Monday, February 24, 2014

The rich, the poor, and the RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity


by Duane Clinker

Mike Stenhouse, Director of the RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity, knows a fact about people who work for minimum wage.  He is spinning it as hard as he can against them.  In this, he offers a lesson on how the cynical can mis-direct attention from truth, and how important it is to connect factual knowledge with the actual pain and conditions of human beings.

Stenhouse’s fact has a history.  He shared his fact recently on WPRO’s John Depetro show.  Depetro, is often an opponent of those who seem to him too brown, too female, too atheist, or too poor, but is a big fan of the prosperous.  He seemed to like the fact very much.  

The fact went like this:  In explaining why an increase in the minimum wage was a bad thing, Director Stenhouse announced that “Only 14% of minimum-wage workers serve as sole income earner for their family.”  

Soon, the Providence Journal’s “Truth-O-Meter” examined the Stenhouse fact, and declared it “true.”  The meter even seemed to suggest that it was truth of a special kind, as the mechanical marvel pointed its needle even beyond true to the extreme right of its little window.

The Truth-O-Meter really just verified the “14%” part of the fact, but its heartless brain missed the real issue.  The importance of a true fact is in its meaning and implications.   Stenhouse’s 14% fact is actually points to the condition of life for unnamed thousands of real parents and dependents without resources.  It involves human suffering.  Its use, and misuse, calls into question the methods, and the hearts of the pundits of prosperity. 

In baseball, pitchers who cheat sometimes throw a spitball.  They add a little saliva to the ball to make it twist and weave.  Like spit to a ball, Stenhouse pitches his fact with a little something added to make it spin and change direction.  He adds one word, “only.”  “Only 14% of minimum wage workers serve as sole income earner for their families.   

That word “only” immediately signals that what comes next isn’t significant.  The “only” isn’t a part of the fact itself, but a description of what we should think about the fact.  It misdirects us from the actual evidence of the fact itself, and appears to change its direction.  As spun by Stenhouse, the fact is now not about the tragedy that some families must live entirely on the income of one minimum wage worker, but instead an indication that raising the minimum wage isn’t really that important, because only a few families really need those wages.  

Wait.  This is a time of massive unemployment, when many who are fortunate enough to find work, only find jobs at minimum or near minimum wage.  If they worked full-time at these rates, and if they had not one sick day or lost-time accident in a whole year, they would make something like $17,160 a year.  But, most minimum wage workers do not achieve full-time hours.  Those part-timers are also included in Stenhouse’s 14%.  So many, perhaps most, will have families who must live on even less.  

From other data we will know that some of these “sole supports” will be homeless and living in their cars.  Many will be spending time each week to visit a church or other food pantry to get help.    Many will be single moms.  Some will be supporting a disabled partner.  All will be living in great emotional stress and insecurity.

Of course this picture won’t support the agenda Center for Freedom and Prosperity, so Stenhouse adds his “Only.”  Only 14%. . . “  Don’t worry.  We needn’t be concerned about wage increases.  Most don’t really need them because they aren’t even the sole supporters of families.  No big deal.  Nothing to see here.  Look away.

While minimizing the destructive force of minimum wages, Mike Stenhouse suggest we look more deeply at the hardships of some others who also struggle.  Featured on the Center’s website under the heading, “Meet one of the rich who may be driven out of RI,” is the story of one family in Edgewood, RI.  In this case, Stenhouse goes into considerable detail. (

He introduces us to Jennifer, a mom in a two parent family.  Her husband is a doctor and she is a financial planner with an implied family taxable income somewhere north of $250,000 a year.   The couple owns a four bedroom house in Cranston, on which they pay significant real estate taxes, and $8,178 in state income taxes, (which equals a bit over 3%).  They have a young child with some educational issues, and so they, fearing the results of NECAP testing, and Cranston public schools in general on their child, pay $40,000 a year in private school tuition.  Now they feel insecure, thinking that state may increase taxes so they are considering the expense and hardship of relocating to Massachusetts where they believe their tax burden will lessen.  
Now, whatever the trials of Jennifer and her family are, the income of the 14% of minimum wage families that Stenhouse encouraged us to dismiss, is less than 7% that of Jennifer’s family.  Just the tuition that Jennifer’s family committed to the private school is more than double the total annual income of full-time minimum wage families. 

Wouldn’t it be fair for anyone with a longing for a society with freedom and justice for all, to suggest that perhaps the plight of the minimum wage families might be the a priority? 

This is not to minimize Jennifer these feelings of insecurity about the future in Jennifer’s family.  But, if we accept these feelings as honest, they lead to a striking question about the rule of trickle down capitalism in this century. How is it, under this economic system, after decades of movement in the direction of the Center’s agenda of lower taxes for the very wealthy, less investment in public infrastructure, and significant increases in freedom of action for corporate wealth, that even a family making over $250,000 a year still feels so insecure for their own futures that they would consider themselves oppressed and be thinking of relocation? 

If, the answer to our problems, for either/ or both minimum wage workers, and Jennifer’s family, is the free market, how is it that we are all doing worse? 

Jennifer and her family are, of course, very well.  But, despite Stenhouse’s claim of them as typical of “the rich”, they in no way represent the elite 1%, who in RI have income of $850,000 and up.  That 1 % represents also the only group, (and in this case “only” actually means “the only one”), whose incomes are and have been increasing over the last decades of rightward economic drift, while everyone else’s has flatlined or decreased.
  Whether she likes it or not, or admits it or not, the income of the doctor and financial advisor combined is closer to that minimum wage worker, than to the 1%.  (Alex Kuffner, “Report:  R.I. income inequality in first years of recovery. . . ,” Providence Journal, February 20, 2014.)

The politics supported by the  ideology of the RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity, are failing 99% of the population.  But their real constituency are doing very well.  This is why, in order to gain sympathy for its cause, the Center and its Director, along with their talk show hosts, must minimize the suffering of the poor, publicize the fear of the upper middle classes, and direct attention away from the obscene wealth of the one group whose prosperity rises off the chart each year - the top one percent.

Truth seekers, however, are well served to look with open eyes and open hearts, to see the painful result in real people’s lives, (starting at the bottom), of every tax cut given to the very elite, of every declining social service, and of every person despairing of finding  decent paying work for themselves, or education for their children.  

The Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s misdirected facts can’t lead us to truth.  

Mechanical fact meters can’t feel human pain.  It’s a spitball and a spin.  The Center for Freedom and Prosperity has a heart problem.

Copyright, 2014.  Duane Clinker is an activist, retired pastor, and writer living in RI.


  1. Stenhouse gets money from the Koch Brothers, the same Koch Brothers who are the leading payer of climate deniers in the world. They lie about the economy as much as they lie about Climate change, and Stenhouse lies about where he gets his money.

  2. Thanks, Duane, for this piece of work, thought, energy. More please!

  3. great piece. reminds us that there is often a vast chasm between "the truth" and "the whole truth"