Is it really okay for us to let people live in squalor?

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

If you were waiting for crunch time to see how all the powerful talk at the Hawaii State Legislature would translate into the actual definition of the people’s business in 2011, and the balanced budget to pay for it, you’re in luck. We’re just about there. May 5 will soon come and go. What will be funded—and what won’t—will say as much about what we value as what we can pay for. Depending on who you query, there’s still quite a gulf between those objectives.

In theory, some sort of public policy toward education, social services, alternative energy, you name it, should drive what informs lawmakers’ decisions. This may be a bit of a simplification, but more often these days it seems as if chasing dollars to balance the budget is the more important exercise than deciding our preferable societal ethos—and then finding the money to fulfill it.

And while some of us may mouth the same words, it’s frequently the gamesmanship of winning that resonates from the Legislature. Somehow it doesn’t feel as if the collective “we” wins as we peer through the window and see who is getting what through the horse trading for support. It’s not exactly the vision of democracy many of us were taught as children, and perhaps idealistically carried into adulthood, but it’s a dose of unpalatable reality that make purists blanche. And in some cases with good reason.

Under the somewhat hackneyed but nonetheless often true aphorism, “We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” consider this: Last week, Lawyers for Equal Justice (LEJ) had to file federal and State class action lawsuits on behalf of Mayor Wright Homes (MWH) tenants. The LEJ cited conditions that were unsafe, unhealthy, and substandard, things most of us cannot imagine living with, let alone for any length of time.

From the press release: The housing facilities at MWH are characterized by architectural barriers, leaking and bursting plumbing, an almost total lack of hot water, vermin infestation including rats, roaches, and bedbugs, overflowing trash piles, toxic air filed with noxious particulates, inconsistent security and hazardous and inaccessible conditions. The federal suit charges that these conditions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the Fair Housing Act.

The separate lawsuit filed in State Circuit Court thumps the State Housing Authority for neglecting its obligations to residents to make MWH habitable. While the State is supposed to rectify the hot water issue starting in July at the hefty price tag of $800,000, why did it take so long to even look as if it will get fixed? Is it really okay for us to let people live in squalor?

Ensuring basic living standards for everyone ... shouldn’t that be a fundamental function of government?

Cynics will often remind us that it’s cheaper to wait until the government or a corporation is forced into a payout rather than fix whatever may be wrong when the problem is first encountered. 

The expediency of the process and expenditure savings are obvious. And so is the fact that as a whole, we’re not as good and godly as we may like to pretend. The needs of our individual, commercial, and governmental interests trump the morality most of like to think we embody.

Clearly, though, most of us have a dark underbelly so that low income housing like Mayor Wright Homes can exist without basic levels of habitability. And apparently this seems to be acceptable judging by the years the project has been allowed to fester.

The central debate that plays into our de facto collective agreement sits squarely in our beliefs of the proper role of government: What core functions it should provide, at what cost, how big it needs to be to accomplish those tasks, what the tolerance will be for benefits to special interests, and who those acceptable special interests should be. The disabled, for example, as opposed to well, pick an industry.

We now hear more of the argument that government cannot nor be expected to do everything we’ve become accustomed to simply because it has done it in past. But ensuring basic living standards for everyone ... shouldn’t that be a fundamental function?

Most among the champions of the marginalized have excellent reasons for asking lawmakers to fund their programs. Many do work without which so many people in their constituencies would be unable to function.

The Legislature, though, is not the be-and-end-all of how those programs can be funded. Private organizations are increasingly being asked to step up. Sometimes they do. But assuring basic living standards is another story. And it has to come from government.

Although we may realize the challenges of the much publicized, difficult economic news (the State has a projected two-year budget deficit of $1.3 billion, which must be met through spending cuts and tax hikes; State tax collections are down by 5.5 percent through the first nine months of the fiscal year; the latest Council on Revenues projection forecasts a decline in revenue by 1.6 percent for the fiscal year that ends in June), none of that should absolve responsibility for maintaining certain basics, including standard living conditions for low income housing.

There has to be a line somewhere. As lawmakers continue to wade through the budget comparison worksheet—all 368 pages of it seems to argue for a plural noun—the outline of differences between House and Senate versions and the raison d’etre of the realized choices will be a very good mirror of who we have become.

Be warned. The reflection may not be pretty.

Beth-Ann Kozlovich is the Talk Shows Executive Producer, co-host of The Conversation and host of Town Square at HPR. Reach her at [email protected].