Originally Published September 24, 2018
Urban Politics – USA
By Nick Licata
Below is my keynote address to the Seattle Real Change newspaper, published by those who are either homeless or had been. Real Change is thought by many to be the most successful weekly newspaper published by the homeless in the country.
My talk ties the cause of homelessness to our current dominant national political philosophy that considers the freedom to accumulate wealth to be more legitimate than the freedom from want.
A video of my talk, taken by Mind Over Matters producer Mike McCormick can be seen here.
The news program Mind Over Matters has been on the non-profit radio station KEXP giving a forum to those not normally heard in corporate media. The station is cancelling MOM at the end of this year, 2018. For further information go to their MOM’s Facebook page.
Nick Licata’s Keynote at the Real Change 24th Annual Breakfast
Sept 18, 2018, Seattle WA
I wrote Becoming a Citizen Activist because I believe activism begins by noticing things which we had ignored or accepted as a given, that at some point just don’t seem right.
It’s asking ourselves, as Rosa Parks did, why am I sitting in the back of the bus, instead of the front? Thoughts like those spark movements for change.
So, how do we spark that inquisitive mind? And then take the next step; by helping others also see it differently? In order, to make a better world.
I think it begins by questioning the status quo. Is it serving our needs, those of our neighbors or fellow citizens?
Let me define “citizen” at this point: It is anyone. Living here. And, contributing to our democratic society. It is not just a piece of paper. Or, running through a gauntlet of bureaucratic red tape. And, having a big bank account, should not allow someone to cut into the front of the line for becoming Citizen. And certainly, it is not based on the color of one’s skin, or the religion they practice or not having a religion at all.
A quote, from of all people, the conservative Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, summed up what being an American is all about.
After President Trump, had finished railing, in the Oval Office, to a group of Republican leaders, sharing, what some seemed to be white nationalist thoughts, – who would have thought? Sen. Graham spoke up. He looked directly at President Trump told him bluntly, “America is an idea, not a race.”
And what is that idea? President Franklin D. Roosevelt, put it in real terms, in his 1941 State of Union address. He said, “The Republic grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights – among them the right of free speech, free press, and free worship.”
Then, he went on to say, “As our nation has grown, as our economy has expanded, these political rights have proved inadequate to assure us equality. We have come to a clear realization, of the fact, that true individual freedom, cannot exist, without economic security and independence.”
He was adding a 4th freedom, “the freedom from want.” That speech became known as the 4 Freedoms Speech. Recognizing that last freedom is at the heart of our nation’s current political struggles.
It goes beyond debating how many beds we can afford to provide for homeless people. It goes beyond expressing sympathy for the most vulnerable among us. It comes down to Americans having to decide what kinds of freedoms are most important.
Is it the “freedom from want” OR the “freedom to accumulate wealth” – without restraint. Since 1977 we have seen 12% of the Nation’s Wealth, as measured by the GDP, transferred from middle class working families to the top 1% of our population. That trend cannot sustain a functioning, responsive democracy.
This is not a new debate in our country’s history, but it is now reaching a crescendo. And we see it playing out in our Supreme Court decisions. Unfortunately, we are relying on our court system, because the other 2 branches of government, under both parties, have already allowed for the highest concentration of wealth this nation has ever seen
In seeking a path forward, I’m not talking about socialism, I’m not talking about capitalism, and I’m not talking about class warfare.
I’m talking about, what a democratic society needs so that people do not give up hope in our system of government so that our citizens do not seek solace in cynicism or embrace the false security of believing in demagogues’ accusations on who is responsible for our problems.
Unfortunately we can see that happening, the first with the decline of voter turn out, from those who have the most to lose from an unrepresentative government and the second with the explosion of conspiracy theories, that blame the weak or those that have the least political power, and unfortunately they are too often echoed by the White House.
The effects of a shrinking middle class on the national stage are now well documented; to get by, people are working longer hours or multiple jobs, having poorer health and then when they are too old to find work, they are left with miniscule savings set-aside for retirement. For instance, the median savings for all U.S. families is just $5,000. And, according to a 2016 survey, 35 percent of all adults have only several hundred dollars in their savings accounts and they are still better off than 34 percent have zero savings.
Closer to home, here in Seattle, we are witnessing the decline of the middle class and the growth of the poverty class. It can happen to anyone who is barely able to pay for his or her basic necessities. According to the King County “All Home” website, the leading cause of someone becoming homeless is their loss of a job.
I consider the grand myth of homelessness to be the belief that it’s someone else’s problem. For too many people it only becomes their problem, when they find tent cities and campsites, sprouting up in neighborhoods that never saw before.
I travel around, visiting other cities, and let me tell you, Seattle is not alone in witnessing these hardships. We see poverty expanding because the dominant national political philosophy that says the freedom to protect marketplace investments is more legitimate than protecting the economic welfare of our citizens.
The response to this mindset is not simply spending more money to provide social services or even more affordable housing. Those are good things and they are needed.
But if you just go down that path, of only providing services and not altering our laws, you will end up arguing about the burden of taxes and the management of government. Which were raised as objections to pass a head tax on the largest Seattle businesses, in order to provide more affordable housing? Even though, less than 2% of Seattle Businesses would have paid any of it.
That is why we must go beyond just treating the damaging effects of that dominant philosophy. We must change the expectations that our fellow citizens have for our nation so that it is a society we want to live in. A society that provides the economic security that FDR referred to. And the people in this room and thousands of others, beyond this hall, have shown that we can change our laws to create, not a perfect society, but one that is certainly a more just and an equitable one.
Seattle’s victories have been adopted by other cities, in both red and blue states. They have taken root because citizens realize that they have more in common in protecting public welfare than protecting the power and wealth of the few.
Seattle has begun that effort by adjusting the structure of our economy so that people will gain some stability in their lives so that they have an opportunity to reach the American dream of economic independence and not be dependent on government.
Let’s identify a few significant steps that Seattle has taken toward that goal – in just 2 areas: improving working conditions and increasing rental security. Both have made Seattle more affordable to those who are in the middle to bottom half of the family incomes.
They are not final solutions, but they are real and long-lasting changes.
With regards to working conditions:
We set a national standard by gradually moving to a $15 minimum wage for all employees in Seattle. We listened to all sides, but we did not retreat from this objective. It did not happen overnight, but it was achieved. And as a result, thousands of lower paid; part-time workers can now better manage their financial burdens.
We also adopted one of the most progressive Paid Sick Leave ordinances in the nation, which allows sick employees to stay home or stay home to take care of their sick children, and still receive pay. Before this law was passed nearly 40% of the private-sector workforce, who are among the least economically secure, did not have this benefit. Illness forced them to take time away from work without pay and put them at the risk of losing their job.
We’ve passed a Wage Theft ordinance so that workers actually get paid for the work they are doing. Too often in the past, businesses would require extra work time, before or after an employee has punched in, without compensation.
Lastly, to ensure that our labor laws are enforced, the city established an Office of Labor Standards. Without enforcement, there is no change.
With regards to rental security:
Seattle City Council passed a law requiring rental property owners to assist financially strapped tenants to enroll in installment plans to pay the high upfront-costs for securing a rental unit. Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve announced that 46% of adults could not cover an emergency expense costing $400 without selling something or borrowing money. And the vast majority of these folks are renters.
A Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance was established after an extensive public involvement to help write it. Inspectors will now make sure all registered rental properties comply with minimum housing and safety standards. This preserves the quality of life for renters in all neighborhoods.
Afterward, a Tenant Protection Law was enacted, to guarantee that rental units are fit for habitation before a landlord increases rents. According to the 2009 American Survey, approximately 10 percent of our rentals have moderate to severe physical problems. A housing code violation plus a rent increase now trigger this protection.
Lastly, to assure that renters’ interests are fairly represented, a City Renters Commission was established last year. Formally and systematically hearing from renter’s representatives is critical to keeping Seattle affordable. Because rising rents have left Seattle with the 3rd largest homeless population in the U.S. according to Zillow.
Passing these laws shows that we are not helpless. We do not have to wait for Congress to act. Here in Seattle, and in other cities, there is an urban movement to provide for “a freedom from want” to stop more people from sliding into a state of homelessness.
It does take persistent work, innovative solutions, and a commitment to be engaged in our democracy. But, isn’t that why all of us are here: to be citizen activists and to assure that freedom rings – for all of us.