“The poor are less often dismissed, I hope, from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent… The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the need for a guaranteed annual income, Aug. 16, 1967
“Are we willing to say as a society, that someone with zero skills but who is willing to work 40 hours at something – a plantation worker comes to mind – is entitled to be paid enough to make ends meet here? If so, then why did many of us bust our butts trying to acquire marketable skills?”
-President of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii Tom Yamachika in a Maui News column, Jan. 18, 2020
If there’s one thing you can almost admire about Tom Yamachika, it’s his audacity to say the quiet part loud no matter how depraved. Implying that imported plantation workers deserved the oppressive working conditions they endured, and questioning workers’ rights to dignified lives the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day – well, that takes… a special kind of person.
For all his elitist hand-wringing and grasping arguments, though, there is one thing about Yamachika’s Jan. 18 column “What really is a minimum wage?” that I am thankful for: the clear articulation of a disregard and disdain for the poor which appears at all levels of government. It seems we are no longer engaged in the War on Poverty envisioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.
Rather, it’s War on the Poor.
US Supreme Court Upholds Trump’s New ‘Public Charge’ Rule
On Monday, the US Supreme Court voted 5-4 to allow the Trump Administration to enforce a rule which makes it harder for poor immigrants to be granted green cards or visas. The restriction allows the denial of immigrant visas if a person is deemed a “public charge,” or someone who uses or is likely to use public assistance programs. That part’s nothing new. However, Trump’s rule change expands the previous definition of public assistance from only meaning cash assistance to now include Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or “food stamps”), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
So far the effect has been “chilling,” reported the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice Monday. “There is much anecdotal evidence that the rumors of this new public charge rule have caused a ‘chilling’ effect among immigrant families since 2017, when it was first leaked to the media,” the organization stated. “News reports from across the country describe how some immigrant families have decided to forgo all government benefits – even if they and their children were eligible for and sorely needed them – to avoid the potential negative consequences of the new public charge rule.”
“Between fiscal years 2016 and 2018, there was a 9 percent drop in SNAP participation among citizens in Hawaiʻi, as would be expected in an improving economy,” Hawai‘i Appleseed added. “However, alarmingly, SNAP participation dropped much more sharply for non-citizens – by 33 percent over that same time period. In other words, over 5,300 more eligible Hawaiʻi residents may have gotten SNAP benefits in FY2018 if the public charge rule had not been announced in early 2017.”
For Hawai‘i’s children of non-citizens, the decline in SNAP participation was a drastic 38 percent.
Minimum Wage Talks Start at Measly $13 an Hour by 2024
Immigration restrictions and de facto cuts to social programs are nothing unexpected from the Trump Administration, of which has been said “The cruelty is the point.” When big government fails, we often look closer to home for the solution, to state and local governments that better know the realities of our people and culture. And as a recent report titled “Hawai‘i Financial Health Pulse: 2019 Survey Results” found, that picture is bleak.
According to the report, only 31 percent of Hawai‘i residents are “financially healthy,” meaning that more than two-thirds are either “financially coping” or “financially vulnerable.” To manage financial struggles, the report identified four strategies used by Hawai‘i residents: working multiple jobs, living in extended households, relying on support from friends and family, and using savings and credit cards.
Despite similar findings year after year, 2019’s State Legislature was unable to raise the minimum wage to help those earning the least for a hard day’s work and stuck at the bottom rung of the income ladder. The last increase was in January 2018 to $10.10 an hour, and an effort last year to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2023 did not pass.
This year the leg is taking a novel approach: Aim lower.
HB2541, “Relating to Helping Working Families” makes the state Earned Income Tax Credit refundable, while increasing the minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2024. Unless you prescribe to the Yamachikan idea that some people deserve to work more than 40 hours a week or starve, that’s wholly inadequate. A Hawai‘i Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism report from 2017 stated that on Maui back in 2016, “A single adult with no children needed to earn an hourly wage of $17.08 to be able to meet its basic needs and to be economically self‐sufficient.”
Meanwhile, living wage advocacy group Raise Up Hawai‘i notes on its website, “Hawai‘i’s current minimum wage is already lower than in all other highest cost-of-living states… The next eight most expensive states have passed laws to raise their minimum wages to at least $15 over the next five years – and the cost of living in all of those states is lower than in Hawai‘i.”
Maui Redevelopment Agency Drafts Comments to Keep Wailuku Redevelopment Area Exempt from Residential Workforce Housing Policy
At a Jan. 24 meeting of the MRA, comments were drafted by agency members to keep the Wailuku Redevelopment Area (which includes West Central Wailuku, the lowest earning census tract on Maui) exempt from the county’s Residential Workforce Housing Policy, which stipulates that new housing and rental developments earmark a percentage of units for different income groups. The idea behind the law is to ensure that adequate attainable housing is built for Maui residents, limiting the number of high-margin, expensive homes.
The problem in Wailuku Town, which falls under the MRA’s jurisdiction because of its “slum and blight” conditions, is “pockets of poverty” commissioners said. To eliminate the problems that tend to accompany high concentrations of poverty, members of the MRA suggested to maintain the exemption from the workforce housing police to “see a move towards more inclusive housing and not exclusively the low- and very low- income brackets.”
Commissioner Frank DeRego harkened back to the Wailuku Town of old that was bustling and included people from all walks of life and class. Other commissioners added that even if the housing policy was in effect for the area it wouldn’t necessarily mean development of housing.
These are seductive appeals, but combined with rhetoric against “pockets of poverty,” the discussion decenters and dehumanizes the problem of poverty itself and the accompanying oppressive social conditions. While the MRA has been apt to promote Wailuku Town as a destination, reexamine zoning laws to enable development of a large hotel, and invite housing that is out-of-range for area residents, there is a pattern of disregard for the working class and poor residents in the area, who can’t afford the rising rents that would follow the development of nearby high-end homes. Combined with the proposed Civic Complex, which pencils out based on the anticipation of higher property values and thus property tax collections, this is a recipe for displacement of the poor and working class longtime residents of the area.
Discussions in the MRA on the question of adequate social services for the area or expansion of the popular and successful Clean and Safe program have thus far been disappointingly thin. Instead, the group has focused on the big-budget Civic Complex, which is a clear boost to the few already wealthy landowners in the area, and exemptions like the one discussed Friday that further invite outside, big money investment.
Is it Really a War Against the Poor?
Well, maybe not intentionally. But one thing I’ve learned in my couple years on the job as editor of this paper is that participation in politics is a privilege. It’s one afforded to people who can take a Friday off to attend Council meetings at 9am and MRA meetings at 1pm. It’s a privilege for those who don’t have to work two jobs, and so after working eight hours can take the evening to catch up on the news, review legislation, and participate in democracy or community groups. It’s a privilege for those who don’t have to provide care to children or elders in their off time. It’s a privilege for those who have access to the training and education necessary to understand a complicated political system.
When the privileged rule and dominate spaces, voices of the less fortunate will inevitably be left out and marginalized, and the realities of class struggle will be absent from critical conversations. Whether that’s the product of an out-of-touch disregard or active disdain, the fact remains that the poor and working class are falling behind across multiple measures.
I’m not saying I have the answers. But, like Dr. King, I’ve seen the power of love and the difference a committed group of organized citizens can make. And since I opened with the wisdom of Dr. King, it’s only fitting to close with more of his guidance from the same 1967 speech.
“[A]s we talk about ‘Where do we go from here?’ we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society… We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring… And so, I conclude by saying today that we have a task, and let us go out with a divine dissatisfaction.”
What do you think?
Is $13 an hour by 2024 an acceptable state minimum wage?
Vote and leave a comment in our weekly readers survey by following the link below for a chance to appear in print! #coconutpoll