There are always simple answers…

… but never any easy questions to complex problems. I recalled that bit of wisdom when I read today’s news that Rhode Island evidently has won the economic race to the bottom. Rhode Island, it is reported, has a worst in the nation business climate.

To those who read from the gospels of Hayek and Friedman, the answer is simple. In the Field of Dreams school of economics, all we need do is lower taxes on corporations and “job creators” (e.g. the upper 1 percent), reduce those pesky government regulations, and all will fall into place. The sun will shine, birds will sing, children will laugh, and all will be right with the world. Except…it won’t work. How do we know? Because it never has.

Now I know that I’m opening myself up to an attack on this last point but that’s an issue for another day. What’s important is that our business and governmental “leaders,” along with those groups and advocates with vested interests in promoting this policy of trickle-down voodoo economics are advancing a single variable approach to a multi-variable problem.  As anyone who has made an even passing study of public policy design knows, this approach leads to disaster. Ignoring this simple truth has led to some of this country’s epic policy disasters such as Viet Nam, our current policy in the middle east, and the economic decisions that led to the financial meltdown that resulted in the Great Recession to name only a few.

So let’s take a look at some facts: income inequality in Rhode Island is a fact. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average annual income for those in the top 1% is $884,609, or 18.6 times the average annual income of the remaining 99 percent. If this appalls you, then a little good news – Rhode Island is not as bad as the rest of the country as a whole, although that is a small consolation.

Add to this imbalance is the fact that in 2015 CEO compensation was 276 times the compensation of the average worker. Put into another context, from 1978-2015, CEO compensation grew by 940.9 percent, adjusted for inflation. This growth rate is 76 times more than the growth rate of the stock market (think about that when you get your next 401k statement) and dwarfs the 10.3% growth rate of the average worker’s income over the same time frame.

You don’t need an advanced degree in economics or study at the feet of Thomas Piketty to know that there’s something wrong here. That said, it certainly begs the question about why we feel the need to lavish scarce public financial resources, at the expense of vital public goods (you know, those roads and schools and public parks that we used to care about) that we once valued and all supported, on those who don’t need the enticement to relocate in our state. It would seem that the upper 1% and their supporters have forgotten, or are just ignoring, the old adage, “pigs eat, hogs get slaughtered.”

And we haven’t even mentioned wealth inequality. This is the part of Jeopardy where the scores can really double. But I digress…

Compare that to the rate of poverty in Rhode Island, which sat at 14.3% in 2014. There’s always a dispute about the accuracy of that number derived from census data, and in full disclosure I’m one who thinks the number is too low, but let’s assume that it’s dead on accurate. This number means that there are 143,000 Rhode Islanders living at or below 100% of the federal poverty level (FPL). Additionally, again according to the same census data, there are 60,000 Rhode Islanders living at or below 50% FPL, in “extreme” poverty.

These numbers don’t reflect the number of “near” poor who live between 100% and 200% of FPL, for if we did include this group, the number of Rhode Islanders living at or below 200% FPL would number somewhere around 280,000 people. Anyway you slice it, this is a significant drag on economic activity, and is something that needs to be factored into any economic development effort in Rhode Island.

There is no question that we didn’t get into this fix overnight, and that we won’t get out of it in a day, or a year, or one or two terms, or one or two decades. But that is a political truth that our elected “leaders” don’t want to speak, and one that most of us don’t want to hear. However, elected officials need to speak truth to us and we, as a body politic, need to respond. Happy political talk and pie-in-the-sky discredited economic fantasies will no longer suffice. We must recall the rule that when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

The policies proposed by the governor, with the complicit support of the legislature, will ensure that we will continue digging. Blithely ignored are the realities of economically distressed communities, poor public schools, the fact that too many people still do not have easy access to even modest health care, insanely expensive housing, low unmarketable job skills in the new global “knowledge” economy, and the one economic development principle that is ignored by all who formulate our policies and impact our futures – economic development must first focus on those who live in the community and not on those who are targeted by enticements to relocate to our state.

If we are to right this ship of State, we will need to make focused and sustained investments in areas that need to be strengthened. But this will call for a comprehensive approach to deal with the multi-variable problem that threatens to take many of us down. Such an approach will make for boring and risky politics for those who seek office. But on the plus side, such a long overdue comprehensive approach may just ensure a better life for our children and grandchildren.

I have a few suggestions if anyone’s interested….

Zen Question of the day….

Zen question: why does it take the Rhode Island Supreme Court 15 months to grant an LSO certification under Art. II, Rule 11, to an already existing legal services organization when others take less than four months to receive their certificates? And then, because of the delay/non-response to repeated communications about its application for certification, the agency ends up going out of business?

If anyone has a good answer, I’d love to hear it.

My Valedictory…

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.”

If someone remembers us…

… do we truly die? I read that question a few days ago and it got me thinking, if RICLAPP is remembered by those we served, do we truly die? I know this may appear self-serving, but I think the answer is “no.”

RICLAPP had a positive impact on the lives of thousands. This number includes our clients and their families, our staff, our collaborators, and the general Rhode Island community. However, we only live if the memory of what we were and what we tried to do is advanced by others.

We never sought the bright lights of public acclaim. In retrospect, perhaps it would have been better had we been self-promoting, but we were too busy serving people in need. I know that sounds sanctimonious, but sometimes the truth sounds that way.

We worked in anonymity. Many of us who do great work often work in the shadows of the media glare. It’s not a choice, nor is it especially praiseworthy, it’s just the way it is. My former RICLAPP associates worked that way, and many still do. They do this because there’s a job to be done, not for fortune and glory.

On the other hand, we live in an indifferent world. Too often, we honor swagger and bluster and overlook the reality of our communities. We defer on to others the job of making our communities safer, more just, and better places to live. We have lost sight of the obligation of each of us, in our own ways and through our own abilities, to contribute to the common good.

Our indifference is fueled by the canard of “self-reliance.” We ignore the admonition many years ago by John Donne that,

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

We were a part of the Rhode Island community and as such, any death diminishes all of us, including the death of an organization.  Therefore, I believe that RICLAPP will be remembered by those who we served, those who served with us, and by those with whom we collaborated. The bell does not toll for RICLAPP, it tolls for the entire State of Rhode Island.

Valedictory is coming…watch this space.