Your Bank May Owe You Money

The Huffington Post
by: Preeti Vissa

If you are a homeowner facing foreclosure or who has been foreclosed upon, it may look like nothing has been done to help you. While much, much more needs to be done, the good news is that many steps have been taken to hold banks accountable and bring help to people who need it — victims of wrongful foreclosures as well as other lending practices that were misleading, discriminatory or unfair.

The bad news? They don’t matter unless we take advantage of them! Below is a long list of settlements and reviews that were created to help struggling borrowers. Literally millions of people qualify for help, so take a look and see if you’re one of them. In some cases, application deadlines are coming up, and if you miss the deadline, you may not get what you’re owed.

Time is Running Out! Money Mart and Loan Mart Settlement: Deadline October 1

Continue reading “Your Bank May Owe You Money”

Workplace Wellness Regulations: First, Do No Harm

The Hill
by: Carla Saporta and Jeremy Cantor

With health care costs spiraling out of control, policymakers are increasingly focused on promoting prevention, including incorporating wellness and disease-prevention efforts into the workplace. The potential savings are massive. In our home state of California alone, preventable chronic disease costs $22 billion a year in medical costs and lost productivity, according to the Department of Public Health This push for workplace wellness  is crucially important, both for improving Americans’ health and for controlling rising healthcare expenditures If done wrong, however, these well-intended efforts could do significant harm.

Right now the Department of Labor, in conjunction with HHS and the IRS, is considering regulations governing workplace wellness programs under the Affordable Care Act, which includes provisions designed to stimulate such efforts.  Encouraging businesses to set up workplace wellness programs can help move us toward a healthier citizenry and reduce healthcare costs, but as now written, the rules don’t reflect best practices and could result in significant unintended consequences by penalizing unhealthy workers and those with the least access to nutritious food and healthy physical activity.

So what sort of effective workplace wellness program should the new federal rules encourage? When The Greenlining Institute and Prevention Institute reviewed current research and interviewed small business owners, we found that the most effective workplace wellness programs included several  key components.

One important part is collaboration between workers and management in the design of programs. Rather than imposing workplace wellness as a top-down directive, managers should work with employees, who should have a voice in selecting program elements. This will also help ensure that programs are culturally relevant to the firm’s workforce.

The best programs also make use of comprehensive, multifaceted strategies that focus on both individuals and their environment. These can include a variety of elements, including counseling and information, assessments to help employees identify and address key risk factors, and establishment of policies and practices to support a healthy workplace, such as encouraging the use of stairs and establishing healthy food guidelines for cafeterias and vending machines. Sadly, while 90 percent of workplaces report some sort of wellness activity, only seven percent provide the multiple elements necessary for a truly effective approach.

We also have a pretty good idea of what doesn’t work, and heading the list are strategies that tie individual employees’ share of health insurance premiums to health-related behaviors and/or meeting health benchmarks. Increasing or decreasing an employee’s contribution to health premiums based on blood pressure measurements or health behaviors such as smoking means that, according to the Washington Post, “American families with average health benefits could have $6,688 a year riding on blood tests and weigh-ins.”

While superficially attractive, this approach is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the evidence suggests it doesn’t  work. Punitive measures haven’t been linked to improved health outcomes and may instill resentment among employees. Second, raising premiums based on health benchmarks will shift health care costs to the least healthy workers. This can have the perverse effect of making health care (including wellness and preventive care) less available to those who need it most. In this way, the rules run counter to the spirit and intent of the Affordable Care Act. And finally, such punitive measures will have the most damaging effects on people of color and low-income workers. These workers are most likely to suffer from chronic conditions and to lack resources to improve their health, virtually guaranteeing that they will be disproportionately penalized.

The pending regulations present a tremendous opportunity to move U.S. health policy in a positive direction — if they lead to the creation of comprehensive programs that really work rather than punitive efforts that set us back. Advocates and others who want to weigh in on this important issue have until Jan. 25 to get their comments in, and we strongly encourage them to do so.

Saporta is health policy director at The Greenlining Institute. Cantor is program manager at the Prevention Institute.

Will Oakland Finally Get the First-rate Public Ethics Commission It Deserves?

Oakland Local
by Michelle Romero

This November, Oakland voters will have the chance to make sure the city has a Public Ethics Commission with real power needed to enforce our ethics laws. It’s about time.

Other ethics commissions, such as those in Los Angeles and San Francisco, have significantly more staff, independence, and enforcement authority than Oakland’s PEC.

Last year, after receiving a citizen compliant, the Alameda County Grand Jury investigated an instance in which an Oakland City Council member circumvented the city’s contracting, purchasing, and hiring rules in order to advance a special project in their district, at a time when many other projects and programs were being cut. You can read the Grand Jury report here.

This issue for Oakland voters goes far beyond the actions of one City Council member. It’s time to address the structural problems that have allowed the ethics lines in Oakland to be fudged more often than they should without any real repercussions. Oakland has had a Public Ethics Commission (PEC) in place to act as a watchdog over local government, but since it has never really been given any real funding or resources to be able to do its job, watching is about all they can do. We need a Public Ethics Commission with the power to act.

Fortunately, on July 15, the Oakland City Council decided to do the right thing and start restoring public confidence in government by passing a charter amendment to give to the PEC the funding and resources it needs to truly be independent and effective. The amendment, which now must be approved by voters, was introduced by Councilmember Dan Kalb, who put together a working group of community-based issue experts last fall – including representatives from The Greenlining Institute, League of Women Voters, and California Common Cause — to help him develop some recommendations for strengthening the PEC once and for all.

A report of the working group’s findings and recommendations is available here.

Borrowing some of the best ideas from PECs already in place in San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles, the charter amendment would:

  1. Increase staff from two to six, including several analysts to investigate violations
  2. Give the PEC new authority to impose fines and other penalties for whistleblower retaliation and for violations of rules dealing with ethical conduct and open government, fair campaign practices or finance, and lobbying.
  3. Increase the PEC’s independence within city government by giving the citizen commissioners a major role in hiring, evaluating and terminating the Executive Director
  4. Clarify and emphasize the PEC’s responsibility to educate and train elected and appointed city officials in ethical conduct in order to promote compliance

The measure will appear on the November 2014 ballot where Oakland voters will have a chance to make it law. This is an important opportunity for our city to finally get the first-rate Ethics Commission it deserves.

Will Health Insurance Reform Reach Those Who Really Need It?

Huffington Post
By Preeti Vissa

Issues that affect our lives don’t happen in a vacuum. Everything affects everything else, and there’s no area where that’s truer than health and access to care. So I’m going to take a slight detour from the financial and economic issues I write about most of the time to say a bit about the Affordable Care Act, which marks a historic expansion of access to health care.

Continue reading “Will Health Insurance Reform Reach Those Who Really Need It?”

Will Congress Spark a New Great Recession?

Newsday
By Orson Aguilar

Four years before the subprime mortgage meltdown devastated the U.S. economy, my organization warned Federal Reserve Board Chair Alan Greenspan that a deregulated financial sector was hurtling us toward disaster.

The New York Times, in recounting this 2004 meeting, noted that representatives of Greenlining Institute “implored Mr. Greenspan to use his bully pulpit and press for a voluntary code of conduct.” He was not interested.

Astonishingly, similar warnings are being ignored all over again.

After the 2008 crash, Congress passed a series of reforms known as the Dodd-Frank Act. While many of us felt this law should have gone farther, it did put in place a series of common-sense protections designed to curb the “wild west” atmosphere on Wall Street.

In mid-March, the U.S. Senate acted to slash those protections, passing a financial deregulation bill known as S.2115, rightly derided by critics as the “Bank Lobbyist Act.” Among other things, the bill would exempt some truly massive banks—up to $250 billion in assets, big enough to include American Express—from regulatory oversight designed to keep them from driving the economy into a ditch again.

The Senate passed the bill despite a warning from the Congressional Budget Office that it would increase the likelihood of a federal bank bailout and increase the budget deficit.

As in the Great Recession of 2008, the impacts of this policy would likely hitcommunities of color the hardest. A recent investigation by Reveal foundthat banks continue to practice illegal forms of race-based discrimination, a.k.a. redlining, in home mortgage lending. Obtaining home lending data is key to shining light on this bias, and hiding that data is exactly what the banks would prefer.

Because black, Latino and Asian American borrowers were specifically targetedby predatory subprime lenders, Congress beefed up reporting requirements under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, to be effective this year. Increased public reporting of statistics like borrower credit scores, mortgage loan terms and the assessed points and fees would help regulators find patterns of discrimination and stop redlining.

But the Bank Lobbyist Act rolls back these new reporting requirements for banks and credit unions making under 500 home mortgage loans per year—even though lenders still must collect this information for their underwriting files. By allowing banks to hide data they’re already collecting, the bill will make it harder to detect and prevent patterns of discrimination. Effectively, it’s a Redliner’s Bill of Rights.

Now that the Senate bill has passed with a bipartisan majority (sixteen Democrats joined all Republicans in voting “yes”), consideration moves to the House of Representatives. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Republican of Texas, chair of the House Financial Services Committee, has indicated he wants to combine the Senate bill with existing House legislation that’s also regarded as dangerous by consumer advocates.

It’s time to sound an alarm. We need to remember what caused the Great Recession, and let Congress know we’ll be watching to see whether it proceeds with this mad experiment in bank deregulation.

Why Oakland Needs Net Neutrality

Oakland Local
by Paul Goodman

More and more, Oakland is bursting with lively, creative local businesses and artists, and the Federal Communications Commission is weighing issues that could either encourage this creative energy or help strangle it. It all has to do with the Internet and the somewhat wonky – but really quite simple – concept of net neutrality.

One of the truly great things about the Internet is the benefits it brings to local businesses.

For example, Oaklandish only has two retail stores, both in Oakland, but you can use the Oaklandish.com website to order Oaklandish gear from anywhere in the world. Oaklandish uses part of its profits to provide grants to local nonprofits. Oaklandish’s Internet presence allows it to improve our local community and economy far more that it could with just two stores – and, of course, it’s just one of many local enterprises using an online presence to expand its reach.

The Internet has been a great boon to local businesses and communities because it has historically been open and nondiscriminatory. Under net neutrality rules enforced by the FCC, Internet providers had to allow consumers to use any device and access any content on the Internet on an equal basis – you’d get the same access and same treatment whether you’re General Motors, Google or a working mom in Oakland running a home-based business. Providers were not allowed to block websites or slow down access to those websites.

Unfortunately, all of those protections could disappear.

Earlier this year, the D.C. Court of Appeals struck down those net neutrality rules, and the FCC has proposed a new set of rules that, sadly, fall very short. Under these new rules, providers can discriminate against devices, applications, and content, as long as that discrimination is “commercially reasonable.”

And what does “commercially reasonable” mean? We have no clue. The FCC hasn’t defined it, and you can bet that providers will interpret it any way they want. The FCC has also stated that it will allow “paid prioritization,” meaning providers would be allowed to “manage traffic” by picking and choosing where to slow down or stop service.

That would be really bad news for small businesses in Oakland and elsewhere.

For example, Amazon could pay providers extra so that when you access Amazon.com, you get a superfast, super-reliable connection. That would be great, except for the fact that every time a provider speeds some web traffic up, it slows the rest of the web traffic down. So while Amazon can afford to pay a bundle for superfast access to its website, a smaller, less wealthy company like Oaklandish might not be able to, and folks trying to access Oaklandish.com might experience a very slow connection or not be able to connect altogether. It’s like if the Highway Patrol decided to ease traffic on 880 by closing your onramp: The folks who could get on the freeway would get where they’re going faster, but you’d be stuck.

And it could be even worse than that, because this provides an opportunity for providers to block access to content they don’t like. For example, Comcast might block a web page listing the reasons the pending Comcast/Time Warner merger would harm communities of color – and get away with it because there’s no good way to tell the difference between a carrier that is blocking/slowing content and one that’s “managing traffic.”

This won’t just affect businesses; it will affect anyone who can’t afford to pay for the Internet “fast lane.” Communities of color already tend to have less access to the Internet, and for those who do have access, their Internet connections tend to be slower. In the absence of net neutrality protections, the situation will get even worse: Fewer people will visit small companies’ websites, fewer people will see art, video, and music that independent artists post online, and fewer activists will be able to coordinate and educate the public about important issues.

The future of the Internet depends on net neutrality rules. The Federal Communications Commission must take the necessary steps to ensure that the Internet remains an open platform for speech and education, with all of us treated equally. The path forward is clear: The FCC needs to reclassify broadband service as a telecommunications service and enact strong open internet protections that ensure a level playing field for all participants. You can ask the FCC to save net neutrality by emailing the Commission at openinternet@fcc.gov.

Why Oakland is Worried Over Uber

By Orson Aguilar

Tech-based companies from Apple to Uber generate great wealth while turning whole industries upside down. Today, my town, Oakland, Calif., worries that this is what Uber will do to our community.

Uber will soon move into an enormous new headquarters in a former downtown department store. The hope of many in Oakland is that the city and Uber can create a model for how companies and communities can work together to benefit all. Many of us in Oakland hope the company will work with us to create a true “Uber Oakland” — diverse and vibrant.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear that Uber wants to bother.

In every city that becomes a tech hub, we see the same pattern: Some make piles of money, but working people get squeezed. Rents soar for families, local small businesses and community nonprofits. Newly wealthy tech workers and companies move in while longtime residents and community groups get forced out, leaving a city superficially wealthy but hollow.

This odd combination of wealth and devastation, which already rolled through San Francisco and Silicon Valley, is now taking root in Oakland. Already, housing is unaffordable for working people, while commercial landlords jack up rents in anticipation of the tech wave.

So leaders of 20 community groups came together to say, “Enough. Let’s find a better way.”

What might that look like?

First, it must start with dialogue between Uber’s leaders and the community. That dialogue should lead to concrete commitments from this wealthy company to act in ways that will ultimately benefit both it and its new neighbors.

For example, Uber can commit to training and hiring local workers. It can work with local public schools and community colleges to ensure that local residents have a fair shot at jobs with the company — not part-time driving gigs, but the full-time jobs that power Uber’s growth and pay good salaries.

It can commit philanthropic dollars to support local nonprofits and help them stay in a city where many still need the services they provide.

It can work with the local and regional transit systems to ensure that Uber’s services enhance that vital network and don’t sabotage it.

It can commit to contracting with local businesses for the goods and services its new headquarters will require. These local businesses form the heart of our economy and maintain Oakland as a vibrant town with rich ethnic and cultural diversity.

As Richard Marcantonio of the nonprofit group Public Advocates said recently, “The question is: Is Uber willing to drive people, and black people in particular, out of Oakland, or are they going to sit down at the table with the community and try to be part of the solution?”

Keep an eye on this. Your community could be next.

Why I Stand With Immigrants

The Bay Area Reporter
By Bruce Mirken

Her name is Maria Contreras. She’s a U.S. citizen, having emigrated legally from the Philippines over a decade ago.

In February, on the way home from visiting friends in Mexico, she was detained and questioned at the airport for some two hours – for no apparent reason other than having brown skin and a name that sounds Hispanic. Though she was eventually allowed to go home, Contreras described it as one of the most humiliating experiences she’s ever had.

I heard about this because I work with her son, Conrad Contreras, on the communications team at the Greenlining Institute in Oakland, where he is our resident whiz on all things digital. Like most of the increasing abuse being heaped on immigrants, documented and otherwise, Maria Contreras’ story never made the news. But episodes like this are being repeated every day.

As LGBTQ Americans, we must raise our voices against the outrages being perpetrated by our government against immigrants. People who come to America to live, work, raise families, and simply try to have a better life than seemed possible in their home countries – like my grandparents over a century ago – have built this country and always will.

For those of you thinking, “But ‘illegal immigrants’ broke the law!” (Are you out there, Gays for Trump?), a bit of perspective:

First, the United States of America was founded by immigrants who came here without permission. True, Native American tribes didn’t have formal immigration laws, but they had no idea they would need them. And while the Wampanoag tribe was not initially hostile to the newcomers at Plymouth Rock, it never even occurred to the white settlers to ask the native peoples for permission – not then, and not when they proceeded to steal the rest of the continent from them over the next two and a half centuries.

For the first century of its existence – the period when the U.S. went from being a scraggly little collection of colonies to a continent-straddling powerhouse – our country had essentially no limits on immigration. And our first significant immigration restriction, passed in 1882, was explicitly racist: the Chinese Exclusion Act, which opened with, “Whereas in the opinion of the government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof …”

Not until 1917 did we start imposing broader immigration limits based on nationality, an effort that reached full flower in the 1920s. Those laws, too, were powered by bigotry: Supposedly “objective” intelligence tests in the early 20th century produced “scientific” results that mirrored society’s prejudices, with light-skinned northern Europeans shown to be most intelligent, eastern and southern Europeans trailing, and African-Americans at the very bottom. One study labeled 82 percent of Russian immigrants (for the record, that would include my grandparents on my father’s side) as “morons,” with Hungarians, Italians, and Jews also ranking high on the moron scale. At the time, Princeton University researcher Carl C. Brigham wrote confidently, “The intellectual superiority of our Nordic group over the Alpine, Mediterranean, and Negro groups has been demonstrated.”

That was preposterous, of course, and later scholars demolished what we now see as laughably obvious cultural bias in those tests. Our immigration laws were built on a foundation of prejudice.

While we’re on the subject of lawbreaking, we might also remember that LGBTQ Americans have been criminals for most of this country’s existence. “Sodomy” was a felony in every state until 1961. California’s sodomy law lasted until 1975 and such laws were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986, a decision the court didn’t reverse until 2003. Other common state and local laws made it illegal to wear clothing not conforming to one’s biological gender or even to operate a business where homosexuals gathered.

These laws, we should note, were all criminal statutes. Laws forbidding unauthorized immigration are civil laws – the legal equivalent of a traffic ticket. So let’s not get all high and mighty over lawbreaking.

In plain truth, majorities have always used laws to oppress and marginalize unpopular minorities. In the recent past that meant us. Today it’s unauthorized immigrants and Muslims, but in truth, none of us can be free until we’re all free. As the late Nelson Mandela put it, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Now more than ever we must live up to the implicit challenge in Mandela’s words, to live in ways that enhance not just our own freedoms, but the freedoms of those all around us – especially the unpopular and marginalized. I’m proud to say that at the Greenlining Institute we’re doing as much as we can on that front, including assembling a weekly roundup of actions, events, and resources called the #ResistReport that we publish on our blog every Thursday.

Please join us.

Why Every Student Matters

The California Endowment
by: Adriana Diaz-Ordaz
Health Equity Fellow, Greenlining Institute

March and April of 2013 proved to be two of the most exciting months for leaders on the education front in the Long Beach, South Los Angeles and Boyle Heights Building Healthy Communities sites with the launch of the Every Student Matters campaigns of the Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition.

Hundreds of students, parents, teachers and community members stood proud to advocate for better school discipline policies that will ultimately lead to a better chance at getting a high quality education for all students in the Long Beach and Los Angeles Unified School Districts.

On Saturday, March 30th the Long Beach community welcomed the President of the Teacher’s Association of Long Beach (UTLB), Ms. Virginia Torres and asked her for her public support of the campaign which calls for a district-wide school discipline policy that uses Restorative Justice practices to address issues on local campuses. Ms. Torres was willing to learn more about Restorative Justice and support the advocacy for these practices, but was hesitant to make a firm decision in the name of UTLB.

“We want you to know that you have support in the Los Angeles Unified School District to make this happen,” Deputy Superintendent Michelle King proclaimed on April 11, 2013 at the campaign launch at Augustus Hawkins High School. The “School Climate Bill of Rights” calls for discipline to be handled through a Restorative Justice approach with less police contact at local schools. All attendees participated in activities that made learning about this resolution fun and engaging. The most impactful activity was when we were able to witness the traditional versus restorative approaches to school discipline through role-plays acted out by youth.

While both school districts are very different, the general call for restorative practices at the individual school level allows for students to be counseled instead of suspended or expelled for their actions. In a recent experience, a friend in Bakersfield shared with me that her five-year-old daughter was suspended for a day for hitting a classmate during their recess. Learning about this infuriated me, but also scared me because of the emotional and psychological harm that may have occurred as a result of her suspension. Children and young adults deserve to look forward to mentorship and guidance, not being ostracized for behavior that can be corrected.

Why Don’t We Riot Over Wealth Inequality?

Common Dreams
By Alvaro Sanchez

Tell people their gas taxes are going up and they will riot, literally.  Tell people that 62 individuals hold the same amount of wealth as the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population and we don’t blink an eye. Okay, maybe we do a hard blink but we certainly don’t riot. Or perhaps gas tax riots are actually severe wealth inequality riots in disguise?

France has been embroiled in mass and violent protests to proposed diesel and gas tax increases that have forced France’s government to suspend its plans to increase taxes and to also immediately freeze prices on electricity and home heating fuel. The proposed taxes, meant to curb climate change by weaning motorists off petroleum products and to generate funding for renewable energy projects, were received negatively by several sectors of the French population. Their message carried out by the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vest) movement resulted in violent protests in Paris and caused four deaths.

A number of U.S. publications chimed in on the French protests claiming they show a Global Carbon Tax Revolt, claiming that people from Washington to Ontario to France are saying no to taxing carbon. But what they conveniently portray as a revolt on carbon taxes (which happens to match their ideological opposition to climate action) I see as a sign of frustration and impotence over massive wealth inequality.

Let me explain.

Wealth inequality has widened all over the world, leaving many people struggling who previously enjoyed more secure prosperity. In the U.S. and France the cost of living continues to increase while wages and earnings stagnate for most. At the same time the top earners seem to accumulate all the wealth: in 2017 Oxfam reported that the top one percent secured 82 percent of all wealth while the bottom 3.7 billion who make up the poorest of the world saw no increase in their wealth. Favorable tax policies for the rich in the U.S. and France’s recently approved budget show signs of exacerbating wealth inequality in those countries, leaving people with scarce resources contributing greater amounts of their income to basic necessities like housing, food, health care, education, and transportation. And when government needs to step in to rescue someone from economic collapse, it seems to only bail out corporations like banks, automakers, and utilities.  Regular citizens do not seem to enjoy the same level of concern from decision makers about our economic well being.

But why do people riot over gas taxes and not massive wealth inequality? Because we feel the economic pain from a gas tax increase more intensely and immediately than structural systems that help a very small set of people to accumulate wealth. All people can understand a gas tax increase.  Very few people can explain the income ramifications from the 2017 tax reform approved in the U.S., the largest tax reform of last 31 years.

In my opinion, the French gas tax riots stem from the same place as growing resentment towards immigrants globally, increased scrutiny over social welfare and entitlements, and growing right wing populist movements: scarcity. People wouldn’t riot over a gas tax if they could afford it. Instead, people in France are rioting and some media outlets in the U.S. blame it on the French elite supposedly pushing their climate agenda on the people. They are wrong.

My proof is California. In the world’s fifth largest economy, residents of California have made it abundantly clear that we want our state government to act on climate.  We’ve been pricing carbon since 2013, collecting over $8 billion from polluters to invest in our state to fight climate change.  In our most recent election we also soundly defeated an effort to repeal a gas tax approved by the California legislature in 2017, which has invested almost $10 billion to improve the state transportation infrastructure. And there is no sign of our residents slowing down our ambition and urgency to combat climate change, having recently approved an effort to generate 100% renewable energy by 2045.

And while all these actions are good news for climate policy and California, there are warning signs from France’s gas tax riots. California has not been able to address our own income inequality challenges, and while our residents continue to support ambitious government action to fight climate change we have to be very intentional about implementing strategies that fight poverty and pollution at the same time. In fact, we are not pricing carbon nearly high enough to ramp down our use of fossil fuels; so if we want California residents to continue to support our fight against climate change we must address income inequality.  We must do this not so people can afford to pay higher taxes on fossil fuels but so that people can afford to live, work, play, learn, and prosper in a world that is healthy, resilient, equitable and thriving. Meaning a world free of fossil fuels.