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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

More on “Who is Rich? Who is Poor?"

A follow-up to my December 23rd article
By Will Collette

One thing the “Occupy” movement did was to make the issue of income inequality a topic for debate in the national arena. At the national level, the amount of debate over the relationship between the “1%” (the rich) and the 99% (everyone else) is growing. A new poll shows it out-polling over-regulation as a major issue.

Some of the national Republicans have labeled the issue a version of “class war” by the poor against the rich fomented by Democrats and the Occupy folks. The other side, the side I happen to be on, responds that the “class war” of the rich against everyone else has already started, and that it accelerated starting in the Reagan Administration.

The Providence Journal ran an article (behind its new subscription wall) by G. Wayne Miller a week ago that made the surprise revelation that Exeter is now Rhode Island’s wealthiest town, surpassing Barrington by a wide margin. According to the US Census, Exeter’s median household income is $98,438. Little Compton, Barrington and East Greenwich followed in the second-, third- and fourth-place spots, respectively.

Newport, the city cited by one recent Progressive Charlestown commenter as a place that is beautiful because of its rich people, falls way down the list with a median income of only $57,640.

Wrong again
At the January 9 Town Council meeting, the CCA’s guy, Council Vice-President Dan Slattery, asserted that Charlestown is one of Rhode Island’s wealthiest communities. He said this to support his argument that middle-class households in Charlestown do not need the $1000 Homestead Tax Credit proposed by the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee. They can live off of the aroma of money that bathes the town.

But, as it so often turns out with Slattery, he was wrong. Charlestown, with a median household income of $70,969, is actually in the middle of the pack for household median income at #20 out of 39 cities and towns.

NOTE: The new town-by-town census figures for median income are five-year rolling averages because they don’t collect enough data for places with populations under 65,000 to be more precise. That means that for most RI cities and towns, the data includes a couple of pre-Great Recession years.

Charlestown does come in the Top Ten in one category - unemployment. We are Number 10 out of 39 cities and towns at 10.3%. Recently released US Labor Department data show that the Providence metro area, of which Charlestown is a part, is stuck at a terribly high 19% for under-employment. "Unemployment" is defined as looking for full-time work, but only able to work at part-time or irregular jobs.

"What do you mean 'We're out of the good gin?'"
Ted Nesi of WPRI noted an interesting New York Times article on the lifestyles of the 1%. The 1% are defined as people with incomes that exceed $343,977 a year.

The Times article noted that even some people in the 1% can feel the pinch, quoting one lawyer/professional poker player, “On Long Island, [$380,000 is] barely a living. In Plano, [Texas] it’s a living.” The article also reports that many 1%ers are baffled why people are picking on them.

WPRI’s Nesi added his own metrics for Rhode Island, noting that for the Providence Metro Census area (which includes Charlestown), you are part of the 1% with an annual income exceeding $331,181, which is almost $13,000 lower than the national median. Nesi flagged an interactive tool in the New York Times that allows you to do your own calculations to see where your family stands.

However, as interesting as these numbers might be (at least to some of us) or even surprising – as in Exeter being #1 and Newport being so low – it’s really all pretty academic.

Median income tells us nothing about the relative well-being and economic conditions of all the people who collectively comprise those statistics.

Charlestown's priciest house, assessed at
more than $6 million
Charlestown has conspicuous wealth. We see it in the the 279 homes valued at $1 million or more. 80% of those homes are owned by non-residents. Most of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance leaders are part of Charlestown’s economic elite.

By contrast, there are approximately 2000 homes assessed at between $150,000 and $500,000. About 80% of these houses are owned by people who make Charlestown their home.

Home foreclosures in Charlestown are up. Home prices are down – and when those values dropped, many homeowners saw their largest asset, an asset they counted on to finance their retirement, become a liability. No one in Charlestown’s 99% is untouched by rising prices and income insecurity.

At the Town Council meetings on December 12 and January 9, the Town Council members were challenged to look at the issue of tax justice and both times, the Town Council majority showed it just didn’t get it.

To serve and protect the interests of the 279 homeowners with houses assessed at $1 million or more, that majority comprised of Council President Tom Gentz, Vice-President Slattery and their ally Lisa DiBello voted AGAINST a $1000 Homestead Tax Credit that would have benefited more than 2000 Charlestown resident households.

Only Council members Gregg Avedisian and Marge Frank understood that Charlestown’s middle class needs a break.

But as Slattery put it on January 9, in his opinion, Charlestown residents don't deserve a break because Charlestown’s median income is too high and Charlestown’s poverty rate (1.8%) is too low. Slattery said, to paraphrase, we should all be grateful to live amidst such prosperity and should suck it in and shut the f*** up..
RI-CAN has seen a big surge in Charlestown families
needing help with food, fuel, housing

I recently visited RI-CAN’s new office at the junction of 112 and 91 in Carolina and heard director Deb Nigrelli talk about the sky-rocketing need she is seeing in Charlestown. Even with increased support and donations, she can’t keep the shelves stocked with food for people and families in need.

She didn’t once mention median income or the poverty rate, but instead talked about what is happening to families in our town. Whether Gentz, Slattery or DiBello see the growing desperation of working families – or choose not to see it – it is there. It just does not fit into neat little cubbyholes or sterile statistics.