Just this week, Rep. Tina Wildberger and Senator Russell Ruderman announced that they will be donating $4,000 from the raises they, like all Hawaii legislators, will get, to help pay for school lunches in their district.

They are doing this in an act of solidarity with the poor who are once again being asked to accept a minimum wage that falls far short of what the state knows is needed to simply pay for the basics of daily living. Rep. Amy Perruso joined them almost immediately and is contemplating where her donation might best be used to help the poor in her district.

(The $4000 represents the difference between what people would earn working full-time at the $13 an hour in 2024 proposed by Hawaii lawmakers versus $15 an hour, which is a Democratic priority nationwide.)

This week we witnessed the 10th Democratic debate in South Carolina. And this past Wednesday Rev. Dr. William Barber II, leader of the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) engaged Senator Bernie Sanders, as he has other candidates, on the obligations of leadership in front of a diverse gathering at Greenleaf Christian Church in North Carolina.

Governor David Ige State of the State address 2020 in the House chambers, Governor gestures for those responsible in getting focused on 2020 legislature to rise to be recognized.
Gov. David Ige delivering the 2020 State of the State address. Democrats are on the same page in wanting a $13 an hour minimum wage, but some argue the figure is insufficient. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The Poor People’s Campaign picks up on the unfinished work of Martin Luther King Jr. It calls for a moral revival “to address the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.”

The PPC forum offered a moral clarity and focus on the issues that touch the lives of poor people in ways that none of the 10 debates so far have. It was impossible to watch the conversation and listen to real people talk about their life and death struggles without being moved. It was impossible not to yearn for the Poor People’s Campaign to include Hawaii.

Can the poor in Hawaii “thrive” as they limp towards $13 an hour in 2024?

The Poor People’s Campaign

What we do have right now as the legislative session unfolds is the much touted legislative package to “help ALICE families thrive in Hawaii.”

The pre-session announcement and the Hawaii Legislature’s Opening Day speeches, followed by slick graphics on the ChangeForHawaii.org website, tell us that this “2020 Cost of Living Initiative” is the “first critical step of a public private partnership to help ALICE families thrive in Hawaii.”

What is baffling is the distance between what the data tells us and the proposals being advanced to address the needs of the poor. To begin with, the package avoids use of the word “poor.”

Rev. Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign do the opposite: they address the poor by name. They see them, they hear them, and they are moved to help them.

When we hide behind terminology like “ALICE — Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed,” or “rent-burdened,” or “adults who are not financially healthy,” perhaps we do so to reduce our own discomfort in the face of poverty.

And “public private partnerships” have a nice business-like ring to it that perhaps lets those in charge feel like they are tackling the problem.

But are they? Can they?

The Legislature has often raked agencies and individuals over the coals, not without justification, for decision-making that is not grounded in good data and knowledge about a particular problem.

So why are we not using the same standard in tackling the needs of the poor? If the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism tells us that a single person working full-time needs more than $17 an hour to just survive in Hawaii right now, what sleight of hand or logic allows us to assume that they will survive on a minimum wage that will only reach $13 in 2024?

The package also offers no assurance of steady increases after 2024 to keep up with the cost of living.

What is different about Democratic priorities on these islands compared to states that are fighting for $15? Why aren’t Democratic lawmakers acting like Democrats? Refundable tax credits and early childhood education will not pay the bills to survive from one day to the next.

This blue state can, and should, do better by the poor.

What then allows our lawmakers to think that a $1 an hour increase in 2021-2022 and a 50 cents an hour increase in 2023-2024 will allow our workers to pay for their basic needs?

And what do our lawmakers mean when they refer to “affordable” housing? If it means housing designed for those earning 140% of area median income the poor should not give up their tents on the sidewalk just yet.

At Greenleaf Christian Church, Rev. Barber reminded everyone that “in America, if you are not in the narrative, you’ll never be in the policy.” He recalled one man in Kentucky telling him that many of the poor do not vote because “Nobody sees us. Nobody talks about us. All we hear is ‘middle-class’ and ‘working class.’ We never hear our name.”

Are those who are actually living in poverty and dealing with its stresses — are they partners in the “public private partnership” that is supposed to lift up ALICE families in Hawaii? If they are not, can they really expect to thrive any day soon?

This blue state can, and should, do better by the poor.

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