Rachel Flum has her work cut out for her. As the new Executive Director of the Economic Progress Institute, she takes the helm of an organization that was defined by her predecessor, Kate Brewster, who served 11 years in the same role. EPI’s mission is research and policy advocacy to improve the economic wellbeing of low-income Rhode Islanders. As Rhode Island workers continue to struggle with a sluggish economy and widening skills and wage gaps, EPI’s voice is as important as ever, and it’s Flum’s job to make sure that voice continues to be heard loud and clear.
What are your legislative priorities for 2016?
This year, as in years past, we will focus on three issue areas: helping families meet their basic needs, increasing the skills of our workforce, and ensuring the tax structure is fair and adequate. Our legislative priorities include: continuing the campaign with our community partners to further increase the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which was raised to 12.5% from 10% last year. We will also be advocating to make child care affordable for working families by making permanent the higher “exit income limit” and raising the “entry income limit” for the Child Care Assistance Program.
What are some areas of common ground in which you feel the General Assembly can make progress on EPI’s core issues this year?
Last year there was broad support for increasing the EITC. Everyone understands that the credit is an effective way to help struggling working families make ends meet. The Governor proposed a two-step increase, to 12.5% in 2016 and to 15% in 2017. Only the 2016 increase was enacted and we are hopeful that the Governor will include the increase to 15%, or higher, in her budget and the General Assembly will agree to a second step increase in the enacted 2017 budget.
What are EPI’s other major goals for 2016?
We are releasing a “State of Working Rhode Island: Workers of Color” paper in December which will highlight wage, income, and other disparities for Latino, black, and other workers of color. For example, unemployment among Rhode Island Latinos is the highest in the nation and the median household income of African-Americans and Latinos is just about half that of whites. We want to bring these workforce issues to the forefront of the conversation around how to best move the state forward for all Rhode Islanders and will propose policy solutions that we think will help address some of these inequities.
We will also be monitoring and supporting the implementation of the new online integrated health and human services application system. We know that for working families who do not earn family-sustaining wages, child care assistance, SNAP, and health insurance coverage help ensure they can meet basic needs. Replacing the decades- old eligibility system with a new system that streamlines access to these programs while ensuring eligibility and benefits accuracy will help thousands of Rhode Islanders get the benefits to which they are entitled.
The presidential election will generate a lot of buzz around EPI’s core issues. What opportunities does that increased awareness present?
We are a non-partisan organization so we do not participate in electoral politics. However, presidential campaigns can be helpful in bringing forward issues that we hope the state and federal governments will pay more attention to. These include increasing the minimum wage; improving the Earned Income Tax Credit for workers without children; increasing federal and state investments in the Child Care Assistance program so more families can participate and so that the low-wages earned by child care workers can be ameliorated; and addressing childhood poverty.
What questions should we be asking of our presidential candidates on both sides?
Where should we focus our workforce development efforts in order to provide the most benefits for RI workers?
As our workforce becomes older and more diverse, harnessing the talents and potential of all Rhode Islanders is imperative. By 2040, the share of the labor force comprised of workers of color will have increased 80 percent from the start of this decade, to 38 percent from 21 percent (or from about one in five, to more than one in three). To be competitive in the global economy the state will require a bold action plan that purposefully leverages all of the state’s human resources, including those populations who currently have had limited access to well-paying, quality jobs.
What’s one data point that Rhode Islanders should be more aware of? What does that data point tell us, and what do we need to do about it?
Most people don’t know that Rhode Island’s income eligibility limit for the subsidized Child Care program is the lowest in New England, at 180% of the Federal Poverty Level ($3,013/month for a family of three). Two years ago, the General Assembly created an “exit income” pilot that allows families who are receiving CCAP to stay enrolled until income reaches $225% FPL ($3,767/month for a family of three) and pay an increased co-share. This allows parents to work more hours or take a better paying job without losing this critical work support. Around 350 children each month have been able to stay in quality child care as a result of this pilot which is set to expire in September 2016 unless extended in the next legislative session. As I mentioned, this is one of our top legislative priorities and since it is a pro-working family, pro-jobs proposal we hope it will pass.