New Orleans There are no good times to be poor, but these are especially hard times given persistent inequality and distorted public policies that throw a couple of nickels towards lower income families while opening the gateway to millions for those with big money. All of which makes the ACORN victory in what might have seemed a hopeless campaign in British Columbia all the sweeter.
The issue centered on clawbacks, the inelegant, but totally accurate, term for the government forcing a refund from the poor. In this case, we are talking about single mothers on benefit support in British Columbia, Canada. When lightning struck and they received any child support, and throughout the world we know how spotty these collections always are, especially during the recent economic downturn, the government would then clawback an amount of money equal to the child support. All of which insured that the single mom and her children would be frozen in place without much hope of breaking loose from their circumstances. The rank injustice of this hard-hearted austerity measure by the Liberal (which means Conservative) government there became a huge and ongoing campaign by ACORN British Columbia over recent years.
Now with almost a billion dollar surplus ACORN’s tireless campaign and constant actions paid off and stopped the clawbacks, although as always it seems a small refund for us. means a bigger giveaway for upper income families.
The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s national newspapers, reported on the victory this way:
After sharp and emotional criticism from advocacy groups such as ACORN B.C. over the past year, some of the province’s poorest parents – single mothers on welfare – will now be able to keep the child-support payments from their former partners starting Sept. 1. Each month a single parent with one child is eligible for $945 in income assistance or $1,242 in disability payments. Under the old policy, those cheques are reduced by the amount of any child support received by a former partner….The policy change will return about $13-million over the next year to about 5,400 children in 3,200 families, Finance Ministry officials said. The budget also lets people earn several hundred dollars more before they pay tax on any income more than roughly $19,000.
Vancouver 24 Hours filled in some other blanks in the story quoting Carole James, the opposition critic of the ruling government:
…the NDP applauded government’s elimination of the child support “clawback” that sees amounts deducted if parents also receive income assistance, saying that policy “never should have been there in the first place.” “The credit for that goes entirely to the families who stepped forward and shared their stories. Some of them are here today, and we thank them for their courage for coming forward,” James said. ACORN B.C., which has held demonstrations repeatedly to eliminate the clawback, called it a “huge victory.”
Of course the worm in the apple James also pointed out is what the government did with most of the surplus.
Carole James, New Democrat finance critic, said government gave more to the rich and neglected the poor and middle class. “Government put only $5 million towards tax relief for the very lowest earners in British Columbia, but the wealthiest 2% saw an astounding $230 million in a tax break,” she told the legislature.
ACORN won against all odds by keeping the issue front-and-center, and essentially making it too hard for the government to give more to the rich while literally taking food out of the mouths of single mothers and their children. $13 million to stop the clawbacks, $5 million for low wage workers, and $230 million goes to the richest of the rich in British Columbia, but this is what it takes to win for the poor in these times of expanding inequality, and as every coach – and many an organizer – says, it might not be pretty, but a win is a win, and we’re glad to get it.
Enjoy this live version of Bruce Springsteen singing “Factory”
New Orleans John Bouman, the President of the Sargent Shriver Poverty Law Center based in Chicago was my guest on Wade’s World recently on KABF/FM talking about a number of subjects but especially the handles for pushing nonprofit hospitals to provide care for lower income families as part of their nonprofit status and especially their federal tax exemptions under the 501c3 classification of the Internal Revenue Service. He continues to have hope that the Affordable Care Act can decrease inequality and particularly can advance racial equality since African-Americans and Hispanics have gotten such short shrift from the health care system of the country. He argued vigorously, and correctly, that the Affordable Care Act was the most significant piece of social legislation passed and implemented over the last fifty years.
Bouman mentioned that in Illinois, thanks to unions and community pressure including from the old ACORN affiliates, they had enjoyed a version of the new national rule that forces nonprofit hospitals to actually deliver more free and reduced price health care to lower income families for some years. Their rule seems like it might even be a model for best practices for all of the hospitals now under the federal mandate to produce a rule that would allow them to keep their tax exemptions. The Illinois standard is transparent. A family would be eligible for such care at 200% of the poverty level. I like a “no ifs, ands, and buts” standard, and that’s what we need to push for everywhere. The Illinois standard also was clear about remedial practices before more strenuous collection efforts.
Almost in passing, Bouman mentioned that in Illinois the state and some cities and counties also had the ability to punish hospitals that were scofflaws on the act or really just wolves in the sheep’s clothing of nonprofits. I asked Bouman how could they do that, and he said of course they could take away any local or statewide property or revenue tax exemptions or allowances that they were getting as nonprofits with their charitable status. Whoa, I thought! We had overlooked the obvious handle there that could help us bring the fight to a very local level.
In Louisiana, where we might not have a chance with the state, the local assessors at the parish or county level are elected and often very close to the ground in terms of their responsiveness to community pressure and organizing. Furthermore, there are absolutely property tax exemptions enjoyed by all of the big, and many of the small, tax exempt organizations from the huge outfits like the universities and colleges as well as the small housing operations holding properties for development. Immediately, I could see organizationally how we could challenge a host of property tax exemptions that are worth millions.
In Arkansas, a quick look comes down to a test of how “public” the service or facility might be. My point is that in each state and in many local jurisdictions there might be handles available to increase the pressure for hospitals to do right. The fight itself might be enough to force some change, as we have already seen in the reaction of St. Joseph, Missouri’s Heartland Hospital and its jump to attention when they received an inquiry from Iowa’s Senator Charles Grassley asking them to defend their exemption given their collection practices.
It might be one thing for nonprofit hospitals to turn their backs on community organizations and unions asking about their policies and asking them to do better, but it would be a whole different problem if they had to defend such inadequate programs and cutthroat collection efforts in public before a board of adjustment, an assessor, a tax equalization board or any other public forum.
New Orleans Walmart has announced that over a half-million of its workers will get a raise to $9 now and up to $10 sometime in 2016 at the cost of one-billion dollars. This is good news, so I won’t remind people of the Pinocchio stories the company has told for years about its so-called average wages. The company is joining Gap, Target and others that have already said they are raising wages. Aetna Insurance several weeks ago raised all of its workers to $16 per hour to lead the way. Economists speculate that the labor market is finally beginning to tighten and that Walmart is recognizing the inevitability of wage increases, so wanted to jump ahead of the pack, embrace reality, and try to change its reputation as one of the country’s worst employers.
All of this is happening as President Obama tries to breathe some new life into his proposal to raise the minimum wage in various steps to $10.10 per hour which has been dead-on-arrival in Congress since it moved from his mind to his mouth. Not to rain on the parade, but Congress will no doubt use the announcement by Walmart as the nation’s largest private sector employer as evidence that there is no need for new federal minimum wage legislation.
All of this is happening as many of us have been in lengthy conversations in recent months about how to move forward on a different “living wage” strategy. The “fight for fifteen” has won huge publicity, but aside from Aetna, very little take-up, and, practically speaking, the notion that minimum wage fast food workers might suddenly find their wages doubling from the $7.25 they are earning now ranks somewhere next to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny on the reality scale.
What is fair and practicable? Our brothers and sisters in Canada have tried to navigate their campaigns around figures produced by respected nonprofits that include day care cost and other facts that live for many of us only in our dreams. A recently released poll in the States though found that there is 75% support among Americans for a $12.50 minimum wage achieved by the year 2020. The same poll found that even in the South that number was supported by 74% including over 50% of Republicans.
We tried to reverse engineer the math using statistics based on the average housing cost in our cities for a single person to rent an apartment and assuming that would represent one-third of their income. The results were interesting and would seem to resonate with people. Using this formula a “living wage” now would look like the following:
Little Rock $11.53
Baton Rouge $11.59
New Orleans $13.24
The wage train is starting to rumble forward finally. These numbers seem fair and make sense. It’s campaign time!
New Orleans Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts is getting a bit of ribbing from the Fox News types out there for her proposal to create the equivalent of a “swear jar” for big drug companies when they are paying fines for illegal activity and other violations. What a great idea!
Over the past decade, big Pharma has paid more than $8 billion in fines for fraudulent practices involving Medicare and Medicaid billing according to USA Today. Meanwhile the federal government has to continue to do business with these blockbuster drug companies because often they are the only ones offering certain drugs. The Huffington Post reports that,
“Warren’s proposal would only apply to the biggest companies — those that sell “blockbuster” drugs, often defined as a drug with annual sales of more than $1 billion. Only those companies that relied on federally funded research to develop a blockbuster drug would be subject to the punishment. The penalty would be 1 percent of the company’s total annual profit for each blockbuster drug.”
In Warren’s proposal, the money would not only be a real incentive to stop the company’s rip-and-run policies, but would also fund the FDA and National Institute of Health research budgets that have been hit by almost a 25% funding cut in recent Congressional austerity financing. That’s what I call a constructive and creative public policy proposal!
I think the idea should not only be adopted but should spread to other corporate scofflaws so that there is a culture shift when their lawyers settle, not just a big check cut.
When banks pay for foreclosing on peoples’ mortgages illegally, they should have to pay directly to a housing fund that not only provides counseling on foreclosure modifications but has the bank employees, including the top execs, down in the trenches working with victims, perhaps even helping them move into new houses as well. When companies pay for firing workers illegally, some of the big dogs should have to do some community service and actually pull some shifts on the line, in the nursing home or hospital, at the back of the truck or wherever. When companies pay for price fixing, they should not only pay, but they should have to spend time seeing what it’s like to shop on their victim’s budget. We have to shrink the distance between anonymous corporate crime and people’s experience with punishment in such a way that there is really altered behavior rather than something that is seen as simply part of doing business. We need to not just have payment, but a probation of sorts that creates good behavior.
Warren is right about where some of the money should go. Just like lawyers pick cy pres organizations to provide remediation for class action settlements, the government should earmark some of fines to remedy the initial crimes, rather than just washing the money into the overall budget somewhere between bread and bullets. I would just add to Warren’s “swear jar” concept, the fact that the corporate scofflaws should also have the hold the jar in their own hands for a while and not just throw some money into it for their bad behavior.
Please enjoy Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine performing the Union Song in Chinatown at the largest ever Wal-Mart protest organized by the California Labor Unions.
A float from the Krewe du Vieux “Begs for Change” 2015
New Orleans There’s just something about reading the rehashed stories every year on the front page of the local New Orleans papers about the surprise of some uptown swell at being named King of Rex and the shock of some debutante at being chosen as the Queen. All of this balderdash we are supposed to stomach as we then read of grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters who were in the Rex Court, Queens and Kings in ought whatever over generations. Their pictures are always the same. The stereotypes are always constant. In recent years, as a mild concession to the fact that New Orleans is a majority African-American city despite all of this elite pretense, there are also stories about the selection of the King of Zulu which actually involves well publicized campaigns and voting, as opposed to the secret society affairs of the old time krewes and courts. The Indians are also having their time in the sun given all of the attention by those in the know and faux Mardi Gras fictions like HBO’s Treme.
I’m for having fun, but the traditional part of Mardi Gras is so not for me and sits at the top of the list of the things that are not my favorite here. Until my son and I started pulling a shift for the regulars at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse every Mardi Gras morning, my most common remark about the holiday was that it was great to have a day off.
Nonetheless, I have to admit that there are some changes afoot that might save Mardi Gras somewhat for the locals and leave the show and the rest of the malarkey for the tourists, who are much appreciated and desperately needed for our service-dominated economy. One big change is that women have increasingly forced their way onto the scene and away from the society and debutante balls. There are women’s krewes now in reaction to the all-male bastions of the old line Boston and Pickwick Club outfits and some like Muses are huge hits. There are lots of women’s marching and dancing groups now, many with huge attitude and some that must give the grand dames along St. Charles Avenue some pause.
In the almost ten years since Katrina, there also seems to be a democratization of the festivities driven largely by young people who want to mask and parade often in their own neighborhoods like my own Bywater where so many of them have flocked since the storm. There is spirit there and even a bit of anarchy, as we saw some years ago in Eris where an unplanned and permitted route ended up with some arrests and hubbub. Krewe de Vieux before the official start of the carnival season snubs its nose at one and all with often ribald results. Societe de Saint Anne in particular has become wildly popular and amasses in Bywater literally doors away from our old home and only blocks from where we live now and is all about anyone who wants to join in and walk the streets toward the French Quarter from Bywater through Marigny.
In these downriver neighborhoods the chances are also good that you will stumble into a random procession of twenty or fifty or a hundred people following a concoction of their own making or perhaps it will stumble into you as a huge great white whale float reminiscent of Moby Dick did on my block this season. Now that people seem willing to seize the streets, they may have a chance over time of pushing the swells off the front line and back to the society pages and the dustbins of history where they belong.
Please enjoy, Billy Bragg’s “There is Power in a Union”