May 22, 2019

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The anti-poverty movement involves hundreds of organizations that, like CCLP, take the fight to the state. Operating at the state level is an absolute necessity because many of the core laws and policies that affect access to health, housing, income, and food are...

Parting Thoughts on Advocacy and Economic Justice in Colorado

by | May 22, 2019

Note: During a May 10 Legislative Wrap-Up event, Claire Levy talked about the role of advocacy in her last public appearance as Executive Director of Colorado Center on Law & Policy. What follows are excerpts from the speech.

I want to use this time to reflect a bit on how we’ve evolved during my time at the helm and also to talk about the work that lies ahead for all of us – regardless of the position we hold in life.

CCLP has strong sense of mission. We always hark back to why we were created and our unique niche in the advocacy ecosystem. But even with that, we have to adapt. It’s always necessary to be asking ourselves whether we are focusing on the right issues.

Every advocacy organization refines the issues on which it works from year-to-year. But sometimes, we have to do some deep thinking about whether — within the scope of our mission and vision — we are getting at the right stuff.

For CCLP, that has meant looking at what is really getting in the way of advancing the health, well-being and economic security of low-income Coloradans. We had full agendas for access to health care and policies to improve earning power of people in low-wage, low-skills jobs. We were addressing lack of work supports; primarily, child care.

But what had been missing from our work was any effort to address the most basic need of all – stable, affordable housing. We assumed that others had that covered, but then it turned out not to be the case.

The other component that was missing was that working in-and-of-itself could not provide economic security and well-being if wages are too low to support yourself and your family.

We produced our State of Working Colorado report year after year, in which we demonstrated that wages in the state were not recovering from the recession – even though the economy was supposedly thriving. But we didn’t have plans to address that problem head-on.

When it came down to it, all signs pointed to the need to raise the minimum wage – as daunting as it is to amend the constitution by a vote of the people. Hence, CCLP’s huge effort along with our partners SEIU and others on the campaign for Amendment 72 to increase the minimum wage in 2016. Examinations like this are necessary for organizations to maintain their relevance and their effectiveness.

I’d add one more issue to that roster: employment and housing for people re-entering society from the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, people of color are profoundly over-represented in the criminal justice system.

Society has relied on criminalization to address behaviors we don’t like that arise from deficiencies in social supports. That has meant incarcerating people who need mental health treatment and whose offenses arise from being homeless and from substance use disorders instead of addressing those issues by providing treatment and services. But having criminalized the behavior and meted out a sentence, the criminal justice system ignored entirely what happened next. Ninety-seven percent of people in jail or prison return to our communities, but they are largely on their own to sink or swim, and at least half of them are sinking. Many of them have children to support. Many have lost their family connections and social supports. While legislators have been adept at creating new offenses, until recently they utterly failed to provide adequate genuine support to people after they’ve paid their so-called “debt” to society.

Given the extensive effect of mass incarceration on economic opportunity and productivity, CCLP couldn’t ignore re-entry issues. Hence, the addition of limited reentry issues to our work plans.

But we can’t take on all the issues and right all the wrongs. We have to be strategic. So there are core principles we use to filter what we do:

  • Build on our strengths through staff expertise, legal and regulatory advocacy, leading through coalitions.
  • Stay true to our target population, which is people with the lowest-income; those who do not have another voice and who are not “popular” with legislators.
  • Don’t duplicate efforts of others, but do partner and support in order to amplify the work of other organizations.
  • Be authentic – be true to our voice. Some have accused me of being stodgy in the language I allow us to use and the memes by which we communicate, but we are a serious organization doing serious work (and producing serious results).

My successor will chart CCLP’s course from here. But through our Pathways speakers and through some of my remarks in other forums, I have been raising the racial wealth divide as perhaps the seminal problem of our time. It isn’t the only issue by a long shot, but the lack of family assets on which people of color can draw to create a foundation for their children’s future, and the way in which that lack of assets reinforces poverty and perpetuates lack of opportunity, is probably the strongest force holding back Latino, black and Native people.

Likewise, the availability of assets, whether earned or inherited, is the invisible underpinning for the success of the vast majority of white people. Even if those assets were earned, the means by which to create that asset, came from a legacy of advantage simply from being white.

Many of the solutions to this divide can only be addressed at the federal level. They result from discriminatory federal programs and vast tax giveaways to homeowners. But advocates working at all levels must call it out so that the call to address it becomes as common place as the call for universal access to health care is now.

Still, we need to examine what is fundamentally wrong? What underlies the very existence of poverty? Why do we have poverty and disparities in income and opportunity?

The answers are not all that complicated: The rules of our economy and our cultural history foster inequality. They perpetuate it. Our society largely accepts the existence of poverty, homelessness, hunger, dead-ends for “certain” people.

Why isn’t there community-wide outrage over the fact that thousands of people are living in doorways, on park benches and river banks? Why are neighborhoods without resources, working streetlights, grocery stores and jobs tolerated? Why isn’t every last person demanding that all schools in Colorado have nice buildings and good equipment and dedicated teachers? Why aren’t people in the streets demanding a decent life in return for a hard day’s work?

I just finished reading John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” a great American novel about destitute people during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Steinbeck wrote about corporate ownership of land and agriculture; a system that allowed some to increase wealth by stripping others of their wealth. He wrote about people that “have” seeking to exclude those that “have not.” He wrote about othering “Okies” — just as all immigrants before and after have been shunned. Throughout the novel, there are eloquent passages about concentration of wealth and about lack of bargaining power for labor owing to their extreme vulnerability

We have the same situation now. Ian Haney Lopez wrote about dog-whistle politics – race-baiting so that white people wouldn’t support the public benefit programs from which they themselves could benefit.

This tactic succeeded by creating the notion of poor people as undeserving; as having created their own problems through poor choices or character flaws. Everyone is let off the hook for solving the problem if people without financial resources are at fault rather than the system.

Nancy McLean wrote in “Democracy in Chains” about the decades-long effort to change people’s ideas about how the economy works and about what justice and due process are. Together, these efforts have engrained the notion that taxes and governmental services should basically be a fee-for-service proposition. We cannot tolerate that. In the end, we’ll all go down together.

If I were to describe a country in which school buildings are crumbling, people can barely keep a roof over their head, there are rampant chronic diseases because people don’t have access to nutritious food, cannot afford medical treatment and cannot find jobs that pay enough to support a family, you might think I was describing a developing country. But that’s the kind of robber-baron country the United States has become because of what is fundamentally a libertarian approach to government.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating until we actually do it: We have to change the narrative. We all need to work together to create a new cultural common sense so that there is widespread acceptance of the notion that there should be rules in our economy so people are paid fairly for their labor, everyone pays their fair share of taxes, nobody lives a life without basic human dignity, and businesses can’t rip people off and get away with it. More fundamentally, we need to re-dedicate ourselves to the notion that we all are part of a social contract.

We owe things to one another and are owed things by others so that we all rise and fall together.

Recent articles

May Letter from Bethany Pray, Interim Executive Director

The anti-poverty movement involves hundreds of organizations that, like CCLP, take the fight to the state. Operating at the state level is an absolute necessity because many of the core laws and policies that affect access to health, housing, income, and food are...