Weatherization Not Worth It? Say It’s Not So!

weatherizationLittle Rock    For forty years, home weatherization has been one of those gold standard programs supposedly benefiting lower income families by tightening up their houses to the elements and thereby allowing them to save money on heating and electric bills. We have endorsed these programs, advocated them, and even participated in them over the years, but many long battles with energy companies in the early 1970s with ACORN always made me just a bit skeptical that if our people were really saving all of this money supposedly, why were the ever avaricious utility companies so adamantly endorsing and sometimes even funding such programs. Mainly, I would button my lip given how jaded organizing has undoubtedly made me.

Now the Energy Department has released a study touting the benefits and laying out the claims that weatherization is worth every penny and more that has been invested and even has long term health benefits. The study proving these claims in 4500 pages was done by the Energy Department’s own Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Eduardo Porter one of the New York Times’ columnists looked at the independent evaluation of the report by professors at the University of Chicago and the University of California and he stumbled – or was led — into a controversy. Seems the profs had claimed perhaps the Energy Department’s emperor was not that well clothed, and the Oak Ridge report was an attempt to tell the profs in a mountain of paper to stuff it. Uh-oh, that made the profs actually get on the stick, hire a grad student grunt to go through the 4500 pages with a fine-toothed comb, and comeback with an even more detailed rebuttal of whether or not weatherization is a good investment or not, saves money for the poor or not, or even could be harming health rather than improving it. The bottom line from the profs is that they can’t tell whether weatherization is a great program or a big fat expensive hot mess.

The meat of the arguments fall on curious assumptions. The Oak Ridge team claimed weatherization saved 1.4 times its cost. The profs found that the “costs” did not include administration and training. They did not calculate for wear and tear and assumed energy efficiency would be constant for 20 years, and, brothers and sisters, take it from me, nothing, absolutely nothing, works as well day in, day out for 20 years as it did brand new. There were also weird assumptions on interest rates and the cost of money, but that’s too in-the-weeds for you and me. More troubling the non-energy benefits in health, safety, and productivity were also suspect. These benefits were not measured, nor were there control groups, but instead figures were essentially plugged in to make the case. For example better sleep was rated at $3142 per household, but not measured. There was also no control group to compare costs and then we come to health claims. Porter writes that

“The study concluded there were big health gains from reduced thermal stress, but …found no meaningful changes in the temperature of weatherized homes. The field study also found no significant changes in carbon monoxide. And it detected an increase in radon and formaldehyde levels. Yet the overall cost-benefit assessment reported benefits from decreased carbon monoxide poisoning and omitted the potential impact of higher concentrations of radon and formaldehyde.”

The horse Porter is riding is that you want to get outsiders to look at your programs, not your own employees. Fair enough.

But, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against weatherization. I started out as a supportive skeptic. Now, I’m a full-on head scratching skeptic. To weatherize or not, that is the question for many families, but when it comes to government funding and the fight for the climate, every dollar counts, so which dollars and where should they go to include lower income families in the fight and the benefits?

Special Multinational Court in Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement

1439533698362New Orleans     President Obama sees the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement as a legacy marker. News reports refer to the announcement of an agreement with the Pacific Rim countries including Japan, Canada, Peru, Mexico and many others as a “capstone” agreement for the president. The White House says that there are labor and environmental protections that are unprecedented for a trade agreement. Malaysia, Vietnam, and other countries had to agree to protect labor rights in a major announcement. Many big national environmental organizations are touting the agreement as a breakthrough including the World Wildlife Federation. Australia supposedly pushed hard enough that big Pharma can’t run roughshod over generics and cheaper access to drugs in developing countries.

Sounds good, huh, but what do we have here?

The Organizers’ Forum delegation met with a researcher and campaigner in Warsaw recently named Roland Zarzycki working with the Institute for Global Responsibility. In the course of the dialogue we touched on the troubling elements in the likely TTP agreement. One that was especially worrisome had to do with the special court provisions that would allow transnational companies to sue countries over restrictions on trade in their products, but would not allow countries to sue the multinationals nor provide access to any other parties to adjudicate their concerns. Such special provisions for multinational companies paint a picture of a world of particular privilege and provision for globalization that is worrisome.

Is this some imagined problem for the paranoid? Hardly. The proof seems to be in the last minute jostling that indicated that there would be special provisions in the TPP to prevent tobacco companies from being able to sue countries that are trying to put in place health protections for the many diseases advanced by tobacco. Under some agreements Big Tobacco has already tried to take countries like India and others to such international courts. So, this door was reportedly locked for tobacco in the TPP, and that’s good, but what about other ugly, unhealthy multinational products and practices that will continue to be able to access these special courts in order to try to circumvent country by country provisions and protections?

We really don’t know of course. The negotiations are conducted in secret and the agreements reached will not be public until such time that President Obama starts the 90-day clock for Congressional review and an up or down vote to approve or disprove the trade treaty as negotiated. It’s hard to dispute the need for some quiet and confidentiality in negotiations, but the lack of information about vital pieces of the agreement privileges insiders and multinationals as well, compared to all of us biscuit-cookers out there trying to figure out what’s up.

Maybe this is as good as they are spinning, but until we know the whole story, it’s worth a lot of worry, and in the wake of countless agreements like this in the past, it’s hard to be optimistic that this is going to be as good for all of us as it is for big companies and special interests who clearly already have the inside track.

North Carolina is Showing the Way in Fighting for Rural Hospitals

Republican mayor of Belhaven, NC walks to Washington, DC to save Pungo Hospital and becomes a national voice for Medicaid expansion.

Republican mayor of Belhaven, NC walks to Washington, DC to save Pungo Hospital and becomes a national voice for Medicaid expansion.

New Orleans   For all of the continuing polarization in Congress over Obama’s Affordable Care Act and the “last stand in the hospital door” strategy of one Republican governor after another, there are realities in the heartland of the Republican base that some of the politicians are continuing to miss from their sky high perches as they survey the battleground. A fight in North Carolina by a Republican mayor, Adam O’Neal, in small town Bellhaven in the eastern part of the state, to save his town’s rural hospital should be sending a message about the political price the resistors will pay with their base voters, even if they are missing the life-and-death message that adequate and accessible health care represents. As the Mayor has made clear, health care is an issue that defines bipartisanship because both Republicans and Democrats get sick.

The private healthcare corporation Vident closed the local hospital, Pungo that served Bellhaven. Since the viability of so many hospitals was based on expanding health care coverage not restricting it, Pungo is just one of many early warning signs of what could become a widespread calamity. As noted in the Daily Kos, the Rural Health Association counts 283 rural hospitals as on their own kind of deathwatch to survive.

To save the hospital, Mayor O’Neal pulled pages from the history of the civil rights struggle and joined hands with contemporary activists. They hit the streets and marched to the state capitol in Raleigh to ask for a modification of the certification to allow the hospital to reopen. They also marched to Washington totaling hundreds of miles. They were joined by Rev. William Barber and his Moral Majority who have been central in recent struggles in North Carolina and beyond. They were also joined by former civil rights activists, like the legendary Bob Zellner from early SNCC and Freedom Rides fame. I can remember reaching out for Zellner in 1976 when we opened ACORN’s office in New Orleans and asking for help then. He was “retired” he said and working for an industrial plant, Godcheaux’s sugar refinery, while living in New Orleans and trying to find some calm after his years of activism. I doubt if he had really retired then, but there’s no doubt that he is back in action now. It was good to read that Zellner had joined this fight in North Carolina and walked with Mayor O’Neal every step of the 238-mile trek to Washington.

Does this kind of bipartisanship work even in the rock-ribbed rural communities of the South that have become the bastion of the Republican voting strength? Can these dusted off tactics still make a difference?

It seems so as Mayor O’Neal tweeted at the end of September:

Great news!!! NC Legislature changes Cert. Of Need law to allow our hospital to reopen. Votes..House 102-8 and Senate 44-0. #savepungo

Seems like part of the message from North Carolina is that we may need to build a movement on health care access for all to finally get the job done here.

Making an Organizing Plan for a Domestic Workers Association in Morocco

CP5KNv0WcAAvUm5Grenoble One of my more exciting and interesting tasks during my week of working in France with ACORN’s affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, and our partner, ReAct, was spending hours of speculation on how we would make an organizing plan to build an association of domestic workers, including heavily exploited migrants, in Morocco. This work never gets old! At one point one of the organizing directors turned to me and said, “I bet you’ve never organized where there was a King!” She was making an excellent point. The Queen of England and her posse are largely expensive figurines, but having a ruler who could still reach out and grab the wheel was worth me doing some research about the different twists and turns that organizing in such a political environment might entail.

I had been “all-in” from the get-go of course because I have a soft spot in my heart for organizing domestic workers dating back to the Household Workers’ Organizing Committee in New Orleans in 1978 and decades of work on home health care workers and home day care workers. We don’t have a good grip on the overall size of the workforce in Morocco yet, but modestly the numbers are several hundred thousand and could likely rise to a half-million. Most of the workers are Moroccan of course and employed by everyone from the middle class on up the economic ladder, but a not insignificant number are migrants as well from the Congo and other African countries as well as more recently the Philippines. Many of the migrants are undocumented and therefore in a more precarious situation with their employers. All domestic workers in Morocco seem unprotected by any special legislation about their rights or entitlements.

The early research obviously involves scouring the labor code to see whether there are arguable handles on rights or any specific exclusions for domestic workers in the same way that domestics were initially excluded from any coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act in the USA until the late 1970’s. The early scan indicated that the migrant workers are expressly barred from everything, including membership or protection by unions, despite the newer constitutional amendments in the wake of the Arab Spring which tightened up the right of all workers in speak and organize. We also are trying to get a better sense of the size of the constituency so we have a handle on our task and a sense of what scale will be needed in the organizing campaign.

While brainstorming about the hiring network for employers we found anecdotal evidence that the labor market, especially for migrants, might be controlled by labor “agents” or brokers that connected to scores of women looking for domestic work and sometimes to countries supply the migrant labor. Where we had been talking about ways to find domestic worker day workers and the frustrations that come with the lack of access to residential domestic workers, we suddenly realized that our outreach and contact plan would be seriously flawed if the labor market was controlled by a network of agents and suppliers, who might see us as upsetting their business model. We will still have to start at bus stops and marketplaces near more upper income communities where people work, as well as at churches, mosques, and associations that might be able to offer contacts, but clearly we will have to get a better sense of the way the labor market is organized, before we begin concentrated recruitment. We already know a lot of the issues, but the work plan is a long way from complete.

Did I mention how exciting it is to be on the ground floor of such an organizing campaign?

Studies Find Microfinance Does Not Reduce Poverty, Assets Do

Mega-MicrofinanceHamburg  Several years ago ACORN International did a research report that seemed heresy to many, but started from the simple proposition that since microfinance is debt, debt does not reduce poverty, therefore the value of microfinance was the same as buying a job through an employment agency: work at a steep price. For many the myth of microfinance will endure and millions of dollars will continue to support what are essentially public and philanthropic investments in banking startups, not for the poor, but for the managers of the debt fueled lending agencies themselves, many of which start as nonprofits and if able to prove out their finances at high interest, convert to for-profits.

Standing out on the ledge of prevailing economic development opinion, I took note of an article in the October 2015 Scientific American that looked at the work of a Yale University based nonprofit called Innovations for Poverty Action and its founder Dean Karlan, an economics professor there. He had become suspicious of microloans while working in South Africa decades ago and seeing people constantly returning to renew loans and understanding that it didn’t add up to getting out of poverty, but instead was little more than a debt treadmill.

At some length he says:

“Over the years microloans kept nagging at my colleagues and me. Fifteen years after my first study attempt in South Africa, we now have seven randomized trials completed on traditional microloans and one on consumer lending back in South Africa…These studies found some benefits of microloans, such as helping families weather hard times, pay off goods over time and make small investments in businesses. But there was no average impact on the main financial well-being indicators – income and household and food expenditures.”

In short maybe the loans didn’t hurt them, but neither did they help them, at least enough to get out of poverty. Furthermore, Karlan noted that these microloan programs were not reaching the poorest of the poor or what they term “ultra-poor,” people living on the purchasing power of $1.25 per day.

Not to just be a Debbie Downer, IPA’s experience argues for providing the poor with a “productive asset” to make a living, giving them training on asset utilization, providing them a direct stipend for daily living or what we used to call in welfare rights – More Money Now!, giving them health support and savings tools, and regular coaching like CEOs get.

It would cost money, but at least it would be money well spent, because monitoring has already established that health and hunger were greatly improved and the very poor were making real progress in areas as diverse as Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Pakistan, and Peru.

Sounds like that could be a way to go if we were really trying to get somewhere.

Demanding a Suspension of Remittance Fees During Disasters

_85611725_e26ea287-55ce-49b3-8ea6-b02ceba61ef7Newark   An 8.3 level earthquake hit Chile in recent days. The quake lasted three minutes. The tsunami carried boats from the port onto city streets along the coast. One million people were evacuated. Over 100,000 continue not to have electricity. Many are displaced. Amazingly, the death count has been relatively minor for such a tragedy with only eleven reported at this point. Many believe this may be due to progress in governmental response and the institution of tougher building codes since a 2010 earthquake killed over 500.

Several years ago when the tsunami hit Japan the focus was huge, damage immense, and attention riveting. Many are just coming back to their homes three years later in the worst impacted areas. Nuclear plants are still under observation and the existence of the plants themselves and the threats of climate change are heated debates.

In a global community what is the best response? Many will be moved to help, but families will feel special obligations whether it is Chile now, Japan then, Katrina ten years ago, or Aceh in Indonesia.

Sending money costs money. Big money. Even the Economist in a recent editorial and article chided the lack of progress by the G-8 and World Bank on reducing the fees to the 5% cap that was supposed to have been achieved years ago. They claim the average is 7.5% but that figure has little credibility given how much it leaves out of the calculations. There are regular reports of technological breakthroughs and new competitors, but many institutions have raised their rates claiming the costs of money laundering and terrorism legislation requires more scrutiny. The Economist called for reductions across the board, and ACORN’s Remittance Justice Campaign has long made that demand.

Can there be any better argument for reductions than disasters like Chile? A number of banks in Canada and the United States lowered or waived fees for transfers after the Japanese tsunami. Western Union and MoneyGram even said the right things for a bit. Where are they now?

Many are joining in a call for Western Union particularly to lead the way by reducing the cost of transfers to Chile during this crisis and time of displacement. Any of us that can need to raise our voices now.

ACORN and many other organizations have begun online petition drives among other tactics to get the message to the CEO of Western Union in Colorado to act now. Do whatever you can and sign the petition with us.