CT awaits Obama’s take on familiar topic: inequality

President Obama preparing his State of the Union address with speech writer Cody Keenan

White House photo by Pete Souza

President Obama preparing his State of the Union address with speechwriter Cody Keenan.

President Obama’s expected call tonight in his State of the Union address for the nation to confront economic inequality should have a special resonance in Connecticut, a state dotted with pockets of extreme wealth, deep poverty and the nation’s worst gap in education achievement.

“Depending on your metric, Connecticut is either most unequal or one of the most unequal states in America,” said Wade Gibson, a senior fellow on fiscal issues for Connecticut Voices for Children, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. “No state in the country has grown more unequal faster.”

The political left hopes the president’s message energizes an early effort to lobby the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the General Assembly to consider novel legislation that would pressure Walmart and other major retailers to pay sharply higher wages or face state sanctions.

But the lobbying effort by the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, the Working Families Party and other members of a coalition that helped pass a first-in-the-nation state law requiring paid sick days in 2011 faces the hurdles of a short legislative session and cautious election-year politics.

Malloy said Monday he is ready to applaud Obama’s expected call to increase the federal minimum wage of $7.25, but he rejected any suggestion that the state has been waiting for a signal from Obama to act more aggressively on inequality.

“I’m doing it. I signed onto that a long time ago,” Malloy told reporters after announcing a plan to seek funding next month for more assistance for the long-term unemployed. “That’s why we agreed to increase the minimum wage by 45 cents this past January 1.”

With Malloy’s support, the General Assembly’s Democratic majority voted last year to raise the state’s hourly minimum wage to $8.70, effective this month, and to $9 next January. That law seems to remove minimum wage as a legislative issue from Connecticut in 2014, unless the governor and lawmakers embrace the Walmart bill.

More conventional linchpins of economic-justice campaigns — expanding Medicaid, creating an earned-income tax credit, raising the minimum wage and imposing steeper taxes on the wealthy – already have been accomplished in Connecticut or, in the case of higher taxes, have been ruled out as politically unwise.

With the state already a leader in setting a minimum wage, the left is trying to force even higher wages on national retailers like Walmart, whose low wages leave many employees eligible for subsidized assistance for health care, food, housing and child care.

Their rationale is that taxpayers effectively are subsidizing the operations of employers who pay less than a living wage. It is an argument no longer exclusively made by the left. Ron Unz, a conservative Californian best known for a referendum drive that has largely ended bilingual education, is trying to pass a referendum forcing a $12 minimum wage by 2016.

“There are so many very low-wage workers, and we pay for huge social welfare programs for them,” Unz told The New York Times in November.  “This would save something on the order of tens of billions of dollars. Doesn’t it make more sense for employers to pay their workers than the government?”

In Connecticut, CCAG and the Working Families are seeking support for a bill that would give large national retailers a choice: pay their employees a still-to-be-defined living wage, or pay into a state fund meant to offset some of the costs of assisting their workers.

“Politically, it’s a fight I’d love to have,” said Tom Swan, the executive director of CCAG. “And it’s a good policy.”

No state has adopted similar legislation, but several are considering some version of the plan, Swan said.

“I certainly would support something like that,” said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, one of legislature’s more liberal members. “I don’t know if we could get it done this year in the short session.”

Obama’s focus on economic justice comes late in his presidency, more than two years after he told an audience in Kansas that inequality was “the defining issue of our time.”

“This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class,” Obama said. “Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.”

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said a presidential address on inequality might have been the catalyst for a broader debate in the states earlier in his presidency, but not now.

“I would have to say this is probably going to be a typical Obama State of the Union, where the rhetoric soars, but the actual results don’t match up,” Cafero said.

For different reasons, Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, whose city has had one of the nation’s highest poverty rates for decades, also has modest expectations for what the president can deliver. Segarra briefly met with the president two days ago representing the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

The president seemed to have little hope of passing a major anti-poverty program through a divided Congress, not when food stamps are being cut, and expanded unemployment benefits are stalled, Segarra said.

“A federal jobs program is not coming,” said Segarra, who was the beneficiary of federal job training assistance as an unemployed teen. “On the immigration end, nothing has happened. On gun control, nothing has happened. So, he is going to revert to doing as much as he can with his administrative agencies.”

Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the state legislature’s Education Committee, said he hopes Obama speaks about the education gap, particularly the disparity in early-education opportunities for the children of the poor and those of the middle class.

“Fixing things begins with properly identifying causes,” Fleischmann said. “When it comes to education, I hope the president talks about the importance of preschool education.”

Lori J. Pelletier, the top leader of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, will be in the audience in the House gallery as a guest of U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District. She said she expects no “silver bullet” from the president on inequality.

Based on Obama’s recent remarks to The New Yorker, her expectations are in keeping with the president’s. He told the magazine that whatever he does, there still would be poverty, and there still would be a lot of work to do for the next five presidents.

His goal, he said, is to give voice to “an impression that it is harder to make it now if you are just the average citizen who’s willing to work hard and has good values.”

“At the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story,” Obama said. “We just try to get our paragraph right.”

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