Economic Justice – In defense of the invisible

When bills are introduced to protect dolphins, whales, bees or birds – it is a given that the chamber will be full of testifiers. Likewise, if there is a measure before any legislative body that purports to regulate fishing, or hunting, or dogs or cats – you can be sure it will be standing room only.

But for issues pertaining to economic justice, not so much.  Oh yes, the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii will show up to say no…to any and all initiatives that have any impact at all on their membership. And the Hawaii Restaurant Association will show up to say no to anything that impacts their members. Government agencies will likewise be there in opposition, as they know from past experience the legislature will not properly fund their existing responsibilities, let alone new mandates.

But the down and out, the disenfranchised and those who stand to benefit most from economic justice legislation, will be mostly invisible.

Public interest organizations will, of course, show up in support. They will present clear unequivocal research, backed by mountains of data produced by credible highly regarded think tanks. Other supportive advocacy groups, including faith-based and millennial progressives, will also show up at the hearings, offering strong and compelling testimony in support.

In most areas of public policy, the most effective testifiers are those from the “impacted community”.  In this case those individuals at the bottom of the economic ladder – the homeless, the incarcerated, the mentally ill and those slaving every day at multiple jobs just trying to eke out a basic living.

It is no surprise the turnout at public hearings from this impacted community is weak to sometimes non-existent.

Perhaps low-income working people are fearful to ask the boss for time off work to testify in support of increasing their minimum wage.  Perhaps those without homes are also without access to the public notice of such meetings.  Or maybe they sit in jail awaiting trial for a crime for which they have not been convicted, but just can’t afford bail.

Most struggle mightily with basic daily survival and showing up at the Capitol to testify is not something that they have on their calendar.

The 2018 state legislature failed to increase Hawaii’s minimum wage that sits now at $10.10 per hour. Our state government has determined that $17 per hour is the amount needed for basic subsistence and anything less is simply starvation wages. 

Hawaii has the highest homeless rates per capita in the nation.

PayDay lenders are charging those who can least afford it, up to 400% interest and fees on small loans often needed to just “get by until the 1st”.

Nearly 1/2 the people now sitting in Hawaii jail cells are “pre-trial detainees” who have not been convicted of the crime for which they are accused, but are poor and cannot afford bail. Rich people, for the most part, don’t go to jail while awaiting trial – they simply post bail. 

According to the Aloha United Way who commissioned ALICE: A STUDY OF FINANCIAL HARDSHIP IN HAWAI‘I, 48 percent of Hawai‘i households struggle just to make ends meet with 11% of this group living in poverty as defined by the federal government.

Some readers may think that being poor is “their own damned fault”. They will look at the homeless huddled under the bridge and say to their friends, “they should just get a job”.  To those readers, I suggest that perhaps no one will hire them if they are missing teeth, or if they are mentally ill, or don’t have clean clothes and a dry safe place to sleep at night. For many, there are no jobs and the jobs there are don’t pay a living wage. 

Most of our friends and neighbors are already working two or three jobs and living with parents and grandparents. The hope of ever buying their own home is but a distant dream, with reality consisting of just getting by while hoping the kids don’t get sick and the car doesn’t break down.

According to the U.S. census, 66% of Hawaii residents have less than $1,000 in savings.  One medical emergency, two weeks of job layoff or any multitude of unexpected situations could cause 66% of us to plunge into a financial spiral that some never recover from. 

There but for the grace of God, go each and every one of us…

My ask for each of you who have read this far is to please make the time to advocate in support of economic justice. Ask your legislator to publicly support increasing Hawaii’s minimum wage to at least $17 (phased in over time), to clamp down on predatory lending practices, reform our criminal justice system, increase the supply of truly affordable housing and make increasing mental health services a priority.

The naysayers will say, “how are we going to pay for all of this”? The truth is we are already paying for it.  There is a price to pay no matter what, and the price for inaction – far exceeds the cost of doing what is right and just.

First published 07/09/19 in The Garden Island Newspaper

About garyhooser

This blog represents my thoughts as an individual person and does not represent the official position of any organization I may be affiliated with. I presently serve as volunteer President of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (H.A.P.A.) I am the former Vice-Chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. In another past life, I was an elected member of the Kauai County Council, a Hawaii State Senator, and Majority Leader, and the Director of Environmental Quality Control for the State of Hawaii - in an even earlier incarnation I was an entrepreneur and small business owner. Yes, I am one of the luckiest guys on the planet. Please visit my website AND sign up for my newsletter (unlike any email newsletter you have ever gotten, of that I am sure) - “Come to the edge.” “We can’t. We’re afraid.” “Come to the edge.” “We can’t. We will fall!” “Come to the edge.” And they came. And he pushed them. And they flew. - Christopher Logue (b.1926)
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8 Responses to Economic Justice – In defense of the invisible

  1. Scott Foster says:

    All true I’m sad to say. Mahalo for putting it in real-world language.

  2. Frank DeGiacomo says:

    Dude, it’s a lot of work getting that kind of turn out for animal bills. I offered to work for numerous social justice groups to help their issues in the same way I help out on animal issues, and what I gather is that they are all concerned about upsetting the powers that be, so I get a thanks, but no thanks. They want incremental insider change that isn’t really much change. Animal folks – except for the large charitable corporations, are fine with kicking ass and taking names. The anti-pesticide groups rock, as does HSTA, and the Save Mauna Kea folks, but there are no equivalents is the economic justice sphere here in Hawai`i. HSTA is pretty much Hawai`i’s only hope of bringing about economic justice right now.

    • garyhooser says:

      Got it. I agree to a large extent in your characterization of the temperament and inclination of the various groups…but also know from my own direct experience that it seems more difficult to get those who are truly from the impacted communities to show up. As you know I have been heavily involved with the pesticide and some of the other environmental groups/actions etc. But food for thought! Mahalos…

      • Frank DeGiacomo says:

        It can totally be done. You just have to be creative sometimes. I get exasperated, but I have my own challenges, so I am not wasting time fighting the advocacy establishment trying to save us from the corporate/government establishment.

    • garyhooser says:

      Let’s get together sometime. I am on Oahu almost every week.

  3. Nathan says:

    Funny you say anything below $17 an hour is “starvation wages”. I make $15 an hour living with my girlfriend who makes roughly the same. We like to go out for dinner, go shopping, we have a car that requires upkeep, etc. and I could continue listing non-essential expenses.

    How much time have you spent observing the individuals in Chinatown Mr. Hooser?

    I wait for the bus there several times a week, and it’s evident many of these people exude no desire to make any changes and improve their lives.

    Not that I completed lack sympathy for these individuals, as mental illness is a tough situation to provide effective solutions for dealing with (those that are actually suffering from), but I do think much of what you have written above is simply false.

    Anyway, guess I’m wondering what your thought are on personal responsibility? Why is it my responsibility to take care of someone that has no desire to care for themselves?

    • garyhooser says:

      The $17 subsistence wage is for a single person living alone. You are fortunate to have someone sharing your expense and life. But the two of you are still living in poverty and cannot afford to buy your own home. Not sure what you pay for rent? I spend lots of time in China Town myself as I also ride the bus frequently. Most of those I see on the streets appear to be mentally ill and in general look “unemployable”. As mentioned, you can’t get a job without teeth. You can’t get a job pushing shopping carts at Wallmart without teeth. And… Medicare and Medicaid don’t provide coverage to replace your teeth either. My article speaks for itself. There is a price to pay no matter what. Better we invest in mental health services, dental care, affordable housing and raising the minimum wage…doing nothing just cost more in emergency room services, police service, etc. I believe in personal responsibility and I also believe we have a community responsibility and a moral responsibility…and frankly, it is the right thing to do on many levels. What is your solution? Leave them there huddled in the doorways and at the bus stops of China Town? Would you arrest them and pay the high cost of incarceration? Tell me please, what is your solution?

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