Saturday, November 22, 2014

 

All the parts we need to overcome poverty are here, but not functioning properly yet


by Larry Geller

Nationally there appears to be a trend, quite properly denounced as a “war on women,” to restrict or eliminate women’s right to control their own reproduction. At the same time, we have apparently reversed our march toward democracy as many of the same states move to restrict citizens’ right to vote.

The war on women is a war on families and can only increase and promote poverty. Keeping primarily poor people from voting deprives them of one way to improve their situation by electing better representatives.

The assault on autonomy and poverty could not exist without at least the tacit support of a good part of the electorate, and the move to restrict voting rights is an effort to solidify political control by eliminating opposition at the most basic level, at the polls.

Nationally, politics is stagnant, if not retrograde. With corporations dictating to politicians, it’s hard to see how citizens can regain control.

Hawaii is different, though.


We’re more politically evolved…

Here in Hawaii we have perhaps different issues. Our political system has evolved beyond the crude machinations of two-party politics. While those who choose to identify as Republicans here decry the dominance of a single party because they have been unable to make significant or lasting inroads to power under the Republican banner, anyone can still run for office and win if voters deem them worthy. Although the politics of party have not yet dropped away here, it is much less important than in other states. In this, Hawaii may be truly unique, even if we have not claimed it yet.

It’s easy to blame blatant discrimination, bias, misogynist thinking or racism on Republicans—too easy because often the labels fit perfectly. But they would also fit many Democrats in Congress. The strong party divide feeds on itself—a religious conservative aspiring to national office would do better as a Republican.

In Hawaii, we have religious conservatives in both parties. One doesn’t have to be a Republican. In fact, as we saw in the recent gubernatorial election, the Republican candidate thought it better to play down his strong religious convictions (see todays Star-Advertiser for its re-emergence, now that the election is over, or Ian Lind’s article at the link).

When citizens do act, they can overcome corporate money and achieve great things. A well-funded governor who ignored his constituency lost a primary election. He can blame it on whatever he wants, but ultimately, the people made their choice and evicted a sitting governor even as entrenched wisdom said that this does not occur. And look at the counties of Kauai, Maui and Hawaii—they enacted GMO-related ordinances that demonstrate how much power the people really have here.

We also have perhaps a historically greater than average number of legislators truly concerned with the common good, as evidenced by reading through the list of bills enacted into law at the end of each legislative session. Voting for exemptions for the Superferry may have been the wrong thing to do, as an example, but many lawmakers were motivated by the expected benefits of an inter-island ferry system for the use of business, tourists and residents (perhaps in that order…). We have had insurance coverage for full-time workers for many years, including rate regulation of premiums and other people-centered protections against the ravages of greedy insurance companies. Citizens of mainland states have not been that lucky.


… yet we don’t reach our potential

There is room for improvement, however, as a second-grade teacher might say when trying to encourage an underachiever.

Hawaii has historically lagged in the protection of its most vulnerable, in protection against the factors responsible for widespread poverty, in protecting and advancing cultural practices unique to its people, and in protection of public assets. Too often the courts have had to assure an education for students with disabilities, fix the abuses at the State Hospital or in the prisons, or even to get sidewalk curb cutouts in Honolulu.

Where is that second-grade teacher?

Today is as good a time to examine public policy as ever. Unfortunately, we are on our own with this, since our state university remains siloed in Manoa and by and large does not participate in urban planning or public policy. Ordinary citizens could use informed advice and guidance, but we seldom see it from UH.

So while there is an urban planning department that could work with concerned citizens, we’re left to protest the sellout of Kakaako (for example) to the ultra-rich while poverty drives record numbers of people onto the streets in tents. Providing low-cost housing is doable, but we’re not yet doing it. Ordinary people can design communities and urban spaces with the assistance of architects and urban planners. It worked in Portland and elsewhere, it can work here.

Maybe it’s us rather than them, perhaps we have yet to ask for help.

Where is the school of social work as compliant city workers illegally dump personal possessions into garbage trucks? Social workers know how to work from the micro to the macro level to improve the well-being of society. They are the best people. I know because I married a social worker. Unleash those students, and kick the faculty out of their offices a few days a month, and we can solve many of Hawaii’s problems. I’m convinced they know how to do that.

Why do we have Future Studies if they whisper to themselves about Hawaii’s future and never leave their campus offices? Is our future tied to exiling people to Sand Island, to cutting off mental health services and to spending zero (as Honolulu does, compared with the other counties) on senior services? Or do we have a better future, and how do we get there?

If all we demand is that UH sports teams win for our entertainment, then why do we need the rest of the university? It was crumbling, let it go.

Of course, I do not mean that. But this state has a political climate that should make it possible to protect the well-being and common good of its people, yet our many resources are not being brought to bear to do that. It bugs me that people cheer and hoist beers in sports bars and then complain outside if they see poor people pushing shopping carts on the street. Surely those of us who do care can bring improvement, but UH needs do more than just win games.

Step one might be to study and lay out the necessary steps to advance people out of poverty, which is also a public health concern. Step two might be to implement a plan to do that. Then it’s a question of measurement and adjustment to be sure we make progress. Sadly, even when academia has produced “blueprints for change,” they have not been implemented. That also could do with a bit of study. Why does that happen? Does it discourage academic participation in civil society?

At a state level it appears we may be about to embrace a Housing First program that would ease the condition of the lowest end of the poverty scale. We have done nothing about poverty for so long that we find it challenging to get started. It would be better if the state were doing this 100% for the benefit of its citizens and not because Waikiki business don’t like the sight of poverty on their streets. But heck, if that works, we can embrace it.

But that’s all we seem to be doing, and there’s a difficult road ahead. We are not providing affordable housing for the overwhelming numbers of people who need it, while we grease the skids for rich developers and the ultra-rich who will feed their greed. We also need to prevent rent increases that force people out of their homes, and we have yet to do anything at all about that.

The economy needs to change course, and as the book “Land and Power in Hawaii” reveals, that is not going to be easy to do.

Hawaii can do it. We’re not Mississippi. The parts to turn this place around are all here, but need to be assembled into a working machine.



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