SC Appleseed’s Sue Berkowitz On Addressing Poverty

From The Free Times:

Change the Us vs. Them Attitude at the State House

Sue Berkowitz
Director, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center

As the director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, Sue Berkowitz has been a State House lobbyist advocating for the low-income community since 1983.

“The one thing that I can unfortunately say for all of my career is that we’ve always been doing really, really badly,” she says.

It’s been hard doing what she does, she says, and it’s getting harder.

“There has to be a will to really deal with people who are living in poverty,” she says. “With addressing and trying to eradicate it.”

Unfortunately, at the State House in Columbia, that will just doesn’t seem to be there.

“Because we say we’re a poor state, what we’ve elected to ignore are those who need help the most,” Berkowitz says.

One of the proposals the nonprofit she directs has advocated is a state earned-income tax credit.

Basically, a state EITC is a refundable tax credit for low and moderate-income working families that is based on a percentage of the federal EITC for which they are already eligible. Families could apply for it when filing their income tax returns.

A working family with two or more children could receive a maximum of $4,824.

In other words, it would benefit poor people and help to reduce poverty — especially among working families.

But the leadership at the State House — Republicans and some Democrats — haven’t been receptive to the idea. Orangeburg Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter consistently introduces a bill to enact such a credit and it consistently gets put on the fast track to the paper shredder.

The truth is, Berkowitz says, there’s already a problem of too many poor South Carolinians who are eligible for the federal earned income tax credit but don’t apply for it. It’s a fact that might reinforce a point of view that appears widely held by the well-off members of South Carolina’s General Assembly.

“It just seems that we are in a cycle of always blaming people who are poor and not ever really recognizing that they are doing everything they possibly can,” Berkowitz says.

There’s also the issue of defining poverty.

Currently, to be classified as living in poverty, a family of four must have an income of $22,000 or less. But that level is so low that it doesn’t provide a clear picture of how many people are really poor, Berkowitz says. Even families making twice that level, she argues, can barely make ends meet.

“If we were to look at all the numbers for people who are 200 percent [of the federal poverty level] and below, I would not be surprised if almost half our state would fall under that — and you can’t meet your basic needs with it,” she says.

Aside from a state EITC and promoting the federal one for those who are eligible, she says there’s something else lawmakers ought to deal with: regulating what she describes as predatory, rapid-refund businesses.

There are private tax preparers taking advantage of families who might be looking for a quick refund check but who could likely electronically file themselves and get it just as fast, she argues.

“People are paying a lot of money for what’s not a lot of benefit,” she says.

But more than anything, Berkowitz hopes that one day the attitude many state legislators have for the poor will change.

“It’s hard. And it gets harder,” she says. “Maybe I haven’t hit my head against the wall enough times to say it hurts because I’m so hard headed, but I don’t think we can afford to stop saying it. And I don’t think we can afford to stop advocating and pushing for this.”

She’s talking about a Legislature that, among other things, wants to give breaks to corporations but not working families.

“I wish that we would get past this attitude of, ‘It’s OK to have the haves and have nots’ and ‘those people.’”

“Whenever we start talking about ‘those people,’ it allows us to do things to them,” she adds. “That’s what allows the genocide to go in Africa right now; that’s what allowed some of the Arab nations to slaughter some of their folks who were looking just for basic civil rights; that’s why we turned our head and allowed the slaughter of 12 million people during World War II.”

“I thought we were better than that,” she says. “‘Those people’ are us, and we’ve got to stop looking at it that way.” — Corey Hutchins

See this week’s Free Times to read other local leaders’ thoughts on poverty.