The importance of economic policy in creating a just society

Nicole Woo, Senior Policy Analyst from Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice shared about their work and why coalitions like the Hawai‘i People’s Congress are so important.

Nicole Woo, Senior Policy Analyst

Nicole Woo,
Senior Policy Analyst

Q: Can you share how you got involved with Appleseed? 

Hawaii Appleseed posted a job opening on a listserv of state-level groups that work on economic policy. At the time I was working at a national economic policy think tank that worked often with state-level groups.

Q: What do you see as the place for economic policy in creating a just society? What of the place of economics in general, however you like to define economics?

I believe economic justice is a base upon which we can build other movements. When people are struggling to make ends meet, they have to focus on their economic survival and have little time to devote to other social justice causes. Good economic policy can ensure that we all have enough to eat, adequate housing, real opportunities to move up the economic ladder, and enough stability so that we can devote time and energy to other social justice movements. Economics in general is the basis of economic policy. 

Q: In what ways does your work promote progressive values? Or in what ways does your work embody progressive values?

Hawaii Appleseed works to build a more socially just Hawai‘i, where everyone has genuine opportunities to achieve economic security and fulfill their potential. To achieve that goal, we work to change systems that perpetuate inequality and injustice through policy development, legislative advocacy, coalition building, and litigation.

Q: Can you talk about the role that advocates like yourself might play in the building of broad based coalitions? 

It’s important for progressive groups and individuals to work together, for there really is strength in numbers. Our neighbors are not single-dimensional people, but instead are affected by many / all of the issues that we advocate for, including economic opportunity, educational equity, criminal and environmental justice. Building linkages between our issues will help us create a big-picture vision of a socially just future. And with that broad vision and a coordinated broad progressive movement, we’ll be more able to enact political change.

Q: What is it that people in general — including your clients — are most in need of, or most hungry for in terms of social, political or economic change?

In Hawai‘i, our low-income and working-class families are being squeezed by the highest cost of housing in the nation, relatively low wages, and the second-highest tax burden on people in poverty. We need to relieve those pressures in order for them to be able to make ends meet and avoid homelessness. That means raising wages, reducing taxes on those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder, and creating more affordable housing.

Q: What would systemic change look like in your view, and how might we achieve it? What are some of the challenges that you have faced, and anticipate facing in creating such change?

On economic justice, systematic change would involve shifting society’s expectations about how our economy is organized and structured. That involves multi-generational, multi-racial and multi-issue community organizing, including support for labor unions, which can be a key counter-balance to corporate power. 

Q: What can Hawaiʻi look like if we are able to successfully mobilize people, starting with the People's Congress?

During the Eisenhower years our top tax rate was 90%, and our economy did fine. Full-time jobs came with livable wages and benefits that allowed workers to support their families, send their kids to college, and retire with dignity. But since the 1980s our economic expectations have swung far in the opposite direction, forcing families to work harder for less pay and fewer benefits, making it almost impossible for them and their children to climb the economic ladder. It’s time to swing our economy back to be more just and humane.

In places like Scandinavia and much of Europe, people have free health care, many weeks of paid vacation, months (or years) of paid family leave, as well as subsidized (or free) child care and education. When someone there loses their job, they don’t have to worry about losing their health care or housing. Their system is a result of different economic policy choices, ones that I think most workers in Hawai‘i would prefer, if they were made aware of them.