For my “do something” event I attended a wealth inequality talk in downtown Saratoga Springs. The event was held at the famed Café Lena and called Conversations to Build an Inclusive Community: What Wealth Inequality Looks Like in our Community. I had no idea what to expect and was quite surprise and pleased by the turnout, speakers, and audience conversation. The first presentation was by a man named Ron Deutsch who is the executive director at the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI). The FPI works to help inform New York State legislatures on fiscal issues in the state, as well as assist with and suggest budget reforms. Ron spoke about statistics of New York State income inequality, showing information that shocked and saddened the audience. There was then a panel that included Ron, along with Amani Olugbala of Soul Fire Farm and Bonnie Nelson of CAPTAIN Community Human Services. The speakers were met with a fired up audience who responded during speeches with affirmative sounds, shocked wows, and sighs of frustration. After the panel, the audience asked questions and searched for answers on how to fix the income inequality issue right here in Saratoga. By the end of the discussion I had come to this conclusion; we cannot expect change or progress to come from congress or the white house, but rather change is going to happen in our local communities by those on the ground level.
The good news for New York states is that in recent years the median income has been on the rise and that is thanks to the increase of minimum wage. However, there are more than a handful of issues plaguing the working-poor in this state. For example, racial prejudice keeps Blacks and Hispanics 2-2.5 times more likely to be living in poverty. The top 1% in New York State earn 33% of the state’s income. The three counties with the highest levels of income inequality are New York City, Westchester, followed by Saratoga. The state poverty level is 15.7% which is slightly above the latest recorded national average of 12.7%. There are cities in New York like Syracuse, Buffalo, and Rochester which consistently make the top 10 for the country’s most impoverish cities. These statistics were shocking to me and, like so many issues these days, left me wondering what I could possibly do. This is when the three panelists came together and Amani and Bonnie talked about what they do in the local community. I realized during this conversation that the people working locally are the ones getting the most done. They talk to people in their communities who need help, guidance, and some boots so they can pull themselves up bootstraps, metaphorically speaking.
Amani works with Soul Fire Farm which is a local organization working to end racism in the food system. She informed us that food is the number one killer of black and brown folks in the country. At Soul Fire they have programs to help provide local families and community members food that keeps them healthy. Bonnie then spoke about her work with CAPTAIN which provides people in the region tackle issues such as poverty, academic support, homelessness, and hunger. These two organizations are examples of how change on the local level is more affective in our society right now because even within the state legislature, polarization is preventing effective progress from being made.
I asked the question, “how does the current polarization happening in our country affect the ability to make change in New York State?” Ron spoke to how New York State struggles with creating a budget that supports social services because fiscal conservatives placed intense spending cap. Bonnie spoke to how many of the people who come to her for help, who are a part of the struggling, white, working-poor, often vote against their best interest. This led me to think about an article we read for class by Kurt Weyland talking about barriers to populism. His fourth argument for why we should not be worried about populism succeeding with Trump is because “the U.S. is not suffering an acute [economic] crisis,” but after going to this community event, I think I have to disagree.
I think that there is a small percentage of people who even out the large number of people not receiving the financial support necessary or who are making too much to qualify for social services, but too little to not live paycheck to paycheck. To me, this seems like a crisis; a lot of people are in crisis, but live in places like rural upstate New York where access to resources is limited. One argument by the panelist, Ron, was that there needs to be a basic floor for income in order to get by. Right now the “floor” that exists is not good enough.
Unfortunately, these people have been forgotten by administrations and I do not see the current administration helping them, despite Trump’s promises. However, they voted for a man who they thought would disrupt Washington. In an article about reasons for Trump’s election, the author wrote, “much of the white working class decided that Mr. Trump could be a jerk. Absent any other champion, they supported the jerk they thought was more on their side — that is, on the issues that most concerned them.” In my opinion, so far, this is not happening. Nationwide, people are watching Washington and hoping for change or hoping things don’t (depending on your side), but I think it can be agreed upon that there is too much wealth disparity also polarizing the country.
That is why, after attending this meeting, I believe the best way to help pull people out of tough situations is on the ground level, in our communities, with grassroots organizations. I think the CAPTAIN program can help more people than social welfare right now because they have one goal, to help people out in tough situations, to guide them financially, and help them reach personal goals. These are people not worried about re-election, not trying to serve their own interests, but rather they are just trying to help out struggling people, families, and communities. I realize that we have to be dedicated to issues in our community more than ever before and make local change before it makes its way to the national stage.