Column: Honor MLK by carrying out his vision
After the parades and the invocation of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. what can we honestly expect in the weeks to come?
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After the parades and the invocation of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. what can we honestly expect in the weeks to come? Might we allow ourselves the audacity to believe that our reverence for King’s vision will translate into policies that allow Hawaii’s working families to have what King hoped peoples everywhere might enjoy: “three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits?”
Every day that we accept what MLK called the “isness” of man’s present nature,” the “isness” of thousands living in makeshift tents, or sleeping by a bus-stop in Kahala or Kalihi, we are avoiding the “oughtness” of creating the “super highway of justice” that King described.
The governor and House and Senate leaders gave us a preview of their approach to the challenges working families face when they announced what they called a “bold, ambitious” package of proposed legislation on the eve of the 2020 legislative session. They said they are going to invest in young people and give everyone a chance to succeed.
But here’s the thing: despite their own past declarations of support for a living wage, our lawmakers are offering working people who are cobbling together two and three jobs to survive, a $13 minimum wage — in 2024! Wages will go up by just $1 an hour, starting in 2021.
House Speaker Scott Saiki is president-elect of the National Conference of State Legislatures. How does he explain why blue Hawaii lags other Democrat-controlled states, many of which have already passed a $15/hr minimum wage?
The legislative package that includes refundable earned income tax credits, plans for more “affordable” housing and expanded preschool was repeatedly described as “historic.” Lawmakers congratulated themselves on speaking with one voice about measures to address the desperation of the working poor. They took pride in having brought different stakeholders together to create this package.
But did those “stakeholders” include the working poor? Did they include those who have to depend on food banks to feed their families? Did they include those who cannot pay the rent?
$10.10 an hour just does not cut it. No, not even if you have two or three jobs, and as many mouths to feed. What does the state’s definition of “affordable” mean to the working poor? Aloha United Way tells us nearly 30,000 families fell out of financial stability during the 2008-2010 recession and joined the ranks of A.L.I.C.E. (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). They have not recovered.
It’s been pointed out ad nauseum: a single person needs to make at least $17.50 an hour to survive. The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism says so. Why are legislative proposals not informed by DBEDT’s own data?
Sen. Brian Taniguchi remarked ruefully that the proposed steps to $13 an hour in 2024 “might seem a little modest.” In truth, $13 an hour by 2024 is more than a day late — and several dollars short. It is demeaning.
If there is anything at all to our celebration of MLK, and our touting of the aloha spirit, voters should expect much more from our elected representatives.
Do we believe, as MLK did, “that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame?” If we feel the shame of thousands being houseless in the aloha state, we will need more than speeches. The working poor need a living wage now. Asking them to wait till 2024 for $13 an hour is nowhere near pono.
King warned against engaging in “superficial optimism.” Let’s hope this legislative session will see bills passed that demonstrate that there was nothing superficial about what we heard lawmakers promise.
Dawn Morais Webster, who works with nonprofits on societal issues, is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.