Scott MacKay Commentary: The Rhode Island Politics Of Poverty

Jan 10, 2014

From the Vatican to the White House and the Rhode Island Statehouse, the talk these days is about poverty. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay on what our small state can do to alleviate this scourge.

What hand does politics play in the state's poverty?
Credit Don Boorman / RIPR

The Gospels tell us that the poor shall always be with us. Pope Francis has dedicated the early months of his papacy to highlighting the need to help the poor and plane the rough edges from unfettered capitalism.

President Barack Obama describes the yawning chasm between rich and poor in the United States as a crucial issue for our time. And at the Rhode Island capitol last week there was that rare vigil that drew religious leaders and lawmakers to voice concerns about poverty.

Last week also marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s  declaration of a national War on Poverty, the results of which are a mixed bag that many saw as meeting defeat in the rice paddies  of the shooting war in Vietnam.

Liberals and conservatives debate still the legacy of the LBJ’s vision that came at a time when American confidence in a growing economic tide that would float all boats was at its zenith. Nowadays, you don’t have to be an expert to know that the 21st Century global economy and a jump in immigration has left way too many Americans in the dark shadow of poverty.

It’s one of those sad, grand, ironies of politics that all the conservative, wealthy  supporters of  Mitt Romney who predicted economic  gloom if Obama was reelected are actually doing well in his second term. A roaring stock market and a job market that rewards the well-educated have given the yacht owners deep seas but have washed ashore those in row boats.

With Washington locked in the thrust-and-parry politics of partisan do-nothingism, the focus has shifted to the states, which is why our Smith Hill crowed should do what it can to tackle poverty. We are a richer nation and state than we were a half-century ago, but too little of that wealth has trickled to those in the bottom half of our national income distribution.

A tiny slice of New England locked into a regional and global economy can’t solve the ancient problem of poverty. But this doesn’t mean the Assembly can’t do anything.

Alleviating poverty at the local level means investing in our people.  Rhode Island is scraping the bottom of the New England states in the educational level of our workforce. So why not spend a few more dollars on such useful programs as work force training, adult education and helping our newly arrived immigrants learn English.

Investments in education pay off; this has been true throughout our history. The Civil War-era Morrill Act that created state universities is one of the best examples. In our time, we need to give more resources to public colleges. The Assembly could codify the state Education Board policy that allows the children of undocumented immigrants to study at our state colleges for in-state tuition.

The Assembly can also raise the minimum wage, which will be a priority this year for organized labor, says George Nee, president of the state AFL-CIO. Rhode Island’s wage floor is at $8 an hour. We must be careful to keep this wage within the realm of our New England neighbors, particularly Connecticut and Massachusetts. Connecticut’s minimum wage is now $9 an hour and there is movement afoot in Massachusetts to jump the rate to closer to $10.

It would be great if private sector unions would make a comeback. But there is not much one state can do in this area because such unions are governed by federal laws.

Conservatives and liberals continue to debate the role of government in the economy. Most of the conventional wisdom look backs at the War on Poverty portray it as having largely failed; the poverty rate has fallen only from 19 percent to 15 percent over two generations.

Yet others who have studied the era, such as Brown University historian emeritus James T. Patterson, point to the tangible legacies that have helped millions of Americans rise from poverty, including Medicare, Medicaid, the increase in social security payments and food stamps, a program that subsidizes both grain farmers and the undernourished.  Poverty among the elderly has dropped dramatically since the 1960s, notes Patterson.

Yet the stubborn gap between the majority white population and the growing minority population remains.

Government has had a leading role in fostering economic growth since the founding of our nation. It was President John Adams who built the light houses along New England’s rocky coast that facilitated transportation. And the Internet, the global economic  fulcrum of the 21st Century, was born of U.S. government research.

While liberals may well be right about the need for government action to aid the economy, conservatives have a point when they maintain that the best  anti-poverty program ever devised is a paycheck. (Even New Dealer Franklin Roosevelt stated that).

And you don’t have to have a doctorate in sociology to look around and figure out that culture is a factor in poverty.

Too many Rhode Islanders have the attitude that it is ok for their kids to drop out of school. Too many of our young have children before they have acquired the skills needed to support them. We still are plagued by an oversupply of neglectful men who create one-parent families.

Given our state’s fragile economy, Rhode Island lawmakers can’t go on a social program spending spree. And we shouldn’t be in the business of government hand-outs. But they can help the least among us with a hand-up.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at our `On Politics’ blog at