This Arizona's couple's story shows how local policies make income inequality worse | Rickey J. White, Jr. | RJW™
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This Arizona’s couple’s story shows how local policies make income inequality worse

This Arizona’s couple’s story shows how local policies make income inequality worse

This article is from Capital & Main, an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues.


As Erica and Ryan Sheade try to contribute to society and support their family of five, their lives have gotten more hectic.

In addition to their own social work practice in Scottsdale, Arizona, where they help struggling community members cope with their problems, the couple is raising three kids and jetting back and forth to dance classes, theater rehearsals, and school.

Parenting and running a family business in their field are both challenging enough, but the Sheades live in one of the many states where it is hard for a family to make ends meet, save money to put children through college, and prepare for their eventual retirement.

Their jobs as social workers have only gotten more demanding in the last decade. In addition to incomes in the field that have remained stagnant and that lag behind those of their colleagues in most other states, underpaid and overworked social workers in Arizona face the additional burden that resulted from state cuts to social service budgets after the 2008 financial crisis.

The Sheades’ struggles are emblematic of the larger income inequality crisis playing out across the United States. Many working-class and middle-class Americans have seen their buying power fall and insecurity increase as wages stagnate and even decline in recent decades while the cost of living—especially housing—keeps spiraling upward.

This crisis has been exacerbated in a historically conservative state like Arizona by cuts to funding for public education, as well as by reduced enforcement of labor standards, which has caused more pain for those Arizonans already struggling.

Ryan strongly criticizes the priorities of the state’s elected officials and political establishment, saying that they are in direct opposition to what the Sheades strive for as social workers—being the “voice for the voiceless.”

The Great Recession was a catalyst for many of the forces contributing to social workers’ moribund incomes, says Matt Grodsky, the director of public affairs at Matters of State Strategies, a political consulting firm. The crash prompted state lawmakers to cut billions of dollars from public programs over the following decade, including education and state-run agency budgets. The state Department of Economic Security, which includes Child Protective Services, lost nearly one-third of its budget, spurring caseworker and social worker layoffs, the inability to compensate workers for overtime, skyrocketing caseloads, and a reduction in services available to Arizona’s neediest families.

Ryan strongly criticizes the priorities of the state’s elected officials and political establishment, saying that they are in direct opposition to what the Sheades strive for as social workers—being the “voice for the voiceless.”

Grodsky says the state’s annual investment in public education is more than $1 billion lower than it was before the onset of the Great Recession. Arizona’s unemployment levels peaked at around 11% at the end of 2009. The state, which was unable to recover pre-recession employment levels until the end of 2015, was left with one of the worst budget deficits in the country following the crisis. The recession’s impact was felt by state governments across the nation, with 43 states facing deficits in the middle of a budget cycle and shortfalls totaling more than $500 billion from 2009 to 2012.

Hundreds of thousands of workers in Arizona make the minimum wage or near it, exerting a downward effect on wages overall that impacts social workers. And there has been strong political opposition to raising the minimum wage in the state.

“Whether it’s from not backing the policy in the statehouse and senate chambers or challenging voter-approved minimum wage increase measures through the legal system, the common-sense policy of gradually raising wages has faced numerous obstacles over the years—most of it coming from Republicans and right-leaning organizations,” Grodsky says.

Despite those obstacles, the minimum wage has steadily increased over the last two decades. In 2006, Arizona voters passed Proposition 202 and the Raise the Arizona Minimum Wage for Working Arizonans Act, which granted municipalities the right to increase local wages from their baselines, although then-state representative and current Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, was notably silent on this fight. Then, in 2013, Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed House Bill 2280, which allowed the “regulation of employee benefits, including compensation,” in essence banning cities from increasing minimum wages across the state. After a lengthy legal process, the state found that the bill violated the Arizona Voter Protection Act.

Another bill, approved by current Governor Doug Ducey, that was designed to preempt local governments from requiring employers to provide benefits and paid sick time, severance and pensions, was also found to be in violation of state law.

The stalling of minimum wage hikes can hit the communities served by social workers especially hard, considering they can’t keep pace with the rising cost of living—namely, housing costs and healthcare-related expenses.

In 2016, after years of delaying tactics by politicians and others, Arizona voters passed Proposition 206, which mandated hikes in the minimum wage in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.

Public health initiatives have suffered from economic downturns too, hitting publicly and privately employed social workers in the healthcare system. During the recession, the state legislature cut insurance reimbursement rates by 15%, and it has since restored only half of those rates.

In addition, the Affordable Care Act, which contains provisions that benefit social workers and provides new funding for the field, has been consistently under attack by some of the state’s more prominent officials. Attorney General Mark Brnovich is currently trying to convince the courts to kill the comprehensive healthcare reform law. Sinema was one of four Democrats who introduced a Republican-sponsored bill in 2013 that would allow insurance companies to continue offering plans that didn’t meet the ACA’s new standards.

And when Brewer worked across party lines with Democrats to expand Medicaid, the Goldwater Institute, representing Republican lawmakers, filed a lawsuit to challenge the expansion. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the lawsuit could proceed in 2014 but ultimately rejected the challenge three years later.

“Sometimes, I just feel like . . . why? Why can’t we make this work? If we have all this education and we are doing good in the world, it’s gonna come around, right?”

In decades to come, that policy agenda may eventually shift in Arizona as part of the state’s electoral realignment, which has turned a distinct shade of purple in recent political races, electing Joe Biden president and having two Democratic senators for the first time in nearly 70 years. At the same time, Arizonans elected in 2020 one of their most conservative legislatures in recent decades.

Erica and Ryan continue to fight for a better future for social workers in the state of Arizona. In 2017, they started the Arizona Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training to train therapists in a safe environment, and Erica runs a group called G.E.M.S. (Girls Empowered, Motivated, and Strong) focused on improving self-esteem and self-confidence for girls ages 8 to 18.

Their own children even started an apparel company to destigmatize mental health called Fight, Confront, and Knock Out the Stigma (cleverly, FCK the Stigma).

Together, the Sheades are doing what they can to address the needs of their current and future clients. They’re just not sure it’s enough.

“Sometimes, I just feel like . . . why? Why can’t we make this work? If we have all this education, we’re doing this great stuff, and we are doing good in the world, it’s gonna come around, right?” Ryan wonders.

(This is the third installment of a three-part story. Read part one and part two.)


Source: Fast Company

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