money, had no savings. No safety net. I would have to rely on Unemployment Insurance to fill the gap until I found another job.

The Hawaii State Legislature is Business-Focused, Not Worker-Focused

Over many years working on increasing the Minimum Wage, I’ve heard primarily one concern from opponents. One reason to oppose any increase in the Minimum Wage; businesses would suffer. Unemployment would increase.

Despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, these talking points persist. When policy-makers worry more about optics and politics than facts and figures, there’s a problem.

Years and years of research tells us increasing the Minimum Wage doesn’t cause an increase in unemployment. And it doesn’t necessarily lead to business closures. Some of this research is beginning to be done on $15 with similar outcomes….

In fact, a higher Minimum Wage can be GOOD for employers (even small businesses). It can increase employee happiness and productivity and reduce employee training and turnover costs for employers. Win-win. And a higher Minimum Wage can help level the playing field against big corporations when trying to recruit new employees.

Despite the high cost of living in Hawaii. Despite the fact that people are moving away from Hawaii for better chances at a good life. Our policymakers have done little-to-nothing to address this. Their solution to these problems is to reduce regulation, lower taxes for businesses, and to try to incentivize new industries.

But none of this addresses the income gap in Hawaii, nor does any of it address the fact that too many minimum wage workers are living in poverty. Literally. No one who works full-time should be in poverty. No one.

Don’t You Know; Trickle-Down Doesn’t Work

The neoliberal democratic majority at the Legislature worries about how businesses are faring. They worry about the burden of GET on businesses. And they worry about regulatory burdens. Regularly they decry the plight of businesses in Hawaii and twist themselves into knots trying to do more.

But where’s the knot-twisting when it comes to the plight of working people?

For the now-defunct Superferry as well as Honolulu’s HART train wreck (pun intended), Legislators went to extraordinary lengths to raise funds and side-step regulatory necessities. It happened so fast you’d think the fate of the State depended on them.

But what about the fate of people who are one bad day, one accident, one missed paycheck away from living on the street? Skyrocketing unemployment, they scream! Small businesses will suffer, they exclaim!

On Minimum Wage, Paid Family Leave, Affordable Housing… the list goes on and on, our neoliberal legislators are convinced, despite mountains of evidence, that businesses are what drive the economy. In fact, consumer spending is one of the biggest economic indicators there is; when workers earn more money, they spend more.

When the working-class thrives, we all thrive. Its long-past time legislators remembered that fact and made working people their priority.

*This piece was previously published by Civil Beat. I also wrote early last year about the minimum wage fight here.

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The basic concept that no one would want for housing or food despite being unable to find a job that pays enough on which to survive is a worthy one.

Not a Novel Idea

As a concept, I’ve been supportive of Universal Basic Income (UBI), which Presidential hopeful Andrew Yang refers to as the “Freedom Dividend,” for a long time.

There are multiple proposals and approaches to UBI, but if you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it’s pretty straight forward. UBI is a guaranteed minimum income for everyone in the United States or every citizen. The amount may vary from proposal to proposal. As might a maximum income requirement (millionaires and billionaires might not receive UBI in some proposals).

UBI might sound like a unique idea, but it isn’t really. With the wealth disparity in this country growing beyond Depression-era levels. With the increasing threat of automation. The basic concept that no one would want for housing or food despite being unable to find a job or a job that pays enough on which to survive is a worthy one.

Though maybe not exactly a “universal basic income,” the idea of Social Security in the U.S. relies on a lot of the same arguments and it got its start way back in the 20s.

Is UBI an Entitlement for “Lazy People”?

Ultimately, my answer to this is simply “no”. However, given my experience in the last week or so, I’ve been giving this question some thought.

Neoliberals and conservatives in general all oppose UBI because they say that, among other things, it’s a handout to people who don’t otherwise want to work. The same has been said about welfare programs for years.

Are they right? Sure. There are always going to be people who want to try to game the system, want something for nothing. And if given the opportunity they’ll collect a government “hand out” rather than work for a living. But a plethora of data suggests those UBI and welfare opponents simply hate poor people, rather than have a substantive point. Yes, there are outliers, though they are the exception rather than the rule.

Mississippi Complainers

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working in Moss Point, MS on GOTV efforts for this year’s election. Though my job has been primarily one of facilitation and training, I’ve been interacting daily with our paid canvassers.

“My” team has been tasked with canvassing all, or a major chunk, of Jefferson County, which is largely rural. While the Minimum Wage here is set at the federal $7.25, we’re paying our canvassers $15 an hour. Obviously a coveted wage out here, we’ve had folks from all over knocking down our door for an opportunity to do a little work and make good money.

And the vast majority of my canvassers are fantastic. Really good, hard-working people with good hearts who are just trying to get by. A few, though, would complain. “I don’t want to go out that far.”

“I don’t need to do the role-playing.” Or, “I don’t need anyone checking up on me.” Or, “I’m driving my own car.” And on and on. They’d give me grief over arguably stupid stuff.

In my life, I’ve never had a job where I’d basically refuse to do what my boss asked of me. I showed up, I did the job and at the end of the day, if I was frustrated, I’d complain out loud to myself (or to those willing to listen). Then I’d go back the next day.

So, I wondered to myself (and my teammate) whether that attitude displayed by those few was the reason they couldn’t hold down a job. But I shook my head, grumbled to myself again, then went back to work.

The Welfare Trap

I’ve also been perplexed by and frustrated for a few who said they couldn’t do the work because the relatively high wage would put their welfare and/or section 8 housing in jeopardy. This is the result of income limits on federal poverty programs. Rise above the ceiling just a bit and floating up a smelly creek without a paddle.

The folks in that situation I dealt with here genuinely wanted to work, but were so fearful of losing benefits they counted on to survive, they opted out.

Congress, so bogged down in privileged ignorance and petty political infighting, has utterly and completely failed to address income limits for their poverty programs and the reality of the growing wage gap in the U.S. While these same dynamics make it unlikely we’ll see a Universal Basic Income anytime soon, my experience here in Mississippi have only served to emphasize its urgent necessity.

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