A Just Food System for All Californians

Al Jazeera America
by Justin Rausa

I live in Oakland, California, around the corner from a trendy bar that touts more than a dozen local beers on tap and even more craft brews by the bottle. Down the street from me is a homeless encampment under a freeway overpass, where people look for empathy, money and food. These contradictions — options galore juxtaposed with blatant, unmet need — follow me from my bike ride to my office, where I work on California food policy and daily encounter a harsh truth: In the country’s most productive agricultural state, food equity for its citizens has a long way to go. And unless the state does a better job enacting food and farming policies that benefit all Californians, especially low-income people, its ranking as the state with the highest poverty rate could become its dominant tag line.

On Nov. 4, Californians will have an opportunity at the ballot box to help rectify that imbalance. Voters in San Francisco and Berkeley will decide on soda tax proposals designed to decrease the consumption of sugary beverages. Big Soda has poured more than $10 million to label the propositions as job killers and attacks on personal choice, especially for the poor, but advocacy groups are putting up a strong fight. Statewide, there is Proposition 2, a seemingly bland policy that would require the state to prioritize debt reduction over the next 15 years and save more money each year for the next time its economy swings toward crisis. Prop 2 could improve food security — in which all people have access at all times to nutritious food — by forcing the state to maintain public program funding that supports lower-income people when the economy tanks. For example, during the Great Recession, funding for public schools fell by more than $7 billion over two years. In response, some school districts lowballed (and still do) the number of enrolled low-income students, an accounting technique that trims free and reduced-price school lunch offerings. It’s a self-defeating move for a state that should prioritize the health of its future workforce.

Prop 2 and the soda tax proposals, should they pass, are both smart moves for a state whose less-than-holistic food system policy decisions are too often removed from low-income communities.

A food policy for all

California is an alarming example of how agriculturally productive states can still have a long way to go on worker rights, food access, sustainable agricultural practices and a more diverse, less industrial food economy. In short, we need more food equity. According to the Census Bureau (PDF), from 2011 to 2013, nearly a quarter of Californians lived in poverty, struggling to feed themselves and their families. That’s almost 9 million people. My work has taken me multiple times to California’s Central Valley, where farm workers have told me that they can’t afford the fresh fruits and vegetables they pick or that they are out of range from a store where such fresh produce is sold. One woman told me that on a good day, she serves her family rice, beans and soda. Fresh fruits and vegetables are not within reach for this worker and many others like her who, just hours before, spent a long day in a lettuce field, picking produce while battling searing heat and dust.

What these workers need is increased food equity. That means affordable food that is also fresh and healthy, farming and ranching practices that protect the land and the people who work on it and a living wage for food-chain workers.

Why, in such an enlightened food age, are low-income people’s voices so chronically underrepresented? The numbers are revealing: Only 25.2 percent of registered voters voted in California’s June primary this year, an all-time low, even for a midterm election year. Meanwhile, entrenched food and farming interests in California are too often trumping the common sense and evidence-based arguments for more equity in the food system. Earlier this year, for instance, the beverage industry and the California Chamber of Commerce pulled out all the stops to kill legislation that would have added health warning labels on most sugary drinks.

Research from PolicyLink and the Greenlining Institute confirm that equity is a necessary criterion for allocating resources in the 21st century. October poll results (PDF) from the Public Policy Institute of California, unfortunately, show that only 49 percent of likely voters support Proposition 2. But the local soda tax ballot measures in San Francisco and Berkeley offer some voters an opportunity to acknowledge the health cost of artificially cheap drinks — a significant driver for disproportionately higher rates of obesity and diabetes among the poor. It’s one of many steps that must take place to help ensure food equity for California’s working poor, but it could have an outsize impact in the message it sends to Big Soda.

What California gets right

That doesn’t mean that California hasn’t recently made some good decisions that have improved food access for low-income communities. Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 2413 two months ago, establishing the Office of Farm to Fork within the California Department of Food and Agriculture to improve communities’ access to healthy food. Moves such as this will help increase food security.

The Office of Farm to Fork will focus on securing funding and streamlining the state government’s ability to make healthier food more accessible to low-income communities in urban and rural areas, and it is a good first step. It is an encouraging sign that the state’s agriculture regulator understands that the success of small and midsize farms depends on meeting the needs of low-income workers. A financially secure and well-fed workforce is more productive, will generate more economic activity for the state and will save the state significant money as fewer people are forced to rely on its tattered social safety net.

But Assembly Bill 2413 was signed into law without designated funding, so the success of the office depends on Brown’s state budget proposal in January. To bring this election season argument full circle, the passage of Prop 2 on Nov. 4 would give the Office of Farm to Fork and its food security programs some economic stability during future recessions. The downside of Prop 2 is that less money would be available each year to expand or create public programs, making state budget negotiations — such as those that will take place in January — ever more important, especially for low-income people whose voices are least represented in Sacramento.

It’s time for California, where craft beer and homeless encampments stand side by side, to put politics to bed and take action to lift a quarter of its people out of poverty. Voters can help amplify the voices of low-income Californians by showing up at the polls in support of policies — even boring-seeming ones — that help bring healthy food to every table.

California’s Climate Policies Put Money in Your Pocket

Asian Journal
by J.C. De Vera and Vien Truong

Do you look closely at your electricity bill? If you don’t, you might have missed something important. California’s policies to clean our air and combat climate change literally put money in the pockets of millions of families. In fact, they’ve already done it, but we worry that many in the Filipino community don’t know it’s happening.

If you get your electricity from Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric, Pacific Gas & Electric, Pacific Power or Liberty Utilities, twice a year you get something called a Climate Credit. This automatically appears on your bill sometime in April/May and again in October/November (the exact timing depends on your particular billing cycle) without you having to do anything.

Customers of these utilities received their first credit last spring and are getting their second now. Many have already gotten that second credit. On average, customers get about $35 taken straight off their bill.

Under a law passed in 2006 known as AB 32, California charges polluters for the filth they put into our air, pollution that contributes to global warming and hurts our lungs. The Climate Credit is your share of the charges paid by our state’s investor-owned utilities, whose power plants put a significant amount of pollution into the air we all breathe.

The amount of the credit varies slightly depending on which utility provides your power, but every household within each utility’s service territory receives the same amount – regardless of how much electricity the household uses. This makes sure that those who cut their energy use are not penalized by receiving a smaller credit, and it maximizes the benefit for low-income households—who spend more of their income on basic needs like energy and who generally conserve more energy than wealthier families, since they have less money to spend.

Small businesses benefit, too, though their credit works a bit differently.  Commercial, industrial, and agricultural customers, as well as nonprofits and schools, that typically use less than 20 kilowatts of electricity each month will receive the Climate Credit every month, as a credit related to the amount of electricity they use.

What you do with your credit is totally up to you, but here’s something to think about: You can magnify your savings by using some of that money to help save energy.

For example, are you still using old-fashioned, power-guzzling light bulbs? If so, you can use your Climate Credit savings to buy a few energy-saving compact fluorescent or LED bulbs. You’ll easily cut your electric bills enough over time to more than cover the cost of those new bulbs, essentially doubling your climate dividend. Not only will this reduce your energy bill, but if all of the millions of us getting this credit take these small steps, it could save enough power to replace two gas-fired power plants, making a real difference in avoiding dirty power and keeping our air clean.

Some of our state’s biggest polluters really, really don’t like California’s climate and clean energy laws, and they’ve been trying to scare people with phony stories about “hidden taxes.” They don’t want you to know that these laws are already cleaning our air and saving consumers and small business owners money. But nearly 11 million California families are seeing those savings on their energy bills right now.

Hospitals Come Out Ahead in Claimed Benefit to Community

San Francisco Chronicle
by Carla Saporta and Lauren Valdez

San Francisco has the highest life expectancy of any California metropolitan area — unless you’re African American. Blacks actually have a lower life expectancy here than in the rest of California. Not-for-profit hospitals such as the ones run locally by Kaiser, Sutter and Dignity Health can help address this crisis, but it’s unclear that these hospitals are keeping their bargain with the public.

These hospitals are huge businesses: Kaiser, Sutter and Dignity would all have made the Fortune 500 in 2010 had they been organized as for-profit corporations. To receive the tax breaks that come with nonprofit status, such hospitals agree to operate for the benefit of the communities they serve, and must report their spending on community benefit programs to both the state of California and the IRS.

But our study found that in 2010, California not-for-profit hospitals received more than twice as much in tax breaks as they gave back in community benefit.

Community benefit can take many forms, from providing care to the uninsured and under-insured to grants to community organizations that address the root causes of poor health, from inadequate nutrition to unsafe housing. These “upstream investments,” as they are known, help keep people out of the hospital and can help fix our gaping health inequities.

Recently, we examined the 2013 community benefit spending of three major local hospitals: Kaiser San Francisco, Dignity’s St. Mary’s Medical Center, and Sutter’s five-campus California Pacific Medical Center. But the publicly available documents have huge gaps.

We asked each hospital to explain the missing details, but none would do so. Instead, a spokesperson from the Hospital Council of Northern and Central California gave general comments but not specifics about hospital activities or spending.

Kaiser, for example, claims $24.3 million in community benefit spending, but provides details only of the $568,000 given as grants to community groups. Dignity/St. Mary’s accounts for more of the claimed $51.2 million in community benefit, but 43 percent of that total is alleged Medicare shortfall, which the federal government does not allow to be claimed as community benefit. Sutter/CPMC claims $167 million in community benefit contributions but gives no consistent reporting of resources committed to various activities.

Even in categories where numbers are given, such as claimed shortfalls in Medi-Cal reimbursements, the charges the hospitals claim are unsubstantiated. Kaiser Foundation Hospital charges $19 for one pill of 325 mg. acetaminophen (generic Tylenol), while the same pill at Sutter/ CPMC in San Francisco costs 98 cents. Theoretically, claims for Medi-Cal shortfall should be based on the hospitals’ actual costs rather than on their somewhat arbitrary charges, but today there is really no way to know if the numbers are real.

These hospitals are anchor institutions in our communities, but are missing an opportunity to address huge health inequities like that disturbing difference in life expectancies between black San Franciscans and the rest of the city. Part of keeping their bargain with taxpayers should include addressing community needs for the things that keep people healthy and out of the hospital, like nutrition, safe housing, and a clean and healthy environment.

Legislation should require clearer reporting of how community benefit dollars are spent and whom they help. The federal government should use the Medicare reimbursement rate as the standard for calculating charges claimed as community benefit. And the hospitals, which have ferociously resisted legislation to bring more transparency to this process, must become part of the solution and pursue true dialogue with community representatives.

The Recession Isn’t Over for Millions — Does Anyone Care?

The Huffington Post
by Preeti Vissa

My colleagues in The Greenlining Institute’s Economic Equity team just spent several days in Washington, D.C., meeting with officials from the Federal Reserve, Small Business Administration and other agencies critical to Americans’ economic well-being. Part of their message was simple and painful: Don’t forget the millions of Americans for whom the Great Recession has never ended.

The National Bureau of Economic research tells us that the recession officially ended in June 2009, when the U.S. economy started growing again. But this rising tide definitely did not lift all boats.

The most recent data from the Census Bureau looks at household wealth from 2001 through 2011, over a year and a half into the supposed recovery, and it’s not a pretty picture. Remember that wealth can often be a better picture of a family’s financial security than income, because it measures the assets — savings, home equity, investments — that can get you through a job loss or other misfortune.

The wealthiest 40 percent of Americans gained during this period, with the top 20 percent seeing their median household net worth rise from $569,375 to $630,754. The other 60 percent lost wealth, with the poorest fifth of the country now having a deeply negative net worth — in the hole by more than $6,000. An awful lot of people would be in real trouble (as in at risk for homelessness) if they were out of work for much more than a couple of months.

Looked at by race and ethnicity, whites showed a small gain in net worth, but that gain went only to the top 60 percent. African Americans and Latinos saw their net worth plunge by 37.2 percent and 42.1 percent, respectively, again with the best results concentrated in the wealthiest segments of these groups (unfortunately, the Census report did not provide data for Asian Americans).

By way of comparison, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen about 70 percent since October 2008 (when it hadn’t even hit bottom yet). That’s great for the small slice of Americans who own lots of stock, but not so much for the rest of us. And that’s not just me talking. In a recent report, Standard and Poors found that economic disparities hurt the whole economy, writing, “the current level of income inequality in the U.S. is dampening GDP growth.”

A snapshot of recent trends, from 2008 to 2013, was released over the summer by the Federal Reserve. The Fed’s survey asked Americans a battery of questions about how they feel they are doing financially.

In some ways, the results are slightly more reassuring, with a majority saying they are “doing okay” (37.3 percent) or “living comfortably” (23 percent). But again, when you dig deeper into the numbers all is clearly not well for many of our neighbors.

Overall, more people said they were worse off in 2013 than in 2008 — 34 percent, compared to 30 percent doing better. Those with annual incomes under $75,000 were far more likely than those making more to see themselves as worse off, and those with incomes under $25,000 were by far the most likely to describe their financial situation as “much worse.” As with the Census numbers, people of color in the Fed survey seemed to be doing worse (and again no data were reported for Asians — am I noticing a pattern here?), with 17.3 percent of blacks and 15.7 percent of Latinos saying they were “finding it difficult to get by,” as opposed to 12.2 percent of whites.

While blacks and Latinos were actually a bit more likely than whites to say that their economic situation has improved since 2008, they were also more likely to have student loan debt and dramatically less likely to think they could get by for three months after losing their main source of income. Forty percent of Latinos and 42.5 percent of blacks had zero retirement savings or pension, compared to 25.4 percent of whites.

Such disparities are painfully apparent here in California. California’s unemployment rate has dropped a full five points since August 2010, to 7.4 percent, but for Latinos it’s 9.2 percent and for African Americans unemployment is still at 13.6 percent. Many rural areas, also hammered by drought, continue to struggle. The San Francisco Bay Area where I live has felt an economic earthquake from the boom in tech — one of the least diverse industries – that has left some doing extraordinarily well and others, disproportionately black and Latino, struggling simply to keep a roof over their heads.

Every part of the country has its own story, but the theme of inequality runs through them all.

That so many of our friends and neighbors face such profound financial insecurity after five years of supposed economic recovery tells me we have a lot of work to do if we’re serious about America being the “land of opportunity.” And I sure don’t see much sign of Congress trying to do anything about it.

Next time, I’ll discuss how we might open up some of those doors of opportunity, and what my colleagues heard while in Washington.

Dodd-Frank Diversity Standards Need Real Teeth

American Banker
by Orson Aguilar and Tunua Thrash-Ntuk

Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act in an effort to remedy critical failures and implicit bias in our financial system. A key part of that effort is now approaching a crossroads. If all goes well, we could establish standards that lead to a more vibrant, diverse and responsive banking sector. The alternative is that yet another set of well-meaning reforms will wind up as little more than feel-good rhetoric.

We are referring to the Offices of Minority and Women Inclusion, established in eight financial agencies and twelve Federal Reserve banks under Sec. 342 of Dodd-Frank. The offices were created to bolster diversity within the agencies and the firms they regulate.  Congress recognized that communities of color had been targeted for predatory lending and were among the groups hit hardest by the financial crisis, which wiped away decades of progress since the passage of fair housing laws in the 1960s. Lawmakers understood that including diverse voices in the management of both financial businesses and the agencies that regulate them could promote sustainable banking practices aimed at communities of color and low- to moderate-income Americans, helping our whole economy.

One year ago, the OMWIs in six of those agencies issued a set of proposed standards designed to guide improvements in workforce and supplier diversity for nearly 70,000 regulated institutions. These interagency standards, set to be finalized before the end of the year, represent a historic opportunity to make real progress in expanding the role of women and people of color in the financial sector. They can spur the creation of diversity initiatives that work in the real world and make the whole industry stronger. But the standards will only achieve these goals if they have real teeth.

Unfortunately, while the draft standards contain some excellent language on diversity best practices, they are disappointingly short on specifics. History tells us that what gets measured gets done. While the OMWIs are not empowered to enforce diversity practices, nothing in the law prevents them from creating stringent, transparent standards for reporting and disclosure. For that reason, we have joined with other advocates to propose the following changes for the final standards:

Mandate reporting.
The proposed standards allow regulated entities to conduct self-assessments on employee and supplier diversity and voluntarily submit these findings to the agencies. But self-assessments open the door for institutions to offer spin rather than data. Meanwhile, a voluntary submission policy invites the poorest-performing entities to simply disregard the OMWIs, rendering the standards meaningless. Instead of voluntary self-assessments, the OMWIs should issue a mandatory data call for regulated entities.

Standardize assessments of regulated entities.
Because the draft standards read more as a list of recommended best practices than as a set of standards, financial institutions are likely to report on initiatives that present the company in the best light rather than provide hard data. Issuing a standard data call will create a transparent benchmark for industry, allowing the OMWIs to compare similar institutions and saving regulators a lot of time and resources as they sort through 70,000 reports.

Clarify the language of the standards and establish clear next steps in data collection.
The final standards should outline specific procedures for the data collection process and provide a timeline for the process to ensure that the assessments are consistent. The OMWIs should also establish regular periods during which they will ask financial institutions for their personnel and supplier diversity information, receive the data and publish the results.

Establish an advisory committee knowledgeable in diversity issues.
A committee that includes representatives from the nonprofit, private and academic sectors could help the OMWIs better understand diversity and inclusion in the financial sector as well as existing best practices in other fields, helping them to craft more precise questions that yield more useful data.

Increase public access to data on regulated entities.
Several California regulatory bodies have taken major strides in diversity programming simply by making industry reports public. Without requiring quotas, mandates, penalties, or endangering trade secrets, the OMWIs can use transparency to incentivize regulated entities to increase their utilization of minorities and women.

Leaders of the financial regulatory agencies have long pledged their support of diversity and inclusion initiatives. We now have an irreplaceable opportunity to make those pledges concrete. To accomplish this, agency leaders must give the OMWIs full support to make the final standards quantifiable and as strong as possible.

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.

Shouldn’t Communities Be Considered ‘Too Big to Fail’?

Los Angeles Daily News
by Paulina Gonzalez and Orson Aguilar

Southern California has been called the Silicon Valley of toxic lending since many of the mortgage companies that originated problematic mortgages were headquartered here. Now the successor of one of the biggest culprits of the financial crisis that devastated California communities is poised to take part in a $70 billion bank merger. If approved, the large size of the new bank means for all intents and purposes that it would be considered by bank regulators as another “too big to fail” institution.

OneWest Bank is the successor to IndyMac bank, which has the notorious distinction of being one of the largest bank failures in the United States, with an estimated price tag to the FDIC’s insurance fund of over $10 billion. According to an autopsy performed by the Inspector General at the Treasury Department, IndyMac offered an “extensive array of risky option-adjustable-rate-mortgages (option ARMs), subprime loans, 80/20 loans, and other nontraditional products.” IndyMac could make these loans as long as it could later sell them to Wall Street investors, where rating agencies would bless the bundled mortgages with AAA ratings.

We know how this story ends, with IndyMac collapsing and our housing market tanking. According to ForeclosureRadar data, since January 2007, IndyMac/OneWest oversaw 45,000 foreclosures in California. A group of wealthy investors ultimately purchased IndyMac from the FDIC, renaming it OneWest. IndyMac’s regulator, the Office of Thrift Supervision, which set a new low for the term “captive regulator,” was dissolved under the financial reform legislation.

Ironically, many of the banks deemed “too big to fail” ended up failing low-income communities and communities of color throughout the United States as they made shoddy mortgages, robo-signed documents, and later foreclosed on millions. Some of these same communities are now asking if this merger between OneWest Bank and CIT Group would result in any public benefit and are asking how further harms by a “too big to fail” bank will be prevented. There is only one way to do this, and that is for regulators to ensure that the bank creates a strong and public Community Benefit and Reinvestment Plan before approving the merger, one that has been subject to meaningful community input.

The next iteration of IndyMac is an opportunity to “get it right” with the Southern California communities harmed by IndyMac. Leadership from CIT Group and OneWest should look to Banc of California, headquartered in Irvine, and its acquisition of 20 Banco Popular branches in Los Angeles and Orange counties. As part of the acquisition, Banc of California, in negotiation with members from the California Reinvestment Coalition, developed a strong, public, community benefit plan that articulates the bank’s goals for investing in the communities where the bank is located. In total, Banc of California’s community reinvestment activities, which include small business lending, philanthropy, checking accounts for low-income customers and more, will be equal to or exceed 20 percent of the bank’s deposits annually. The bank’s support of local communities will infuse much needed capital, build trust with former Banco Popular customers and strengthen the local economy as a result.

Riding the Back of the Digital Bus

The Huffington Post
by Preeti Vissa

Major telecommunications firms (think Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and the like) want to be able to send you to an Internet slow lane if you don’t have enough money pay for topflight service — or if they simply don’t like the information you’re sending out.

That’s bad for everyone who’s not a wealthy corporation, and it’s especially bad for low-income folks and communities of color, who could almost literally be made to ride at the back of the digital bus.

The Federal Communications Commission is pondering what to do about the issue of “net neutrality,” a rather blah term that describes a simple idea: The company that connects you to the Internet — whether it’s through your computer, your phone, your tablet or whatever — shouldn’t get to pick and choose what information you have access to. Until now, consumers have been able to use any device and access any content on the Internet on an equal basis — the same access and same treatment whether you’re General Motors, Google or a working mom running a home-based business. Providers were not allowed to block websites, slow down access to those websites, or tell you can’t connect unless you use the device they want you to use.

Those protections could all go away, depending on what the FCC decides. Not surprisingly, the commission has been deluged with comments — some three million of them — from people on all sides of the issue, including the big telecom companies.

What the companies want, it turns out, is no rules at all — or at least rules so weak and vague that they can’t be enforced in any meaningful way.

This could be terrible for small businesses. For example, if the FCC allows “paid prioritization” — an idea currently on the table — a huge company like Amazon could pay providers extra so that when you access Amazon.com, you get a superfast, super-reliable connection. That would be fine, 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 that mom running a home-based business) probably can’t.

Consumer advocates have asked for clear rules that guarantee fair and equal service, but the providers want any rules to be squishy, with lots of wiggle room. Comcast, for example, urged that “any minimum level of service that the Commission adopts should be interpreted as a requirement that broadband providers deliver traffic to end users on a ‘best efforts’ basis.” Several other companies, including AT&T and Verizon, used similar language. Translation: They want to be able to say, “I really tried but the dog ate my homework!” and have that be enough.

And that would mean some people would get a second-class Internet, when the telecom giants found it convenient or profitable to shunt them into the slow lanes. Those sent to the back of the bus would inevitably be those with less money or influence. As my colleagues in The Greenlining Institute’s telecommunications team put it in their own comments to the FCC, “Allowing carriers to determine the winners and losers of the digital world creates a very real risk of disproportionately harming communities of color.”

Public Knowledge, the Benton Foundation, and Access Sonoma Broadband referenced another bit of unhappy history in joint comments, telling the FCC that “a two-tiered Internet … may result in virtual redlining, whereby some communities simply never have the opportunity to access applications and content that rely on the premium fast lane.”

The telecom companies actually singled out low-income consumers as likely second-class digital citizens. Comcast, for example, has touted its “Internet Essentials,” a low-cost Internet access program, as an example of why it should be allowed to acquire Time Warner Cable. But Comcast wants Internet Essentials to be exempted from many possible rules, including minimum acceptable connection speeds and the right to connect with any type of device.

As Greenlining’s comments to the FCC put it, if the FCC creates such a rule, “The result will be a two-tiered Internet, with low-income consumers and many communities of color relegated to the lower tier.”

That cannot be okay. You can ask the FCC to save net neutrality by emailing the Commission at openinternet@fcc.gov.

Still Time to Offer Advice on Pollution Mitigation

Contra Costa Times
by Miya Yoshitani and Vien Truong

California is poised to make major investments in neighborhoods that face significant pollution. On Sept. 3, nearly 200 people turned out in Oakland to have their say in how that money is spent. Their is still time to add your voice.

Starting in just a few weeks, a state law called the Climate and Community Investment Act, or SB 535, will give Californians some much-needed relief from carbon pollution, along with providing these communities with a whole host of other neighborhood-level benefits.

Here’s how it works. Under California’s popular climate change and clean energy law, AB 32, carbon emissions are capped and polluters are required to either reduce their emissions or pay into a fund to support clean energy and green jobs. As the amount of allowable emissions decreases with time, pollution drops while clean energy and green jobs grow.

According to SB 535, at least 25 percent of these AB 32 proceeds must be spent on projects that benefit the communities with the worst pollution. With the passage of this year’s state budget, lawmakers allocated $832 million in overall AB 32 proceeds toward efforts to curb carbon pollution.

This means at least $200 million this year alone will benefit communities already on the front lines of California’s climate crisis. Examples of expenditures include $25 million for low-carbon public transportation, $130 million for affordable housing, and $75 million in energy retrofits.

It’s exciting to imagine what California’s low-income neighborhoods would be like with living-wage jobs, quality housing options, cheaper energy bills and more reliable bus service. This is exactly what we can expect, if these investments are done right.

The California Environmental Protection Agency and the Air Resources Board have been conducting statewide workshops to discuss the investment of these funds, including how to decide which projects should get funded. Hundreds of people have attended public workshops in Fresno, Los Angeles, and Oakland — and many more are submitting comments online. The goal is to maximize benefits and support the projects that best meet community needs.

We need your help to impress upon decision-makers that they should target these dollars toward those who need them most — and these residents must be a part of the conversation when decisions are made.

For each expenditure, we think there are four key questions to answer. Does the investment address an important need? Are the benefits provided significant? Are low-income residents and households the primary beneficiaries? And does the project avoid imposing major burdens on these residents? If decision-makers can comfortably say yes to all four questions, the project should get the green light.

Quite simply, this is where the rubber meets the road. These laws must deliver on their promise so that our air gets cleaner and our communities flourish. As one participant in the Oakland workshop put it, “The people the SB 535 benefits are supposed to serve need to be part of the conversation.”

Together, AB 32 and SB 535 give our communities more power over our future. This is our moment to claim that power.

Blockbuster Bank Settlements Leave Consumers Hanging

Al Jazeera
by Sasha Werblin

Last week Bank of America reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to the tune of $16.65 billion for its role in selling faulty mortgages in the financial crisis. Such big-dollar settlements with large banks — including, in the past year, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase — sound like harsh punishments but in actuality amount only to slaps on the wrist.

For one, those colossal dollar figures are rarely the actual prices the banks will pay. The real costs to these companies is muddled by tax deductions, unclear directives and accounting loopholes. The secretive negotiation process for settlements is also inconsistent with the civil and criminal process the average American faces.

To read the rest of the story on Al Jazeera’s website, click here.