A Dream Deferred: A week after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the war on the poor continues

“The poor are less often dismissed, I hope, from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent… The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the need for a guaranteed annual income, Aug. 16, 1967

“Are we willing to say as a society, that someone with zero skills but who is willing to work 40 hours at something – a plantation worker comes to mind – is entitled to be paid enough to make ends meet here? If so, then why did many of us bust our butts trying to acquire marketable skills?” – President of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii Tom Yamachika in a Maui News column, Jan. 18, 2020

If there’s one thing you can almost admire about Tom Yamachika, it’s his audacity to say the quiet part loud no matter how depraved. Implying that imported plantation workers deserved the oppressive working conditions they endured, and questioning workers’ rights to dignified lives the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day – well, that takes… a special kind of person.

For all his elitist hand-wringing and grasping arguments, though, there is one thing about Yamachika’s Jan. 18 column “What really is a minimum wage?” that I am thankful for: the clear articulation of a disregard and disdain for the poor which appears at all levels of government. It seems we are no longer engaged in the War on Poverty envisioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

Rather, it’s War on the Poor.

US Supreme Court Upholds Trump’s New ‘Public Charge’ Rule

On Monday, the US Supreme Court voted 5-4 to allow the Trump Administration to enforce a rule which makes it harder for poor immigrants to be granted green cards or visas. The restriction allows the denial of immigrant visas if a person is deemed a “public charge,” or someone who uses or is likely to use public assistance programs. That part’s nothing new. However, Trump’s rule change expands the previous definition of public assistance from only meaning cash assistance to now include Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or “food stamps”), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

So far the effect has been “chilling,” reported the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice Monday. “There is much anecdotal evidence that the rumors of this new public charge rule have caused a ‘chilling’ effect among immigrant families since 2017, when it was first leaked to the media,” the organization stated. “News reports from across the country describe how some immigrant families have decided to forgo all government benefits – even if they and their children were eligible for and sorely needed them – to avoid the potential negative consequences of the new public charge rule.”

“Between fiscal years 2016 and 2018, there was a 9 percent drop in SNAP participation among citizens in Hawaiʻi, as would be expected in an improving economy,” Hawai‘i Appleseed added. “However, alarmingly, SNAP participation dropped much more sharply for non-citizens – by 33 percent over that same time period. In other words, over 5,300 more eligible Hawaiʻi residents may have gotten SNAP benefits in FY2018 if the public charge rule had not been announced in early 2017.”

For Hawai‘i’s children of non-citizens, the decline in SNAP participation was a drastic 38 percent.