Restaurant Associations Don’t Speak for the Industry on Tip Credit Wages

July 18, 2016

Some of you, I’m sure, feel I’ve gone on plenty long enough about the tip credit wage. But there’s a piece of the story I’ve merely hinted at — and one that merits a tad more.

It has to do with the commonly used term “restaurant industry” as the leading force against any increase in the tip credit wage. The “industry” generally means the National Restaurant Association and/or its state affiliates, including one in the Washington metro area.

Yet neither this NRA nor its affiliates represent all restaurants when they advocate against changes in the tip credit wage.

Nor did the then-head of the NRA when he persuaded Congress to freeze the wage, rather than let it rise, as it always had, when the federal minimum increased — this in exchange for no lobbying against the then-pending increase.

Basically, far from all restaurant owners benefit from the sub-minimum wage. Some that could, i.e., those that provide table service and perhaps have bars, choose to pay their tipped workers more than they have to.

Restaurant Opportunities Council United highlighted a handful in Taking the High Road — its best-practices guide.

Small Business Trends more recently reported no-tipping policies in at least 18 New York City restaurants. Some of shifted to service charges. Others to prices that factor in their higher labor costs.


Doing the Gifting My Way

December 23, 2015

We in America give a lot to charity — more than $358 billion last year, nearly three-quarters of it from individuals. This, of course, includes very large donations from very wealthy people, mostly to large nonprofits that will put their names on what they fund.

They presumably don’t wait till December. But a lot of us apparently do — or at least, make our final donations then. If past is prologue, charities will receive nearly a third of our donation dollars this month.

Over the last month or so, I’ve noticed a spate of articles on how to give — most quite similar. But the recent stream also includes one New York Times column that challenges the advice of the rest and another that seems to point toward a third way.

The main theme of most advice is to give where you’ll get the biggest bang for the buck. We’re enjoined to practice effective altruism — to “think scientifically rather than sentimentally.”

An oft-cited nonprofit — GiveWell — does the number-crunching. So we learn, for example, that less than $3,350 will save the life of a child in some poor part of Africa by supplying the family with an insecticide-treated mosquito netting for his/her bed.

No donation any of us could conceivably make — let alone one so small — will literally save the life of a poor child in America. So do we all just click the Donate button on GiveWell?

A recent column in Parade magazine says not necessarily. What we need to do first is decide what two or three causes we’re most passionate about, then choose our geographic scope.

Then we somehow identify specific organizations that seem to suit. We can consult Charity Navigator, though the column doesn’t mention it. Then comes research — the nonprofits’ revenues and expenses, operations, ratings, etc.

Here too, we’ve got online sources — the financials on GuideStar, for example, and the annual reports some larger nonprofits post, as well as ratings on several sites. But we shouldn’t rely on what we can find on the Web, the Parade columnist says.

We should also talk with a board member and actually visit the services site or volunteer there. Alternatively, we should see what causes a business leader or foundation we admire supports and do the same.

Note that we’re still in the effective altruism mode — merely relying in part on the “homework” of other practitioners.

Professor Jamil Saki, author of one of the New York Times columns I mentioned, argues that “dismissing sentiment” from our giving choices is wrong-headed. “Emotion — especially empathy — adds a powerful, positive spark to philanthropy” because the good feelings we get when we donate can prompt us to give again.

And we’ll even feel less stress and anxiety in our daily lives. Studies cited for both prongs of what he calls the “feel-good school of philanthropy.”

We do, however, he adds, have to “turn our sympathy to those most in need,” rather than rely on our feelings for those who “look like us or whose sufferings are well-publicized.”

Something in both approaches troubles me. On the one hand, we surely want to know how much of our money would go to salaries for top-level officers and for further fundraising. And we want to give to nonprofits that have an impact.

Yet measuring results, if feasible, is costly — far costlier than recording activities, e.g., number of grocery bags distributed, number of poor youth trained for jobs. So the bang-for-the-buck focus will tend to favor large, amply-funded organizations.

Similarly, we do want to avoid basing our donations on heart-tugging ads (also costly) or how readily we identify with the prospective beneficiaries. (There but for the grace, etc.) But deciding who’s most in need seems to assume that suffering is somehow measurable.

And not only that. It seems to assume that we should aim only to relieve the immediate causes of suffering — hunger, for example, or homelessness. Yet these causes have causes rooted in the operations of our private markets and public policies.

And public policies can uproot them — or at the very least, offset their impacts. The President of the Ford Foundation seems ready to move his very large source of funding for human needs in this direction.

“‘Giving back,'” he says, “is necessary, but not sufficient. We should seek to bring about lasting, systemic change.” He’s clearly speaking here to very wealthy people and their foundations.

What he has in mind for them isn’t altogether clear, beyond “listening to those most affected by injustice,” seeing “through a diversity of viewpoints” and learning from past successes and failures — much of this apparently through high-power data analyses and other uses of technology.

We thus seem to have a new phase of effective altruism in the making — one that would seek to “disrupt the drivers of inequality” so as to help birth “a world that makes philanthropy unnecessary.”

This is all well beyond such extra income as I have to “leverage” social change — not to mention the resources need to figure out how, according to the envisioned model.

Yet I welcomed his column because it opens a space in the advice-giving realm for donations to charitable organizations that focus on policy-relevant research, analysis and advocacy.

Or at least, that’s how I choose to view it because the alternatives effectively ignore the role such organizations can play in alleviating suffering. A handful dominate my end-of-year giving list.

I don’t need an online tool or business leader to choose them. And they’d be hard put to document results, i.e., to show that their activities alone achieved policy changes.

I know them because I rely on their analyses and information they share with the like-minded for my blog posts — and the self-education that lies behind and beyond them. So I feel I’m “giving back.”

And I feel good about my philanthropy, if we can call it that, because I witness how they help bend the arc toward justice by working strategically, persistently and collaboratively for policies that will alleviate the hardships of poor people in the U.S. and, in the fullness of time, make them unnecessary.

 

 


Want to Know What Poor People Need? First Ask the Right Questions.

September 8, 2015

The National Diaper Bank Network responded to my post on diaper needs by alerting me to a new curriculum it developed in collaboration with other members of MOMS Partnership, a coalition of public agencies and private-sector organizations in New Haven, Connecticut.

The curriculum is for social service professions who assess the needs of poor and near-poor families and provide related care and/or referrals. It aims to inject attention to basic needs into what they do.

“Our instincts,” the Network’s Executive Director Joanne Goldblum says, “can lead us to habitually conclude that the best solutions to addressing chronic issues are referrals for more supports and services,” e.g., therapy, parenting classes, job skills training.

But solutions to what the professionals observe and ferret out in interviews could, in one respect, be a whole lot simpler and swifter — not to mention cheaper.

For example, a social worker visits a family. She sees piles of dirty laundry, dust bunnies everywhere, a toddler wandering around in a wet diaper.

She’s likely to conclude that the mother suffers from clinical depression — and her children perhaps from the sort of neglect that warrants the intervention of the child welfare agency.

But the mom may merely not have enough money for the laundromat and detergent, a vacuum sweeper and fresh diapers.

In short, the social worker sees a parent who needs to be fixed, rather than unmet basic needs she could readily identify if she just asked the right questions. They’re part of what she’d learn to ask in training based on the curriculum.

What would she do with the answers? What sort of referral, for example, could readily supply detergent and a sweeper — or the cash to buy them? What if the family’s not in a community where nonprofits distribute free diapers?

Goldblum, who helped develop the curriculum and now uses it in workshops, had a multi-part answer for me.

First, sensitized social service workers would advocate within their organizations for a basic needs line item in the budget or a more general fund they could tap to provide families with money for basic needs — or to buy them for the family.

Second, they would reach out to local voluntary groups that could donate items or initiate collections, like the diaper drives the Network promotes.

A number of social workers and nurses now spend their own money to supply basic needs, Goldblum told me. This is hardly a fair or sufficient solution, though it speaks well of the professionals who are perceptive and caring enough to dig into their own wallets for urgent needs.

Third, social service workers would advocate for public policies and programs that meet basic needs. They would, one hopes, try to engage their organizations and their networks, including their professional associations and online groups they belong to.

So how do we get from where we are to where we ought to be? Goldblum hopes the curriculum will, in the long run, help change both policies and practice.

But for both, she said, we need more “public conversation” about how social service professionals, policymakers and the rest of us feel about people in poverty. The conversation, if honest, would reveal that negative feelings about poor people aren’t confined to right-wingers whose diatribes and slurs we read in the press.

All this stuff about how poor parents are irresponsible. How they’re poor because they’ve made bad choices — and won’t pull themselves together to remedy the damage. How they don’t care about their children’s well-being. Etc.

Social services professionals themselves, the curriculum says, may make unconscious negative judgments based on “superficial factors” — smelly clothes, for example, or missed appointments.

They may have become somewhat jaded, I’m told, because poor clients do sometimes make unwise decisions — as do we all. Poverty itself, however, may make people prone to decisions that don’t serve their best interests.

A widely-reported study concluded that worries about financial problems take up so much mental “bandwidth” that people may not have enough left over for everyday challenges like resisting things they should — let alone for activities that could lift them out of poverty, e.g., looking for a better-paying job.

We’ve got other research indicating that poverty-related stress and “negative affective states,” e.g., unhappiness, make people “short-sighted and risk-averse” such that they’ll make decisions that perpetuate their poverty.

One formerly low-income mother achieved some celebrity — and a book contract — by blogging on her extraordinarily stressful life and reasons she made “bad” financial decisions. These include her feeling that they don’t matter because she “will never not be poor.”

Addressing basic needs won’t in itself get to the root causes of poverty. But it surely would relieve stress, misery and probably utter hopelessness.

After all, something troubling did get better. Someone in “the system” asked questions relevant to pressing everyday concerns, listened to figure out what could relieve them — and delivered.

None of this is to say that poor parents don’t, in some cases, have problems that call for therapy, parenting skills training and the like. But, Goldblum says, providers can’t effectively get to such problems until basic needs gaps are filled.

The curriculum has broader implications than might first appear. One is that it’s a model for developing agendas. As my title suggests, if you want to know what poor people need, ask them.

Another is that it seeks to engage advocates whose professional expertise and experiences would make them especially effective.

A third that strikes me is what the curriculum represents. Poverty is a large, complex problem. Goldblum and her MOMS Partnership colleagues clearly understand this.

But they didn’t just throw up their hands. They saw an opportunity to jump start a programmatic shift that could become larger and branch into the public policy sphere. This, in fact, is how Goldblum built a national network from an insight and a local fund-raising initiative.

 

 


CHIP Renewal: Will the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good?

April 2, 2015

Last week, the House passed a bipartisan (yes, really) bill that would, among other things, extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program for two years, with the higher matching rate that was part of the Affordable Care Act. The Senate will vote on the shortly after members return from their two-week break.

The bill is far from perfect. CHIP supporters and others of progressive leanings will have to decide whether — and at what point — to say it’s good enough.

A Lot at Stake and the Outcome Uncertain

Some Senate Democrats, urged on by lead children’s advocates, have insisted on a four-year CHIP extension. That would, of course, tend to avert another go round in 2017, when we could have a Republican President. And it would enable states to plan for the longer term.

But withholding support for the package could kill it, especially because it’s under fire for reasons that have nothing to do with CHIP, e.g., an offset that would raise Medicare premiums for better-off beneficiaries, the usual ban on using federal funds for abortions, except in certain limited cases. And, of course, some of those self-identified deficit hawks object because the costs aren’t fully offset.

Defeat of the bill would leave not only CHIP imperiled, but also other programs that benefit low-income children, including the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Visitation program, the Transitional Medical Assistance program and a provision in the ACA that funds community health centers.

Why the Bipartisan Deal Now?

As I’ve written before, CHIP will receive no more federal funding after September unless Congress extends it. That, however, is not why we’ve got votes on an extension now. There’s an urgent need, as there is virtually every year, to prevent the Sustainable Growth Rate from taking effect.

Congress enacted the SGR nearly 20 years ago in an effort to control Medicare costs. It provided a formula to curb spending on physicians’ services to Medicare beneficiaries.

But physicians claimed — perhaps, in some cases, rightly — that the reimbursements wouldn’t even cover their costs of providing care. So Congress temporarily suspended the SGR, but left the provision otherwise intact.

And it’s done the same ever since, allowing instead very small — or in some years, no — rate increases. The so-called doc fix has become increasingly necessary because, without it, all the annual rate reductions would take effect. Doctors are thus hypothetically facing a rate cut of 21% — hypothetically because, of course, Congress won’t let that happen.

The package now pending in the Senate would, at long last, repeal the SGR, but not the intent because it establishes a new reimbursement rate scheme.

Risks for CHIP

We’ll, of course, have another doc fix if the final package doesn’t pass. But we can’t count on full funding for CHIP — let alone, at the higher matching rate. For one thing, a bill brewing in the Senate would not only repeal that rate, but cut program funding in several other ways.

For another, we’ve now got a House budget plan that would fold CHIP into the same block grant as Medicaid. States would thus have to cope with an ever-greater funding squeeze. And they’d have the “flexibility” to eliminate benefits and/or beneficiaries.

Fund Cut-Off for Home Visiting Programs

Meanwhile, funding for MIECV would remain in limbo. And it expires at the end of this month. The pending bill would extend it until October 2018, at the same funding level it has now.

The program is quite small. It has nevertheless helped agencies establish and expand programs that offer poor and other at-risk pregnant women and parents of young children the opportunity to have trained professionals come to their homes, assess their family’s needs and then provide and/or refer them to a variety of services.

These include, but are by no means limited to health-related services, e.g., advice on infant care and child nutrition, screenings for developmental disabilities.

States reported serving about 115,000 families last year — surely a small fraction of those that could benefit. Hard to believe that as many would be served if Congress lets funding for the home visiting program dry up.

Other Health-Related Programs

The bill would convert two time-limited healthcare law programs that benefit low-income people into permanent law.

One — Transitional Medical Assistance — enables families to temporarily remain in Medicaid after they’ve moved from welfare to work. That move can happen when they’re by no means earning enough to afford other health insurance because state income eligibility thresholds for welfare, i.e., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, are so low.

TMA doesn’t altogether take care of the problem, especially in states that have refused to expand their Medicaid programs. But it gives parents some additional time to increase their income — or find an employer that offers health insurance they can afford.

The other program provides states with funds to pay for the Medicare Part B premiums of qualifying individuals. Since I’m focusing here on support for children’s health and wellbeing, I’ll refer those interested to a short, clear summary by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Lastly, the bill would extend the funding for community health centers initiated by the ACA. It’s helped support preventive care and treatment for 21.7 million people, according to the latest (somewhat outdated) figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly a third of those people were children.

A Difficult Balancing Act

What all this means, I think, is that advocates for children — and for appropriate, affordable health care generally — have to balance priorities and prospects. They understandably want CHIP funded at the higher matching rate for the full four years the ACA envisions. Backing off now could doom efforts to get that in the Senate.

On the other hand, once Congress has taken care of the SGR problem — permanently or just for another year or two — chances it will renew CHIP at the higher matching rate don’t look good. What will happen to the other programs that benefit low-income children is a question mark.

Recall that both House and Senate Republicans seem set on drastically reducing federal spending (except for defense, of course). Not a good time to leave some many healthcare programs for vulnerable people wide open.

 

 

 

 


What the Food Stamp Challenge May Do … and What It Can’t

October 13, 2014

D.C. Hunger Solutions invited me to take the Food Stamp Challenge last week. I’d be joining not only fellow District residents, but also Maryland and Virginia residents who’d been recruited by similar Food Research and Action Center initiatives there.

I took a pass. Truth to tell, I couldn’t see myself living on a $33 grocery budget for the week. For food maybe. But doing without the rich, dark coffee I drink from morn to eve? No way.

I told myself that taking the Food Stamp Challenge wouldn’t achieve anything anyway. It’s supposed to raise awareness of hunger — and more particularly, the woeful insufficiency of SNAP benefits.

Well, I already know that, as a long stream of posts indicates. And I felt that I’d bore friends and followers by blogging, tweeting, FaceBook posting, etc. about my daily trials. Do you really care that I scraped the bottom of the peanut butter jar for lunch or how I suffered from caffeine withdrawal syndrome?

Maybe if I extracted lessons, the way D.C. Hunger Solutions’ Executive Director Alex Ashbrook has. But that didn’t occur to me. I suspect I would have been too grumpy and jittery for contemplation anyway.

Rationalizing perhaps. But I still can’t get on board with the notion that the Food Stamp Challenge raises awareness of what it’s like to depend on SNAP benefits — an inherent flaw acknowledged by D.C. Hunger Solutions itself.

On the one hand, those who do depend on SNAP don’t buy food for only a week. They’ll have some oil on hand to fry up potatoes — perhaps some rice and beans in the cabinet because they stocked up during a sale.

Or in some cases they won’t because, unlike any Food Stamp Challenge participant, they don’t have transportation to get to a grocery story (and home with all the bags) — or because they don’t have a kitchen to cook in.

More importantly, their food stamp challenges go on and on. It’s one thing to dine on ramen noodles for a couple of nights. Quite another to know you’ll be serving ramen noodles to your kids for the indefinite future.

Blogger Professor Tracey captured this difference back in 2009, when she critiqued a month-long Food Stamp Challenge undertaken by a reporter.

“He always knew the experiment would end,” she wrote. “I would be willing to wager for the majority of people living on public assistance that for them one of the most disconcerting aspects is having no idea when they will be able to stop relying on public assistance, if ever.”

And, of course, SNAP recipients can’t quit or cheat, as we know some Food Stamp Challenge participants have — and can guess others did as well.

Finally, we need to recall that the amount participants are challenged to live on is a fourth of the average monthly SNAP benefit. That’s about $33 here in the District and nationwide — somewhat less in Maryland and Virginia.

But the average is considerably lower in some states — barely over $29 in three. And all the averages are just that. Lots of SNAP beneficiaries receive much less — as little as $16 a month in all but two states.

This, we’re told, is one reason that only a third of seniors who’d be eligible for SNAP benefits apply, even though many others can’t fend off hunger without groceries from a food pantry. Paltry SNAP benefits also help explain the reliance on nonprofit feeding programs, of course.

Here in the District, the DC Council has budgeted enough in local funds to raise the minimum SNAP benefit to $30 a month — thanks to a campaign spearheaded by D.C. Hunger Solutions.

It has also adopted the mayor’s proposal to raise the minimum LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefit. This will preserve the somewhat higher SNAP benefits some residents have received because — again thanks to D.C. Hunger Solutions — it adopted the so-called “heat and eat” option in 2009.

Nine of the 15 states that had adopted “heat and eat” have done the same, putting House Republican leaders into an awful snit.

Did policymakers shore up SNAP benefits because they’d learned from the Food Stamp Challenge?  Hardly. But notwithstanding all that I’ve said, I suppose it’s possible that policymakers and others who can get their stories into major media may, if only briefly, call attention to the benefits problem.

And I suppose it’s also possible that living for a week on a food stamp budget may put fire into the briefly-unsatisfied bellies of some Challenge participants who’d been content to leave advocacy to others.

Yet a series of polls tell us that more voters than not already think the federal government should spend more to combat hunger. Did this matter to Congressional Republicans — House members, in particular — when they set out to slash SNAP spending for the next five years?

When I shared my reservations about the Food Stamp Challenge with an anti-hunger advocate, she said, in so many words, “The people who should take it won’t.” I think they won’t care about the experiences of those who do either.

They’re ideologically driven to cut safety-net spending and will rationalize that however they can. But there’s animus against poor people in some quarters too. They don’t want to work. They use their SNAP benefits for liquor, lap dances, etc. rather than to feed their children. They [you can fill in the rest].

Darned if I know what we can do to persuade these folks that no one wants to depend on public benefits — or that everyone should have enough to eat, every day of the month, fresh fruits and veggies included

Make the Food Stamp Challenge a qualification for public office?

 

 


Senate Votes to Debate Long-Term Unemployment Benefits, But Renewal Far From Certain

January 8, 2014

I spent part of last Thursday participating in a Twitter blast at Republican Senators whom lead advocates had targeted as potential votes in favor of reviving the recently-expired Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.

For those unfamiliar with this tactic, it involves recruiting as many Twitter users as possible to send messages within a brief period of time. Everyone who follows them sees the messages and can join in by simply clicking the retweet link at the bottom.

Our blast targeted 14 Senators. We had sample tweets we could adapt, including the number of jobless workers in the state they represent who’d just lost their benefits.

Some of those Senators just voted to begin debate on a bill to renew the long-term unemployment benefits. Without their votes, the bill would have languished — perhaps indefinitely.

The tweet blast was interesting to me for several reasons.

First, it shows how social media like Twitter have become such an important element in advocacy campaigns. They not only rally supporters and provide a means of sharing information. They are themselves a way of communicating messages to policymakers.

I know this is obvious, but it’s really quite new. Back in the day, as my husband says, the closest advocates could get to a Twitter blast was mass fax messaging.

When I worked on Capitol Hill, I collected duplicative messages off the fax machine daily — and dumped them, as instructed. No one could know they’d been sent or received except subscribers to the mass fax services. Well, that was then.

And now Twitter and the like have also become something that many elected officials apparently see as advantageous to their own campaigns. After all, we couldn’t blast at the Senators if they didn’t have Twitter accounts.

Second, the blast shows how much so many have invested in preserving EUC. I recall few, if any campaigns pursued so energetically and with as much coordination among so many and diverse organizations.

The blast was just one small piece of a campaign that has included, among other things, polls (see here and here), online petitions, outreach to local media, link-ups to jobless workers they could talk to, op-eds, a wicked TV ad, several toll-free numbers to Congressional offices and a plethora of action alerts to generate e-mails and/or calls.

And we couldn’t have blasted the Senators with tweets that spoke directly to what the end of EUC has meant for their constituents if the U.S. Department of Labor hadn’t earlier produced state-by-state estimates of the number of jobless workers who’d immediately lose their benefits.

These perhaps because Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee asked for them. Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent reported that they were also compiling county-by-county figures, some of which I’ve seen in the press.

In short, each Senator was on notice of what his/her vote would mean back home — and at the risk of cynicism, how a vote against renewal could be messaged there.

Well, the Senate voted yesterday — not to renew EUC, but to debate the proposed short-term extension. The motion squeaked through with just the 60 votes needed — all Democrats present, the two Independents and six Republicans.

But the Republicans won’t necessarily vote to renew the EUC program. They still insist that the cost of any renewal be offset — and only by spending cuts, The New York Times reports.

Democrats worry that these would offset the economic boost that EUC benefits deliver — the equivalent of 240,000 jobs, assuming a year-long extension.

And it’s hard to know whether an offset would satisfy. Senator Susan Collins, who’s tried to broker a deal, reportedly wants to condition receipt of the longest-term unemployment benefits on enrollment in a job training program.

Without these changes, Republicans may block a vote on the EUC bill itself.

Over on the House side, Speaker John Boehner has again let it be known that he’d consider a renewal if it’s paid for and paired with “other efforts that will help get our economy moving again.”

Specifics from two of his colleagues include eliminating “back-breaking, job-breaking regulations,” approval of the Keystone pipeline and tax policy changes.

Not a recipe for a swift renewal — or any perhaps.

But one never knows about these things. What we do know is that many of the 1.3 million or so jobless workers and their families who’ve lost their benefits could be in dire straits. And even a bill that restores those benefits won’t undo the damage, though it would stave off more.

As Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said, many have gone “from a position of hardship” to a “catastrophe.” You can’t retroactively feed a child or reverse an eviction for unpaid rent.

No one in Congress can claim ignorance of this — or of the catastrophes the big numbers represent.

On the one hand, I’m enormously impressed by the strategies, coordination and sheer size of the renewal campaign — most impressed perhaps by its success in getting stories of struggling workers into the news.

On the other hand, I’m depressed that the human suffering just doesn’t seem to matter — at least, not enough to enough Republicans in Congress.

We should have had a year-long EUC extension before they went home for the holidays. As it is, they seemingly won’t go for a swift, simple three-month renewal to tide their long-term jobless constituents over during the back-and-forth on a longer-term deal.

Ah well, it’s not over. I’m inclined to think that Republican leaders will decide that leaving so many jobless workers and their families in the lurch is bad for the brand.

But meanwhile catastrophes loom — approximately 72,000 more every week.


Grassroots Network Gets Human Rights Into Budget Law

February 21, 2013

A recent briefing introduced me to a state budget campaign launched by the Vermont Workers’ Center. It’s quite different from most budget campaigns I’m familiar with.

And I think there are things that advocates –and everyday concerned citizens — can learn from it. So let me tell you a bit about it.

The Workers’ Center is a grassroots network that’s branched out from workplace issues to “the full range of issues of concern to working people.”

Two years ago, they racked up a significant victory — a law that promises to make publicly-funded health care a right for everyone who lives in Vermont.

Now the Center has turned its attention to the broader issue of state spending and revenue policies. And again, they’ve racked up a victory.

In this case, it’s an amendment to the state’s budget law that establishes basic principles for the budget — what it should do and how it should be developed.

The latter has to do with processes for public participation. These are still in the development stage, but apparently moving toward completion.

The what-the-budget-should-do part is potentially more revolutionary — and for two reasons.

First, it adopts a human rights framework. “Spending and revenue policies,” it says, will “recognize every person’s need for health, housing, dignified work, education, food, social security and a healthy environment.”

This is far more than the symbolic gesture the DC Council made when it declared the District a human rights city. And it’s much broader than the Illinois anti-poverty strategy I wrote about some time ago.

The Vermont law essentially provides a test for virtually any spending proposal. Does it “advance human dignity and equity”? Does it help meet any of the specified needs — or more generally, “promote economic well-being … and a vibrant economy”?

Also revolutionary is the notion that the costs of meeting the Vermont people’s needs should drive revenue policies.

That, at any rate, is how a director at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative — one of the Workers’ Center’s lead partners — characterizes the “reframed” budget purpose.

As we all know, budgeting generally works very differently.

First, there’s a revenue projection and some sort of account of what the government spent and would have to spend to keep operating as it has. Also, in some cases, a spending target, e.g., the federal deficit reduction targets enshrined in the Budget Control Act.

Then the money gets divvied up — first by the chief executive, e.g., the President, the state governor, then by committees in the legislature and finally by the legislature as a whole.

Okay, I know this is over-simple. In most states, for example, the governor can veto particular items in the budget the legislature has passed — or in all but one state, the whole damn thing.

And, of course, Congress can do whatever it chooses with budgets enacted by the District of Columbia.

Nevertheless, there’s always a fixed amount of money to spend — even if the evolving budget includes revenue raisers.

Organizations representing different interests and/or communities contend for the biggest share of the budget pie they can get. This often means defending the share of the pie they’ve got — over and over again as the years roll on.

Conflicts among them may be smoothed over. That’s part of what broad-based coalitions are for. But I doubt any interest group has sat out a budget season in deference to another.

The end result is winners and losers, even within what we might call the human needs community.

This is what the Vermont Workers’ Center seeks to replace with its People’s Budget, which would stand the customary budget process on its head.

Costs of meeting people’s basic needs would come first. Revenue raisers would follow, if needed to meet those costs.

I’ve some doubts about how this process will fare when the rubber hits the road.

Will Vermont legislators actually pass tax increases sufficient to fulfill the human rights vision embodied in the budget law?

Or will there be the usual push-and-pull between spending and revenue policies? And the usual competition among interests, including the big one between those who want more spending and those who think their taxes are already too high?

Guess we’ll have to wait and see. And hope that the experiment pans out. Because it could become a model for budget reforms elsewhere.

Even in its infancy, it gives us a fresh way of thinking about how budgets are made — and what we do (and don’t). We all, I think, can benefit from that.


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