Who's Grabbing Your Wallet? A Missed Chance to Help Consumers

Huffington Post
by: Preeti Vissa

In mid-July the recently-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued its first-ever fine, hitting Capital One with a $165 million penalty for misleading consumers into buying extra credit card products. While good news in one sense, CFPB’s action also illustrates a serious flaw in our financial regulatory system that has yet to be remedied.

The fine is good news because Capital One has a long record of predatory behavior toward its credit card customers. In this case, the company pressured those customers into buying additional services like credit monitoring and payment protection. In its announcement, CFPB noted that other institutions engage in similar practices, and they can all expect a crackdown.

Good. That’s exactly the sort of thing CFPB should be doing.

Continue reading “Who's Grabbing Your Wallet? A Missed Chance to Help Consumers”

Who's Buying Up Your Neighborhood?

The Huffington Post
by: Preeti Vissa

Last week, Urban Strategies Council, a smart and savvy nonprofit in Oakland, Calif., caused a bit of a local stir with a report looking at who’s been buying up foreclosed properties in their city — a town that’s been seriously hit by the foreclosure crisis. What they found is almost certainly not limited to Oakland, and should be cause for discussion nationwide.

Continue reading “Who's Buying Up Your Neighborhood?”

Who’s Missing from Health Care Reform? New Report Captures Their Voices

Millions of Californians Have Gained Insurance, While Undocumented Still Struggle

Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)
Anthony Galace, Greenlining Institute Health Policy Fellow, 510-926-4009

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA – Over two million Californians have gained health coverage due to the Affordable Care Act, but the ACA specifically excludes more than one million undocumented Californians. To help ensure that this population gets treated as human beings and not just a statistical abstraction, The Greenlining Institute held in-depth discussions with undocumented Californians from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and compiled their thoughts and experiences into a new report to be released Monday, March 23.

Journalists can preview the report, “Voices from the Front Lines: Barriers to Health Care for Undocumented Californians,” by clicking the link above and using the password Voices (password is case-sensitive).

The portrait that emerged from the discussions shows hard-working Californians living in fear of serious illness, avoiding care because of the cost, relying on home remedies, and putting their lives at risk as a result. “I don’t really go to the doctor because it’s expensive, unless it’s really, really bad,” one participant told Greenlining’s researchers. “I didn’t get a checkup for years until I started college.” Participants also identified a number of other issues with the health care system, including a lack of cultural and linguistic competency.

“These are our neighbors, and they make a huge contribution to our culture and our economy,” said Greenlining Institute Health Policy Fellow Anthony Galace, the report’s author. “Every Californian will be better off if all of our neighbors have access to the health care they need. Fortunately, we can get that done this year if the legislature passes Senate Bill 4, the Health for All Act.”


A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute


Who Has Taken a Bite Out of Tax?

World Finance
by:Katie Richardson

Apple has been accused of “tax dodging’ in the UK after it was revealed the company paid just £10.3m in corporation tax in 2010 despite earning an estimated £6bn. But it is not alone: the list of companies accused of tax avoidance is growing.

Apple Inc. is having one of the most successful years on record. In March, its stock value topped $506bn, making it the world’s most valuable company — and one of the six most valuable companies at any point in history. Record sales were made in the US in 2011, with over $41.8bn worth of gadgets passing hands, including 72.3 million iPhones — an 81 percent increase on 2010. Compared to Exxon Mobil who has a market cap of $400bn, IBM’s $240bn and Wal-Mart’s $210bn, Apple is a juggernaut. Its valuation now exceeds the GDP of oil-rich Saudi Arabia. As the spotlight is directed at Apple, the company’s bottom line is the subject of interrogation, with governments keen to reclaim every penny.

Continue reading “Who Has Taken a Bite Out of Tax?”

White Supremacy and Tech: Panelists Discuss Bias in Data and Algorithms

The Daily
By Thelonious Goerz

Often, data and algorithms are seen as a beacon of objectivity and fairness. But panelists in fields spanning data science, education, social justice, and policy challenged the notion with thoughtful examination last Monday.

At the event, panelists described how gender, trans, and racial biases are being perpetuated in tech, despite the popular myth that algorithms are completely objective.

The event, titled “Connecting the Dots: Racism in Algorithms and Tech,” was moderated by Haleema Bharoocha, a tech equity policy fellow at the Greenlining Institute from Oakland, California. Bharoocha co-hosted the event with the Greenlining Institute, the Critical Platform Studies Group, and UW’s Information School.

Panelists included Nikkita Oliver, a case manager and former Seattle mayoral candidate; Shankar Narayan, director of the ACLU of Washington Technology and Liberty project; Anna Lauren Hoffmann, professor at the UW Information School; and Pedro Perez, co-founder of Geeking Out Kids of Color (GOKiC).

“Technology, often framed as apolitical, reaches into the lives of anyone whose lives are mediated by networks or data analysis,“ Bharoocha said. “Algorithmic bias goes beyond big data concerns: facial recognition technology … can replicate racial bias by reproducing historical injustices from the data sets they are built from.”

While it may seem that data doesn’t “lie,” Hoffmann commented on the nature of asking the right questions when collecting and using data. For Hoffman, bias in data comes from the way we collect our data sets, which are often exclusionary, and make people “data invisible.”

This was most recently apparent in Amazon’s hiring practices. Using artificial intelligence, Amazon created an algorithm to compare and review the resumes of prospective employees against the resumes of their current employees.

Because the majority of Amazon’s employees are white and male, the data set produced a pool of prospective employees that reflected that demographic. According to an article in Business Insider, the algorithm discriminated against women, going so far as to exclude any candidates that went to certain women-only colleges.

The same type of discrimination and bias can be seen in more extreme situations as well. Notably, panelists discussed the predictive policing tactics that the Seattle Police Department (SPD) had used until recently. According to Oliver, SPD uses the crime data to determine the “hot spots” for crime, and as a result, determine where to increase police presence.

Oliver also spoke about a group of community organizers in Seattle that used the same SPD data to determine where to perform outreach and community engagement, which led to a reduction in crime. In this way, Oliver characterized data as a tool that could be used to either criminalize a population or help a population through outreach.

In terms of surveillance, technology does not stop with predictive policing; it also extends to facial recognition. Narayan argued that the way tech is marketed as being neutral is actually misleading, as it can actually have detrimental impacts on communities of color.

Narayan called facial recognition a “supercharging of racism,” as it determines propensities for violence, anger, and whether someone is a terrorist. The problem with these algorithms, according to Narayan, is that these technologies are not able to be evaluated by third parties before use. Some of this is due to the nature of black-box and proprietary technologies, which are often kept secret so as not to expose novel technology to competitors.

Narayan pointed to the need for regulation and policy surrounding these systems, especially when they claim to be able to predict certain traits.

While this characterization can seem grim, Perez offered some positivity about the emerging future of technology and algorithms.

Perez is the co-founder of GOKiC, an organization that provides children of color with more access to computer science and tech. Through after-school resources and workshops, Perez teaches young children about coding in an inclusive and socially conscious environment. According to Perez, GOKiC uses examples to teach computer science that engage kids culturally, material which he finds to be more resonant.

Perez further explained that a lot of youth have limited access to technology. Many of the children that GOKiC serves don’t have a computer at home, which impacts their school performance, according to Perez. These barriers further disadvantage children of color and contribute to maintaining inequality.

At the panel’s conclusion, Hoffmann noted that data and algorithms should be used to challenge white supremacy and the status quo. Rather than asking how we can modify the algorithm to be fair, Hoffmann urges tech workers to also look at the system that the algorithm represents, to look beyond what is already on the surface.

Where Would We Be Without Physicians of Color?

Source: Irvine school newspaper New University | Written by: Kellie K. Middleton, M.P.H.
As students and future leaders, we don’t think enough about how minorities have impacted our state’s economy, politics and health care system. If we did, we would understand the grave importance of diversity now more than ever given California’s changing demographics. In health, the governor’s current reform proposal and an expected physician shortage by 2015 should further heighten our concern for diversity (or lack thereof). Continue reading “Where Would We Be Without Physicians of Color?”

When Is a Phone Call Not a Phone Call? (When ALEC Says So)

The Huffington Post
by: Tracy Rosenberg

When a Pacific Gas and Electric pipeline exploded in San Bruno, CA in 2010, pundits all over the nation called out for more aggressive supervision of the energy company, so Californians needn’t fear having their homes burst into fireballs.

Wildfires and windstorms resulted in long-term outages across Southern California in recent years, caused largely by aging lines and overloaded power poles. At the insistence of legislators, millions of dollars in fines have been assessed.

Which makes it really puzzling when mandates for less utility regulation start sailing through the California legislature.

Do we only care after people die or lose the ability to communicate in an emergency?

Continue reading “When Is a Phone Call Not a Phone Call? (When ALEC Says So)”

When Even Bigots Are 'Multicultural,' Yes, Corporate Board Diversity Matters

The Huffington Post
by: Preeti Vissa

Recently on The Huffington Post, Peter Dreier and Gregory Squires made a provocative argument: “It turns out that the gender and racial make-up of a bank’s board of directors has little influence on whether it acts responsibly toward consumers (including women and minorities) and traditionally underserved communities.” Their Exhibit A was Wells Fargo, which both has one of the more diverse boards in banking and recently agreed to pay $175 million to settle claims of discrimination against Latino and African-American borrowers. This and other questionable Wells Fargo practices, Dreier and Squires argued, show that having women and minorities on a corporation’s board doesn’t change the company’s behavior.

Continue reading “When Even Bigots Are 'Multicultural,' Yes, Corporate Board Diversity Matters”

When Banks Swallow Each Other, You Deserve a Voice

The Huffington Post
by: Preeti Vissa

The massive wave of bank megamergers that took off in the 1990s had plenty of unfortunate results, including the invention of the phrase “too big to fail.” Fewer mergers are happening now – mainly because there are far fewer banks left to merge – but the ones that do happen can have a huge impact on communities, and those communities deserve a voice.

They don’t have nearly enough of a voice now.

Bank mergers must be approved by federal regulators, and those regulators do accept written public comments, but they only occasionally hold public hearings. The process is cumbersome and hard to navigate, laden with industry jargon and complex documents. Too much of the time, it doesn’t give the public an effective voice.

On the one hand, in an era when government seems distant and detached from the needs of ordinary Americans, it’s good that there is some mechanism in place for citizens to have a voice. But without public hearings, that voice is muted.

Case in point: As I write this, Pacific Western, a bank which operates throughout California, is seeking approval from the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to acquire CapitalSource Bank, which operates in the southern and central portions of the state. Neither of these banks is huge by modern standards, but their merger, if approved, will affect communities all over the state.

Thanks to an important and little-known law called the Community Reinvestment Act, we know a fair amount about these banks and how responsive they’ve been to the needs of the communities they serve. The idea behind CRA, passed in 1977 is to evaluate banks on their community development lending – the sorts of local investments that create jobs, expand homeownership, develop affordable housing, and help small businesses grow. And at a time when so many people feel disenfranchised and voiceless, those CRA evaluations are a valuable mechanism for community input.

As The Greenlining Institute’s recent letter to the Fed and the FDIC notes, CapitalSource has an outstanding record. It received an “outstanding” rating in its last CRA evaluation, devoting 12 percent of its assets to community development lending. CapitalSource justifiably touts its community involvement on its home page, which links to a full page of information on the bank’s community involvement.

Pacific Western appears to have nothing like that on its website, apparently for good reason. It got a “low satisfactory” rating on its last CRA evaluation. It’s not hard to get a “satisfactory” rating, and “low satisfactory” is roughly the equivalent of your child coming home from school with a D or D+ on her report card – not too impressive. While Pacific Western’s community development lending did increase from an abysmal 0.9 percent to 2.8 percent, that’s still less than one quarter of what CapitalSource is doing.

In response to Greenlining’s criticism, Pacific Western has asserted that it “intends to be a leader in CRA in its assessment areas.” But the bank conceded that an “outstanding” rating is unlikely at present, and was rather thin on the specifics of how it would get there.

If Pacific Western is going to be allowed to swallow a smaller bank with an outstanding community development record, we’d like to see the Fed and the FDIC insist on a concrete, measurable plan to improve its engagement with the community. Until such a plan is put forth, the merger shouldn’t be allowed.

Just as important, the communities affected should have a voice in this decision beyond the clunky and cumbersome process of filing written comments. Regulators should hold public hearings and invite input from the real people – residents, small business owners, nonprofit and community leaders – in the towns and neighborhoods that will be affected. We’ve proposed hearings in three different regions of California.

Bank mergers may seem like distant, arcane transactions far removed from our day to day lives, but they affect real people and real communities. You deserve a voice.

Follow Preeti Vissa on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Greenlining

What’s ‘Waste’ to the Oil Lobby

San Francisco Chronicle
By Alvaro Sanchez and Bill Magavern

Big Oil must love income inequality and our country’s shocking racial wealth gap. The industry’s latest campaign aims to perpetuate these injustices while attacking California’s efforts against climate change.

The Western States Petroleum Association, lurking behind the front group “CARE” (Californians for Affordable and Reliable Energy), has launched a website claiming California wastes millions of dollars in its effort to reduce carbon pollution — a bogus claim.

Under California laws, big polluters must buy permits to emit climate-changing carbon into the air. That money, collected via state-run auctions, then goes to fund projects that further reduce pollution and promote clean energy and transportation. Thanks to a law that we sponsored, SB535, at least one-quarter of those funds must benefit disadvantaged communities with the worst pollution and most economic hardships — often low-income communities of color.

These reductions are in addition to emissions reduced by critical policies like the low-carbon fuel standard.

Those dollars are at work today: helping low-income families weatherize their homes, improving public transit, expanding solar power, paying for cleaner cars, trucks and buses, planting trees in urban areas, putting affordable housing near public transit, and more. That’s what the oil lobby calls “waste.”

The price of carbon at auction has hovered just under $13 per ton. Remember, that’s what polluters pay to continue polluting from existing factories, power plants and other facilities that burn oil, coal and gas.

The oil industry’s math geniuses have discovered that it costs more to build clean transportation and energy infrastructure than it does to keep using old, dirty facilities. In Big Oil’s twisted logic, that’s “waste.” Worse than comparing apples to oranges, they’re comparing apples to the cost of planting a new orchard.

That’s crazy. But it gets even worse when you look at the climate investments that the oil lobby calls “waste.”

For example, two of the eight projects its website slams involve putting affordable housing near public transportation. Here in the Bay Area, we understand the need for both affordable housing and transit.

We looked at one project funded by these climate investments, West Gateway Place in West Sacramento. This green-certified, walkable community will put affordable homes in close proximity to bike lanes, rail lines, bus lines, and car and bike shares. By promoting walking, biking and transit use, it will reduce carbon emissions enough to equal taking more than 140,000 cars off the road.

But that’s just the start. By providing low- and moderate-income families a decent, affordable place to live, these projects change lives. We spoke to Esther Robert, who lives in a nearby affordable housing development, having overcome struggles with addiction. “Because of affordable housing, I can be secure and OK and keep moving forward,” she told us. “If I didn’t have this place, my kids would have been in the (foster care) system.”

We must build a new, clean-energy economy if we are to survive. California has chosen to do so in the best way possible, by bringing its benefits to those who need it most.

If you’ve been impacted by air pollution, climate change, or benefited from California’s climate investments like the ones we’ve described, we invite you to share your story athttp://bit.ly/1XmaIRn