The struggle of the haves and the have nots took center stage at the 2012 Budget Rhode Map conference hosted by the Economic Progress Institute at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet Thursday.
Formerly known as the Poverty Institute, the agency highlighted the growing number of impoverished Rhode Islanders and said funding does not match the need, despite critics who claim social service spending is out of control.
“It really does make sense that the human services are the largest spending category within our state budget,” said Linda Katz, policy director for the Economic Progress Institute. “Over the past decade, spending for human services did not grow much faster than state spending.”
Between 2002 and 2012, spending for human services increased by 50.8 percent, compared to a 49 percent increase in the overall budget over that same period.
Katz broke down each of the services and agencies included in the human services budget, and said Rhode Islanders might be surprised to see where the money is going. The Department of Human Services, with a $2.3 billion budget, takes the lion’s share of funding, nearly 80 percent, and that department includes everything from SNAP benefits to Veterans Affairs.
SNAP food stamp benefits has grown by more than 368 percent over the past decade, though the majority of those funds come from the federal government. Other line items likewise increased, such as an 86 percent increase for medical benefits, a 40 percent increase for Veterans Affairs and a 75 percent increase for individual and family support. Still, other budgets were slashed, including a 44 percent cut to RI Works, a 36 percent drop in Social Security and an 8 percent cut to central management fees.
Many of the individuals and families accessing these services are receiving assistance for the first time, according to Kate Brewster, executive director of the Economic Progress Institute. It is estimated that 142,000 people in Rhode Island live in poverty. The name change from the Poverty Institute reflects this growing number of middle-income families who need help in order to make ends meet.
“We have always been about promoting economic progress and opportunities for Rhode Islanders,” Brewster said.
Those who work in social and human services maintain that it will take a continued financial commitment from the state to make those opportunities possible. Part of that is job creation and workforce training. Speakers who promoted the importance of job training and education included Julian Alssid, executive director of the Workforce Strategy Center; Rich Brooks, executive director of the Governor’s Workforce Board; Keith Stokes, executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation; and Adriana Dawson, state director for the Rhode Island Small Business Development Center.
The program’s keynote speaker, Chuck Collins, spoke on the importance of tax policy equality. A senior scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies, Collins is also the co-founder of Wealth for the Common Good and co-author for books such as “Robin Hood was Right” and “Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes,” which he penned with Bill Gates Sr.
An advocate for tax equity, Collins truly understands how the other half lives. The great grandson of meatpacking mogul Oscar Mayer, he grew up in a wealthy family and was afforded many educational opportunities.
Despite his personal fortune, he believes the rich should pay at least the same tax rates as the middle and lower classes. He shared anecdotes from a website, wearethe99percent.tumblr.com, about people living in poverty who want their voices heard. The site was born out of the Occupy movement, which has lashed out against preferential treatment of the “1 percent,” or the wealthiest people in the country. In 1976, the top 1 percent of earners accounted for 8 percent of the collective income. Today, they earn 21 percent.
“What kind of country are we living in?” Collins asked. “We have fundamentally shifted the priorities and investments in our country.”
Rather than villainize the nation’s top earners, Collins pointed to them as potential allies in a reorganization of the country’s tax code. He applauded those millionaires who have joined the movement.
Among them is investor Warren Buffett, who has endorsed the Paying a Fair Share Act. Referred to as the “Buffett Rule,” the legislation would ensure that multi-million-dollar earners pay at least 30 percent effective tax rate. Rhode Island’s own Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse introduced the legislation.
“If we care about poverty, we have to look at these issues of extreme inequality,” Collins said.
That includes not only “lifting the floor,” by providing human services and workforce development, but also by leveling the playing field. Collins believes that the offshore tax system many major corporations use to avoid American taxes should be illegal. If it were eliminated, he estimates the nation could see an additional $100 billion in revenue. He likewise advocates for keeping jobs in America, and not allowing foreign labor laws to steamroll U.S. workers. On the part of consumers, he suggests they not subsidize companies who send jobs elsewhere, and instead patronize businesses that pay their fair share of taxes and create jobs in this country.
“We need to put forward some bold policies,” he said.
Collins says that can only start when voters elect candidates who endorse fair tax policies and are not beholden to special interests. He is confident that time could be fast approaching, noting that between April 9 and 15, there will be non-violent, direct action protests across the country.
“Huge numbers of people have decided to take action,” he said. “These conditions are causing people to see that they have a common cause. I think, starting this spring, we are going to see an awakening we have never seen before in our lifetimes.”
For more information, visit www.economicprogressri.org.