Rhode Island

Q&A: Rhode Island Senator Juan M. Pichardo

Senator Juan M. PichardoQ: Why do you think asset building should be a part of state policy?
A: It’s important to me because I know first-hand that people want to grow and build knowledge and skills, have a home, provide for their families and help their kids pay for college. I strongly believe that, if attention is given to these initiatives, we can really help people get on the right track so they can sustain themselves. Many people are responsible and want to make it on their own—a little boost can really make the difference.

  • Q: Why did you determine that a commission established by joint resolution was a good way to begin considering asset-building initiatives in Rhode Island?
    A: To accomplish future goals, we knew we would need support from both chambers, so we thought it would be a good idea to start by studying these issues jointly with legislators who had similar concerns. That way, we could build awareness and momentum throughout the legislature about the commission’s work related to poverty and creating opportunities for families to move up.

    Q: What were some of the keys to gathering the information you were looking for?
    A: To begin with, we were aware of the challenges faced by many Rhode Island communities, thanks to our members’ first-hand experience in their districts and with citizens across the state. We had a good idea about some of the questions we wanted to ask and the programs we wanted to consider. The second important factor was our ability to hold meetings to gather information from different state departments—their data and opinions were invaluable. It also was helpful to have many outside organizations come in and talk about their work. We spoke with the United Way and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, for example, that both gave us a good view of local programs, which is extremely important.

    Q: How important was the committee staff?
    A: This is a part-time legislature, but it’s a full-time job. Staff were critical to ensuring that the work kept moving forward. Without them, it would have been very difficult to keep the ball rolling and to keep things organized.

    Q: Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to do?
    A: I think we did, but, as I review the report, there is much more to be done. We were able to accomplish our initial goal of gathering information. We also had a chance to highlight our work within the statehouse and among the public. Even a simple statement to let people know they could get help with computer training at the local library, resulted in increased awareness and more people attending those classes. The commission also gave us a way to focus on initiatives such as the Earned Income Tax Credit that, in the long-term, will help families.

    Q: Looking back, would you do anything differently?
    A: This work has been very dear to me, which is why I sometimes am discouraged when we can’t accomplish as much as we’d like as quickly as we’d like. It takes time to change things within the legislature though. The report made several recommendations, and we need to continue following up. Persistence really is key. Eventually, we’ll see results.

    Q: Does asset building appeal to both parties?
    A: There’s some appeal here for all parties. The challenge is how to communicate that this is something people with different viewpoints can support. Republicans want to see less government and so do I. Therefore, I’m looking for ways to reduce the number of people who receive public assistance. I’m also looking for ways to help people obtain education and training so they can get better jobs and support their families. It sometimes is difficult to get people to focus on these issues, but I’m hopeful.

    Q: Why the savings raffle? Do you think it can help people save money?
    A: I worked to pass legislation that will allow credit unions to hold these raffles, and they’ve been laying the groundwork to establish them. Hopefully, over the next year they’ll be able to roll this out. Evidence from other places where this has been tried—both overseas and in Michigan—suggests that a savings raffle does entice people to save more money.

    January 2011