As RICLAPP ends its run, I thought it might be useful to share what I’ve learned over the past decade. Some of this came as no surprise, some was very surprising But what’s clear is that you never really know what’s going on in your community until you’re actively engaged with people on the streets, in their homes, or even in a courtroom.
A little under a decade ago, when I first conceived of what eventually became RICLAPP, I operated on the assumption that if we were to wait for government to address the problems of nearly 30% of its underserved populations, we would wait forever. I’m sorry to say I was correct in that assumption.
If, as the old saying goes, history is written by winners, then policies are enacted by elites for elites. This has been true since, to varying degrees, since the founding of our republic. Nowhere is this more evident than here in Rhode Island. In this past legislative session, look at the winners and losers – GE Digital getting over $5 million in tax “incentives” for creating 100 high paying jobs; nearly $2 million dollars to keep a company in Rhode Island; another $3.5 million to help those with science, math, technology and math with their student loans; tax incentives can be used twice if two applicants from the same project apply.
On the other hand, where are the tax incentives for helping the poor? Where are the investments in the expansion of programs to provide direct help to the poor, near poor, and working poor? For an interesting read on this topic, I invite you to read Nicholas Stephanopoulos’ article here:
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2583495 (just click download)
All of these policy decisions sound good but to my thinking, this is nothing more than traditional trickle-down economics that would make Hayek and Friedman proud. And even assuming that these policies would work, it will take a generation for them to do so. People in need don’t have that kind of time.
Related to the above, another thing I’ve learned is that underserved people living at the margins view each day as a struggle for survival. Each day presents possible threats to their housing, economic, food, employment and health security. Without direct, comprehensive and sustained intervention the poor, near poor and working poor will never have the resources and focus to break the cycle of their lives.
I wrote about nearly 30% of the state’s population being at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level. We know from Census data that nearly 15% live at or below 100% FPL. That’s nearly 150,000 Rhode Islanders; 60,000 live in extreme poverty defined as 50% FPL. Another 150,000 Rhode Islanders live between 100% and 200% FPL. Where did these people factor in during the recent legislative session? Sure they had a right to rally under the dome, but they also had the right to be ignored by those who work in that building.
We stood with these people, providing legal counsel and assistance along with other supports. For many, we were the first people to listen to them, and to stand along side of them as they fought to fend off threats to their security. We did this in the areas of housing, public benefits, and a whole host of other issues.
We invested our time and careers in this endeavor; some of us invested large sums of money to keep RICLAPP financially afloat. Some of us never got paid; others of us worked for a pittance. We relied on law-students and volunteer lawyers to meet the expanding needs of the underserved clients residing in distressed, and thus ignored by policy-makers, communities. Everyone who worked at RICLAPP had the commitment to serve those in overlooked communities and did so with distinction. I am proud to call them my friends and family.
When all was said and done, there is not a lot of foundation money available to invest in direct legal services. There is virtually none in Rhode Island. Nor was there any financial help, no matter how successful and efficient we were, and no matter how budget neutral it was, from the state legislature and judiciary. We attempted to partner with various institutions, some of whom we already partnered, only to be told that there was no money in the till to financially sustain our program.
It’s not that there was no money, it was that funding legal services for poor people was never a priority with public and private decision-makers. As a friend of mine once commented about the inability to gain traction with local funders, “poor people aren’t sexy.” Too true my friend, too true.
Make no mistake, I don’t lament the lack of funding for RICLAPP for our sake; I lament it for the impact on those who relied on us. It was the people we served, the communities in which we engaged, that mattered. As for those of us who served, we’ll be fine and, indeed, are.
Finally, in 1968 Robert Kennedy spoke about the violence of institutions. This is the violence of institutions that do not meet the needs of people; institutions that don’t work; institutions that cater to the needs of the few, at the expense of the many. Fifty years ago President Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty. About forty-five years ago, opponents of that War subtly and silently declared a war on poor people.
That war on the poor rages to this day; programs starved, dollars diverted away from poor people to the favored few; needs ignored in the name of austerity; and, the demonization of those in need in the name of “self-reliance.” There is a false dichotomy between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. People are victims of random events. Nobody aspires to be “poor,” “near poor,” or “working poor.” If the past decade shows anything, it’s how good people, hard working sober people, can get caught up in events beyond their control or understanding.
Government is the only institution charged with assuring the security of us all, not merely a select few. It is the only institution charged with making and enacting policies for the benefit of all of us, not selecting who wins and who loses. Many of us feel that government has failed in its essential and underlying mission.
We can change that by changing part of the language that we use. My humble suggestion is that we replace “benefit” with “investment.” One implies the conferring of something to the detriment of others, with no expectation of a return; the other is given with an expectation of a return. One implies little to no accountability; the other is laden with expectations of accountability. This simple change in verbiage might just result in a change of program design and focus, a change that might eventually help people. At least we can hope.
To make these and other changes, each of us has to meet our responsibilities as citizens. Being a citizen is not merely synonymous with “voter,” but requires that we’re active and engaged in the affairs of our community. It means engaging with those whose views we abhor and working to find common ground in order to address the needs of our communities. And it means that each of us has a duty to hold those who act in our name accountable for those actions. It requires that we no longer accept soothing words that result in our being “low-information” citizens, but instead that we do the hard work to become “high-information” citizens. It demands that we ask the hard questions and insist on complete answers, transparency and accountability. In a democracy, the people we elect work for all of us, not just a select few of the elites.
In closing, the final thing I learned, which I think I always knew, is that change is hard. You have to want it, sacrifice for it, never leave the field of political battle. You need to accept that even though you might not see the fruits of your efforts, those who come after you will. For my part, after a brief hiatus, I intend to find a way to get back into the fray.
Until then, my thanks for my family and my many friends, colleagues and collaborators who sustained me and RICLAPP far more than they ever knew. I am confident that as Tennyson once wrote, “‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”