From Wisconsin to Washington, DC, the claims are made: unions are responsible for budget deficits, and their members are overpaid and enjoy cushy benefits. The only way to save the American economy, pundits claim, is to weaken the labor movement, strip workers of collective bargaining rights, and champion private industry. In "They're Bankrupting Us!": And 20 Other Myths about Unions, labor leader Bill Fletcher Jr. makes sense of this debate as he unpacks the twenty-one myths most often cited by anti-union propagandists. Drawing on his experiences as a longtime labor activist and organizer, Fletcher traces the historical roots of these myths and provides an honest assessment of the missteps of the labor movement. He reveals many of labor's significant contributions, such as establishing the forty-hour work week and minimum wage, guaranteeing safe workplaces, and fighting for equity within the workforce. This timely, accessible, "warts and all" book argues, ultimately, that unions are necessary for democracy and ensure economic and social justice for all people.
Towns with strict zoning are the best towns, aren't they? They're all about preserving local "character," protecting the natural environment, and maintaining attractive neighborhoods. Right?
In this bold challenge to conventional wisdom, Lisa Prevost strips away the quaint façades of these desirable towns to reveal the uglier impulses behind their proud allegiance to local control. These eye-opening stories illustrate the outrageous lengths to which town leaders and affluent residents will go to prohibit housing that might attract the "wrong" sort of people. Prevost takes readers to a rural second-home community that is so restrictive that its celebrity residents may soon outnumber its children, to a struggling fishing village as it rises up against farmworker housing open to Latino immigrants, and to a northern lake community that brazenly deems itself out of bounds to apartment dwellers. From the blueberry barrens of Down East to the Gold Coast of Connecticut, these stories show how communities have seemingly cast aside the all-American credo of "opportunity for all" in favor of "I was here first."
Snob Zones warns that this pattern of exclusion is unsustainable and raises thought-provoking questions about what it means to be a community in post-recession America.
About the Author
Lisa Prevost is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe Magazine, More, Ladies' Home Journal, and other publications. A native New Englander, she has lived and worked as a reporter in four of the six New England states. She lives in Fairfield, Connecticut.
A millennial examines how his generation is profoundly impacting politics, business, media, and activism
They've been called trophy kids, entitled, narcissistic, the worst employees in history, and even the dumbest generation. But, argues David D. Burstein, the Millennial Generation's unique blend of civic idealism and savvy pragmatism, combined with their seamless ability to navigate the fast-paced twenty-first-century world, will enable them to overcome the short-term challenges of a deeply divided nation and begin to address our world's long-term challenges.
With 80 million Millennials (people who are today eighteen to thirty years old) coming of age and emerging as leaders, this is the largest generation in U.S. history, and by 2020, its members will represent one out of every three adults in the country. They are more ethnically and racially diverse than their elders, and they are the first generation to come of age in a truly global world and in the new digital era. Millennials have also begun their careers in the midst of a recession that has seen record youth unemployment levels, yet they remain optimistic about their future. Drawing on extensive interviews with his Millennial peers and on compelling new research, Burstein illustrates how his generation is simultaneously shaping and being shaped by a fast—changing world. Part oral history, part social documentary, Fast Futurereveals the impact and story of the Millennial Generation—in its own words.
About the Author
David D. Burstein is the founder and executive director of Generation18 and director of the documentary 18 in '08. A frequent contributor to Fast Company, Burstein has appeared as a commentator on youth and politics for a range of publications and media outlets, including CNN, ABC, NPR, the New York Times, USA Today, the Boston Globe, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He lives in New York City.
Buy Ethical Chic or any other Beacon Press title by December 31, 2012 and get 20% off, free shipping and Beacon will donate 15% of your order to help schools affected by Hurricane Sandy. Use code GIFT20--more info here.
in a pear tree? But the Nahan’s Partridge of Africa is endangered, as are the
Sichuan Partridge of China and the grey partridge of Britain. And why would you
uproot a pear tree from its native habitat?
Hannukah gelt? Not if that chocolate is from Cote d’Ivoire – the source of half
the world’s chocolate – where young girls are forced to undergo genital
other hand, coal in the Christmas stocking isn’t a great idea, either. Was the
coal strip-mined by blasting the top off a mountain in Appalachia? Were any
mine workers killed underground trying to dig it out?
you want to be an ethical gift-giver, it sometimes seems as if the only safe
present is a tube of Tom’s of Maine peppermint toothpaste.
Tom’s of Maine was bought by Colgate-Palmolive, so you would actually be giving
your money to a big corporation that uses weird ingredients like PVM/MA
copolymer and propylene glycol.)
in size, price, and whether the recipient would actually like the thing, and by
any definition, it’s impossible to find the perfect gift.
But ‘tis the
season. You have to try.
certainly read labels, consult “do not buy” lists, and seek out companies that
fit your ethical standards. In fact, we at Beacon have compiled a comprehensive
list of the major consumer, environmental, labor, animal-welfare,
anti-sweatshop, and other “ethical” rankings:
seems too arduous, maybe you could look at gift-giving from a different
direction. Instead of analyzing the labels, analyze the process. Here are some
Some companies are actually better than their reputation. Nike, for instance, has dramatically improved its monitoring of overseas suppliers and is considered a leader in ethical leather sourcing in the shoe industry. Nevertheless, it still has such a terrible image, stemming from its sweatshop horrors of the 1990s, that friends and relatives might be furious if you gave them a pair of Air Jordans. So for now, buy the shoes for yourself, and tell people why you did.
Other companies are worse than fans realize. Someone
on your gift list might love a bag of Starbucks Via or a mermaid-logo mug, but you know that Starbucks tried to cheat
the poor coffee farmers of Ethiopia, wrecks the environment by selling bottled
water, and was cited by the National Labor Relations Board for illegal
harassment of union organizers. Don’t buy that mug.
If a company takes some actions that really
bother you, but overall it seems to be ethically operated, then go ahead and purchase
its merchandise. But at the same time, make a donation to a cause that will help
counteract the company’s misdeeds, and include the donation card with the gift.
For instance: a contribution to PETA along with a set of leather Timberland
boots, or a contribution to NOW with an American Apparel shirt.
Give alternative gifts. For the person who lives on Starbucks lattes, try a gift certificate to a local independent café. The Trader Joe’s addict? Some banana bread from the farmers’ market. Of course, the recipients may hate your gift; after all, there’s a reason they go to Starbucks five times a day. But they can always re-gift it.
In the end, there’s some truth to
the cliché that it’s the thought that counts.
I recently gave a TEDx talk that looks at one of the more pressing challenges of our time: How do we wrest control of our economy back from giant corporations?
The statistics are stunning: Four big banks dominate our banking system. Agribusiness giants monopolize food production. Walmart captures $1 of every $4 Americans spend on groceries. One company, Amazon, accounts for over one-third of everything we buy online.
The good news is that many Americans are beginning to question the wisdom of letting a few companies run everything. They are changing where they shop, what they buy, and where they bank. And they are making a difference: Since 2004, the number of farmers markets has doubled. More than 1,000 neighborhood grocers have sprouted up. Nearly 500 new independent bookstores have opened. Long-vacant factory buildings are filling up with small-scale brewers and clothing makers. And over 600,000 people have moved from big banks to local banks and credit unions.
But -- and here's the bad news -- as remarkable as these trends are, they are unlikely to amount to more than an interesting side-note on the margins of the economy if the only way we confront corporate power is by trying to be better consumers.
Choosing independent businesses and local financial institutions is a great idea. But a purely consumer-oriented response won't get us where we need to go, in part because it fails to fully grapple with how we got here in the first place.
For a long time, the story of how big companies grew so dominant was, basically: bigger is better. It's more efficient, more productive, better performing. But, as I explain in the talk, when you pull back the curtain and really begin to look at the evidence, you find that, in one sector after another, the case for bigness doesn't stand up. Many of today's dominant companies do not in fact deliver better outcomes, higher productivity, or even, in some cases, lower prices.
How, then, have they taken over so much of the economy? The answer is that they've used their size and political influence to hijack government and rig public policy to their own advantage. From the farm bill to banking regulations to state tax codes, the rules favor big corporations and undermine smaller, more sustainable businesses.
And that's why the "buy local" and "eat local" and "bank local" movements need to get much more political. Unless we change the underlying policies that shape our economy, big corporation are going to continue to gain ground.
As I was finishing the manuscript for my
book, The Student Loan Scam, in early 2008, Americans
collectively owed roughly $650 billion in student loan debt—an incredibly large
number at the time. Today, however, that amount has grown to surpass $1
trillion and continues to increase at a rate faster than historical debt growth
prior to the financial crisis. Defaults, too, have skyrocketed, and nearly all
of the failures in the lending system I call attention to in the book have
continued unabated. This issue has grown, I would say, from a significant
problem to a major crisis. This has greatly strengthened the book’s core
argument: the need for a return of standard consumer protections (like
bankruptcy) to all student loans.
Since the book’s publication, student loan
debt surpassed credit card debt as the largest category of consumer debt (excluding real
estate). While the banking crisis compelled banks to tighten lending and
reduced borrowing across all other lending categories, student loan borrowing
actually accelerated significantly. Colleges and universities, to their discredit, have not exactly
adjusted their prices in deference to the hard economic times, but have instead
increased tuitions and fees at an even faster rate.
Defaults, unsurprisingly, have surged. The
cohort default rate (the percentage of loans defaulting within the first two
fiscal years of repayment) has grown from less than 5% to over 9%. In 2010,
however, this metric was found to be vastly lower than the actual, lifetime default rate (supporting a
controversial claim I made in the book). Specifically, government data showed
that for 1995 graduates the default rate was about 20%. So while it is impossible to say what the true default rate is
currently, we can say confidently that for years it was comparable to the
subprime home mortgage default rate of 25%.
Another controversial claim made in the book was
that the government may actually be making, not losing money on defaults. Initially, the Department of
Education and Beltway analysts disputed this claim vigorously. Since then,
however, a leading financial aid expert has publicly confirmed the claim.
Importantly, the public is speaking out about
this problem, most notably through the Occupy movement that started last year.
Student demonstrations, too, are occurring with some frequency in the U.S.
These citizen actions have, however, been largely ineffective for various
reasons. The Occupy protests, of course, were shut down rather abruptly and
haven’t yet re-emerged. The student demonstrations have usually consisted of
simple, reactionary protests against tuition hikes. Such strategies have been
stymied or co-opted by the universities, who have become quite good at shifting
the blame to state or federal cuts. This has left most student groups
conflicted in purpose or changing their protests to calls for more funding.
Going forward, it is key that the students become more knowledgeable on the
issue so that they can pursue more informed and effective courses of action.
It is also important to note that real,
investigative journalism on this issue evaporated in the wake of the financial
crisis. From roughly 2009-2011 media coverage of student loans focused almost
exclusively on for-profit colleges and the private student loan industry, and
ignored other issues, such as those mentioned above, the cost of college, and
the lack of disclosure to students and their families about the absence of
consumer protections. That has begun to change somewhat as the shear magnitude
of outstanding student loan debt and related public protest have become
impossible to ignore, but to this day it remains extremely difficult to convince reporters, producers, and others to ask the tough
questions outside of this non-starting, “non-profit vs. for-profit” narrative.
Much has happened over the past three years that
cannot be conveyed in this piece. For example, I’ve left out much about our
experiences in Washington, D.C., the interesting middle-ground that this issue sits on (drawing from both liberal and
conservative principles), and the resulting mixed bag of support and attention
we have received. The impact of President Obama’s overhaul of the lending
system and the post-crisis response of the student lending industry, colleges,
advocates, and other key players are also important but not covered here.
Finally, the increasing harm that is being done to real people as a result of
living under the weight of this debt is critically important, but goes
I believe that, with increased pressure from
those affected by the high costs of college (this includes both borrowers and
those who pay out-of-pocket), Congress can move forward on this issue, and StudentLoanJustice.Org is devoting its grassroots efforts towards that end. The most
important element in this fight is the level of action by citizens. Students,
who will likely prove to be the most important group in this fight, need to see
why returning consumer protections to student loans is key to getting prices
and default rates down, making student loan debt manageable, and fixing a
plethora of systemic problems that have arisen in their absence. Their actions
today will not only affect their future financial well-being—but also the
economic health of the entire country.
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has been outspoken in deriding President Obama’s efforts to give wind and solar power the prominence they deserve on America’s energy agenda. “In place of real energy, Obama has focused on an imaginary world where government-subsidized windmills and solar panels could power the economy,” he wrote in a Columbus Dispatch editorial earlier this year.
Wind power is not simply a fantasy perpetrated by Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, as Romney would like American voters to believe. After all, it was George W. Bush who, as Texas governor, introduced the Lone Star State’s first renewable portfolio standard, setting ambitious targets for the introduction of wind power and other renewable energy sources – goals that the state has since far surpassed. And it was President George W. Bush whose Department of Energy (DOE) published a landmark report in July 2008, mapping out a pathway to achieving a fifth of America’s power from wind by 2030.
In charting a course toward 20 percent reliance on wind by 2030, the DOE did not flat-line U.S. electricity use between now and then. To the contrary, it assumed a 39 percent increase above total consumption in 2005. If we actually became a nation that valued energy conservation more than we do today, the three hundred gigawatts of installed wind power slated for 2030 could end up providing well over 20 percent of the nation’s power needs.
Under the 20% Wind Energy by 2030 scenario, manufacturing jobs directly related to producing wind turbine components and subcomponents would top 30,000 by 2021, peaking at 32,835 in 2028. While factory work would somewhat slacken thereafter, ongoing expansion in onshore and offshore wind-generating capacity as well as the need to repower aging wind plants would guarantee a continued high level of employment in the manufacturing sector. In construction, jobs would average over 70,000 a year from 2019 through 2030. And in wind farm operations, total jobs would reach 76,667 by 2030 – about 28,000 in on-site operations and another 48,000 in utility services and subcontractors. Adding them all up, DOE foresees about 180,000 new jobs per year directly linked to wind energy as the 2030 target date approaches.
Beyond all of the “direct” jobs in the wind energy economy, DOE also explores the “indirect” employment benefits of growing this sector. These jobs include the producers and suppliers of steel, fiberglass, and other materials that are used to build wind turbines; the companies that manufacture the parts that go into a typical turbine’s 8,000 components and subcomponents; and the providers of banking, accounting, legal, and other services to wind turbine manufacturers and wind farm contractors. These indirect jobs are expected to number about a hundred thousand annually in the years leading up to the 2030 target date.
Finally, DOE draws an even wider circle around the “induced” job impacts resulting from consumer spending by people directly and indirectly employed in the wind energy sector. A wind turbine factory worker buys a new pair of jeans in a local store; a wind farm technician takes her family out to dinner; a crane operator stays at a local motel. The DOE team attributes another two hundred thousand jobs per year to these induced economic activities.[i]
Folding induced jobs into the assessment of wind energy benefits may go farther down the speculative road than some are ready to travel. But even setting that outer circle of employment impacts aside, we are looking at a roster that rises to more than a quarter-of-a-million direct and indirect jobs if we pursue the DOE’s 20% by 2030 ambition.
Today about 75,000 Americans are employed directly by the wind industry, though analysts warn that, if Congress allows the federal production tax credit for new wind farms to lapse at the end of this year, we will lose about 37,000 of those jobs. The production tax credit, providing 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour of wind-generated power, is costing us far less than the $4 billion-a-year that President Obama proposed cutting earlier this year from the enormous, decades-old subsidies for oil and gas. Because Congress blocked the President’s long-overdue proposal, the traditional fossil fuel subsidies remain untouched, along with massive ongoing federal support for the nuclear power industry.
A technology commitment that advances America’s energy independence and reduces our nation’s carbon footprint while creating hundreds of thousands of new, skill-based jobs – isn’t this a path worth taking?
Photo courtesy of Philip Warburg. A version of this post appeared at CSRWire.
[i] Specific numerical projections underlying DOE’s data were provided to the author by Suzanne Tegen, Ph.D., Senior Energy Analyst, Strategic Energy Analysis Center, National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
New Trader Joe’s outlets have just opened in Lexington, KY, and West Seattle, and 18 more are scheduled soon across the U.S., from Medford, OR, to Sarasota, FL, to Albany, NY. That should certainly please fans like Jeff Pollard, 33, who lives near Albany and belongs to a group called “We Want Trader Joe’s in the Capital District” – the Capital District being the area around Albany, the capital of New York State.
Congratulations, Jeff. Enjoy the Formosa papaya and the Chicken Tikka Masala with Cumin-Flavored Basmati Rice.
Altogether, the new openings will mean approximately 400 Trader Joe’s stores in the U.S., which should make even more people happy (like Denice Rochelle in Seattle, who has blogged about that location). But this growth puts a real strain on the chain’s slogan: “Your neighborhood grocery store.”
Just whose neighborhood are they talking about?
The yuppie neighborhood near Manhattan’s “Silicon Square”? The middle-class family neighborhood in the Los Angeles exurb of Camarillo? The two neighborhoods in Atlanta?
Perhaps a surfer neighborhood in Hawaii? That would seem to be what the company wants shoppers to think, with all the surfboards, fake-bamboo, and garishly flowered shirts throughout the stores. However, there actually aren’t any Hawaii outlets.
True, each TJ site serves its own neighborhood, sometimes altering the product mix to appeal to the local demographic. Food shopping tends to be a neighborhood activity; we rarely drive 30 miles for a carton of milk. But in that case, Trader Joe’s is no more of a “neighborhood grocery store” than is Kroger, Safeway, Whole Foods, or any other supermarket chain-– many of which are smaller than Trader Joe’s.
So what difference does this make? Maybe none. The papaya and chicken taste the same, the staff is just as friendly, and the prices are just as low.
Yet the hidden billionaire ownership and the phony neighborliness matter, because they are part of a bigger misleading image-– along with a smattering of exotic veggies and cage-free eggs-- that makes people feel as if they’re somehow supporting a nice little health food coop when they shop at Trader Joe’s.
The truth is that Trader Joe’s is almost the complete opposite of that feel-good image.
As my new book Ethical Chic points out, it’s not merely the surfer-local image that’s false. For instance, only TJ-brand products are guaranteed to be free of trans fats, genetically modified organisms, artificial preservatives, and other yecchy stuff. The 20% of items that are not made specially for the chain can have any kind of ingredients, and that includes non-cage-free eggs from chickens kept in horrible battery cages. And think again about the pre-cooked, frozen Chicken Tikka Masala with Cumin-Flavored Basmati Rice. All the extra packaging? Ingredients shipped from India? That little meal violates some of the basic tenets of the organic and environmental movements, including “reduce packaging” and “buy local.”
I don’t want to be a grumpy, eat-your-tofu, enviro-extremist. Go to Trader Joe’s if you want, Jeff and Denice! It is fun to shop there (even if I think the hand-written signs are just too-too cute). All I’m saying is: Read the labels. Know what you’re buying-- and buy the product, not the image.
Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, where she directs initiatives on independent business and community banking. She is the author of Big-Box Swindle and also produces a popular monthly newsletter, the Hometown Advantage Bulletin. Follow her on Twitter.
This op-ed is cross-posted from Other Words, which distributes commentary articles to newspapers. It is licensed for use under a Creative Commons “Attribution-No Derivatives Work” license.
Sam Walton opened the first Walmart store in Rogers, Arkansas, 50 years ago this month. Sprawled along a major thoroughfare outside the city’s downtown, that inaugural store embodied many of the hallmarks that have since come to define the Walmart way of doing business. Walton scoured the country for the cheapest merchandise and deftly exploited a loophole in federal law to pay his mostly female workforce less than minimum wage.
That relentless focus on squeezing workers and suppliers for every advantage has paid off since July 1962. Walmart is now the second-largest corporation on the planet. It took in almost half-a-trillion dollars last year at more than 10,000 stores worldwide.
Walmart now captures one of every four dollars Americans spend on groceries. Its stores are so plentiful that it’s easy to imagine that the retailer has long since reached the upper limit of its growth potential. It hasn’t. Walmart has opened over 1,100 new supercenters since 2005 and expanded its U.S. sales by 35 percent. It aims to keep on growing that fast. With an eye to infiltrating urban areas, Walmart recently introduced smaller “neighborhood markets” and “express” stores.
While the big-box business model Sam Walton pioneered half a century ago has been great for Walmart, it hasn’t been so great for the U.S. economy.
Walmart’s explosive growth has gutted two key pillars of the American middle class: small businesses and well-paying manufacturing jobs.
Between 2001 and 2007, some 40,000 U.S. factories closed, eliminating millions of jobs. While Walmart’s ceaseless search for lower costs wasn’t the only factor that drove production overseas, it was a major one. During these six years, Walmart’s imports from China tripled in value from $9 billion to $27 billion.
Small, family-owned retail businesses likewise closed in droves as Walmart grew. Between 1992 and 2007, the number of independent retailers fell by over 60,000, according to the U.S. Census.
Their demise triggered a cascade of losses elsewhere. As communities lost their local retailers, there was less demand for services like accounting and graphic design, less advertising revenue for local media outlets, and fewer accounts for local banks. As Walmart moved into communities, the volume of money circulating from business to business declined. More dollars flowed into Walmart’s tills and out of the local economy.
In exchange for the many middle-income jobs Walmart eliminated, all we got in return were low-wage jobs for the workers who now toil in its stores. To get by, many Walmart employees have no choice but to rely on food stamps and other public assistance.
Walmart’s history is the story of what has gone wrong in the American economy. Wages have stagnated. The middle class has shrunk. The ranks of the working poor have swelled. Whatever we may have saved shopping at Walmart, we’ve more than paid for it in diminished opportunities and declining income.
And the worse things get, the more alluring Walmart’s siren call of low prices becomes. While the Ford Motor Co. once profited by creating a workforce that could afford to buy its cars, today Walmart profits by ensuring that Americans cannot afford to shop anywhere else. The average family of four now spends over $4,000 a year at Walmart.
Such market concentration is unprecedented in U.S. history, as is the concentration of wealth it has engendered. Sam Walton’s heirs own about half of Walmart’s stock and have a net worth equal to the combined assets of the bottom one-third of Americans — about 100 million people. This year alone, the Waltons will pocket $2.7 billion in dividends from their Walmart holdings.
They are among the few Americans who have reason to celebrate Walmart’s 50th birthday. As for the rest of us, the milestone offers a good moment to reflect on the company’s business model and where it might lead us if we allow Walmart’s growth to continue full-steam for another 50 years.
Consumers are told that when they put on an American Apparel t-shirt, leggings, jeans, gold bra, or other item, they look hot. Not only do they look good, but they can also feel good because they are helping US workers earn a decent wage (never mind that some of those female workers have accused their boss of sexual harassment). And when shoppers put on a pair of Timberlands, they feel fashionable and as green as the pine forest they might trek through-that is, until they're reminded that this green company is in the business of killing cows. But surely even the pickiest, most organic, most politically correct buyers can feel virtuous about purchasing a tube of Tom's toothpaste, right? After all, with its natural ingredients that have never been tested on animals, this company has a forty-year history of being run by a nice couple from Maine . . . well, ahem, until it was recently bought out by Colgate.
It's difficult to define what makes a company hip and also ethical, but some companies seem to have hit that magic bull's-eye. In this age of consumer activism, pinpoint marketing, and immediate information, consumers demand everything from the coffee, computer, or toothpaste they buy. They want an affordable, reliable product manufactured by a company that doesn't pollute, saves energy, treats its workers well, and doesn't hurt animals-oh, and that makes them feel cool when they use it. Companies would love to have that kind of reputation, and a handful seem to have achieved it. But do they deserve their haloes? Can a company make a profit doing so? And how can consumers avoid being tricked by phony marketing?
In Ethical Chic, award-winning author Fran Hawthorne uses her business-investigative skills to analyze six favorites:Apple, Starbucks, Trader Joe's, American Apparel, Timberland, and Tom's of Maine. She attends a Macworld conference and walks on the factory floors of American Apparel. She visits the wooded headquarters of Timberland, speaks to consumers who drive thirty miles to get their pretzels and plantains from Trader Joe's, and confronts the founders of Tom's of Maine. More than a how-to guide for daily dilemmas and ethical business practices, Ethical Chic is a blinders-off and nuanced look at the mixed bag of values on sale at companies that project a seemingly progressive image.
OnLate Night With Jimmy Fallon last night, the President joined Fallon and the Roots to slow jam on the need to keep rates from doubling on Stafford Loans this summer. POTUS got his groove on and the audience--many of whom are probably dealing with their own crippling student loan debts--went wild. The "Barackness Monster" (who paid off his own student loans only eight years ago) and Fallon aren't alone in their advocacy on this issue: an editorial in the New York Times points out that, "At a time when many graduates are desperate for jobs, the interest rate increase would add an average of $1,000 a year to their debt." The Occupy Movement has taken on student loan debt as a signature cause this spring. And even Mitt Romney, "voiced support for keeping federal student loan interest rates from going up – a position that puts him at odds with Republicans in Congress." (Politico)
Today's post is an interview with Sam Skolnik, author of High Stakes: The Rising Cost of America's Gambling Addiction. Skolnik began his journalism career as a news aide and freelance writer for the Washington Post. He went on to report for the Legal Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and Las Vegas Sun. He's won several national journalism awards and was selected to be a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow for 2007-08.
Skolnik spoke with Jessie Bennett, the editor of Beacon Broadside, via Skype earlier this week.
The New York Times Magazine cover story last weekend was about the financial problems faced by Foxwoods casino. I grew up in Southeastern Connecticut, where the Foxwood and Mohegan Sun casinos were seen as economic saviors for the region. But what are the hidden costs of gambling for regions that choose to embrace it?
In fairness to that story, it did raise some interesting points. I don't think that it had been widely known that Foxwoods was in trouble to the degree that it clearly is. And the article also raises points that are worth making, even for those like myself who are clearly skeptical about the long-term impact of gambling, about the fact that Connecticut has benefited from the jobs that have come into the state as well as from tax revenues.
That said, there are always costs when gambling comes into a jurisdiction, and that is no different in Connecticut than it is anywhere else. New gamblers are created--this is always the case, even in the saturated market that we're in now. A new subset of gamblers are created: those who had never before gambled regularly, but because the casino or new gambling outlet is close to where they live or work, they start gambling. And what happens with those folks is, inevitably and as a result, there's another small subset of those folks who develop addiction problems. Independent studies have shown this to be the case time and time again. And so what happens when these folks become addicted is that it injures lives. Not just the lives of the gamblers, but the lives of their families, of their colleagues, of whole communities.
On a more concrete level, social costs related to gambling inevitably rise as a result of these new problem or pathological gamblers. You're right to label these as sort of "hidden costs" because, unlike other sorts of addictions, it can be tougher to determine if someone close to you has a gambling problem. The social costs range from indebtedness, home foreclosures, and bankruptcies, to crimes connected with pathological gambling such as embezzlement and robberies, all the way to domestic types of crimes. And in the worst cases, these social costs include suicides.
Not so much in Southeastern Connecticut, but in other, more "mature" gambling markets like Atlantic City and Reno and especially Las Vegas, studies have shown that there is a direct connection between these rising social costs connected to pathological gambling and the advent of legalized gambling. Studies have shown that suicide rates are higher in Atlantic City, Reno, and Las Vegas than in anywhere else in the country, and the only conclusion that can reasonably be reached is that there is a direct connection between that and the advent of gambling.
Anecdotally, very soon after Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun opened up near my hometown—I was working there as a bank teller at the time—the murmuring about problems began. "This one gambled away the life savings… they're getting a divorce because he lost the family business at the casino." These are huge personal costs and they seemed to pop up very quickly. But, long-term, it continues to be a problem—these stories haven't stopped.
You raise a good point, because the stories that come from individual gamblers and those who are related to them are devastating. I think that the industry and their political supporters like to say, "When you talk about individual anecdotes, it doesn't represent a scientific trend." Well, first off, if you add enough of them together—as represented by an increase in the number of Gamblers Anonymous chapters—it does represent a trend. But if you look on an individual level, what happens is these problem gamblers and the problems that they create affect whole communities. All you have to do to see it is to sit in on a GA meeting—and by the way, there are more of them than ever, all around the country.
In a recent ten-year period, there was a fifty percent rise in the number of GA chapters around the country. This coincides with an explosion in the amount of legalized gambling, spearheaded by the casino industry, both commercial and Indian casinos like Foxwoods. It would take a huge state of denial to not see that these two trends are directly related.
The Times article examines the fact that Foxwoods has serious financial troubles to the tune of $2.3 billion in debt. Mohegan Sun just restructured their own one billion plus dollars of debt. There is increasing competition from neighboring states, states from which they have been importing many of their dedicated visitors. Do you think we're seeing a beginning of a move away from these huge destination casinos and towards a more localized style of gambling?
With the exception of Las Vegas, most gambling around the country already takes place in local gambling rather than destination casinos. The majority of gamblers almost everywhere in the country with the exception of the Las Vegas Strip are "localized" gamblers.
But, looking at Foxwoods... it was one of the first Indian casinos in the Northeast, and what happened since it opened was that, especially in the last five years, other jurisdictions have come to the conclusion that this is an easy and--they say--relatively painless way to raise revenues. Of course, it's not painless. But what this has done from a strictly economic standpoint is that states around the region have been trying to copy what Connecticut has done by signing new compacts for new Indian casinos. And what they've also done is to allow for commercial casino growth. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, New York State... almost every state in the Northeast has recently considered or has on the table new commercial casinos, stand-alone slot parlors, or "racinos." Race tracks have seen their revenues decline, so what they've been trying to do is add slot parlors inside the race tracks in order to compete.
So this might be one of the first signs that we're coming to—around the Northeast and around the country—a saturation point. There is a clear limit as to how much these new revenue streams are going to earn money in the ways that their state overlords think works for them. This isn't unprecedented. If you look back to starting before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, there have been about three big waves of gambling in the United States. From complete acceptance, proliferation, and even inundation throughout the country of various forms of gambling to almost complete prohibition.
As the author of High Stakes, it was never my ambition to advocate for one side or the other. I certainly don't believe in full-scale prohibition. I don't think it's possible, I don't think it's realistic and, as a gambler, I don't want that to go into effect. But I do think that the negatives are starting to increase at a significant rate, as well as the economic downsides of the inundation of gambling around the country. We might be peaking on this third wave, which started about forty or fifty years ago with the modern state lotteries, which started in New England, and with Nevada legalizing casinos.
The Northeast is the busiest microcosm of this inundation. It very well might be that over the next ten or fifteen years, especially if the economy gets healthier, we'll see fewer and fewer proposals for more legalized gambling. And we'll see more folks seeing the impact of gambling on loved ones and colleagues and their neighbors.
The economic arguments for casinos is that they'll employ people. But now internet gambling is becoming a big issue, as states debate whether or not to legalize it. But there are real risks involved with legalizing online poker but without the big jobs payoff.
Online poker and online gambling were semi-legal or quasi-illegal up until about six months ago. Congress never fully outlawed it, but there were portions of the financial end of things that could be considered illegal. Over the last decade, while millions of Americans were playing, there were these companies which were based off-shore, that were earning their money mostly off of Americans.
About six or eight months ago, what the poker world calls "Black Friday," the Justice Department shut down three of the biggest poker sites. But recently, the Justice Department appeared to open the door for the states to legalize online gambling and online poker in their jurisdictions. While states have proposals on the table to open bricks-and-mortar casinos, many of them also have proposals to legalize online gambling.
Now, if local casinos are "convenience gambling," online poker is the most convenient form of gambling there is. You could do it any time of day or night. While some of these companies have safeguards to prevent underage or pathological gambling, there are arguments that these safeguards are patently ineffective.
Studies have shown that electronic gambling—slot machines and online gambling—are the most inherently addictive forms of gambling. This is because of the speed of these games and the convenience of them, and it's also because electronic gambling draws those who are predisposed to problem gambling: older folks and young adults. Younger gamblers, who are drawn to online poker, have been shown to have fewer inhibitions. And seniors, when you look at slot machines, which are the primary economic driver inside the bricks and mortar casinos, seniors are the ones playing these games. And seniors have been shown to have the same lack of inhibition when it comes to developing gambling addictions at a faster rate.
These games are unfortunately hitting some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo was quoted in the Times article as saying, “In a perfect world, there would be no casinos... We have 29,000 gambling machines in this state, more than Atlantic City... You have gaming! You’re just in denial of the reality.” Do you think this is a logical argument, that people are gambling anyway, so you might as well benefit from it?
I think it's an unfair argument, and I think it's a false argument. And I've heard it time and again, from many proponents, including former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell. "Gosh, we're not creating new gamblers, we're just saving folks some gas money and keeping them at home in our state." Sure, there are some people who are already gambling who will shift their allegiances to a home-state casino. There is some credence to the argument, but the politics of casino expansion is that the gambling industry and the politicians they get on their side tend to ignore the downsides regarding the inevitable creation of new gamblers.
Many of these politicians should know better. Governor Cuomo's father, the former governor Mario Cuomo, even in times of economic hardship, felt that legalized gambling and casinos were clearly not the answer because of the social costs, because of the rising addiction rates, because of the fundamental changes in communities. Andrew Cuomo has come to what is a more expedient answer, but it is an answer that, in the long term, is going to do much more damage to that state.
Anita Hill is a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home. Hill is also the author of Speaking Truth to Power, in which she detailed her experience as a witness in Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. She writes and lectures widely on issues of race and gender equality.
California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris's role in last week's $26 billion settlement with five of the nation's leading banks shows how critical it is for states and local governments take a stand on behalf of homeowners. Last September, according to a story that ran Monday in the New York Times, she walked away from negotiations in the multi-state process. Some of her peers accused her of grandstanding. She stood her ground and negotiated the largest share of the settlement that may rise above the amount announced last week. The money Harris negotiated is more than a mere chance to compensate people duped by the banks, it begins to restore a critical part of our national identity lost to individual and corporate greed that trumped moral and even sound economic judgment.
In Reimagining Equality, I outlined how the foreclosure epidemic threatened America's identity as a place where one comes to finds a home and builds from there a sense of belonging to a community and a nation.
Recently, in a speech to a crowd gathered at a neighborhood community center, President Obama explained why the threat to home ownership wreaks more than economic havoc.
"This housing crisis struck right at the heart of what it means to be middle class in America: our homes, the place where we invest our nest egg, place where we raise our family, the place where we plant roots in a community, the place where we build memories," Obama said.
Since October, I've visited a over a dozen cities and spoken to countless individuals who hold on cautiously to their belief in homeownership as a tenet of the American Dream. In New Orleans, people who are still recovering from the ravages of Katrina sat beside people who struggle to pay mortgages that have escalated out of control. In Detroit, I visited neighborhoods smattered with boarded up houses that stand along side occupied residences. Yet a neighborhood school, lead by one exceptionally courageous and committed principal and her dedicated teachers, flourishes. The schools and the children that pour out of those homes remind me that a new generation of children will live surrounded by a "new normal" of devastation. Will the best and brightest of them have a reason to stay to raise their children in their old neighborhoods?
Not everyone I met has a home that is underwater; some don't own homes at all. But they all have an investment in the idea that home is critical to them in finding a place in a thriving democracy.
The multi-state settlement will go far in showing that their trust in a government that will protect their chance to "plant roots in a community" is not misplaced. Yet, the agreement reached by the Attorneys General should not preclude state and local governments from pursuing banks who fleeced consumers. Those entities know all too well the devastating impact of the housing crisis. They also know that it will take more than even the billions on the table today to restore communities so that they are once again places where people can raise their families.
Why are adults in their twenties and thirties boomeranging back to or never leaving their parents' homes in the world's wealthiest countries?
Why are adults in their twenties and thirties boomeranging back to or never leaving their parents' homes in the world's wealthiest countries? Acclaimed sociologist Katherine Newman addresses this phenomenon in this timely and original book that uncovers fascinating links between globalization and the failure-to-launch trend. With over 300 interviews conducted in six countries, Newman concludes that nations with weak welfare states have the highest frequency of accordion families. She thoughtfully considers the positive and negative implications of these new relationships and suggests that as globalization reshapes the economic landscape it also continues to redefine our private lives.
"Combining personal interviews with careful analysis of economic trends, and paying close attention to differences in cultural values and political structures, Newman sheds new light on the complex trade-offs that recent changes in intergenerational relationships and residence patterns involve for young adults, their parents, and society as a whole." --Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap
"In this wide-ranging book, Katherine Newman shows that the ages at which young adults leave their parents' homes are rising in developed countries around the world. She brilliantly demonstrates that the global forces behind this change are everywhere the same but that each nation interprets it in its own cultural way. Newman's insightful presentation of the stories of accordion families challenges us to re-think what it means to be an adult today." --Andrew Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today
"With the unerring eye and keen insight that has become her hallmark, Katherine Newman identifies a previously unexamined casualty of the new global economy--the prolonged dependence of adult children on their families. The resulting 'accordion family,' as she calls it, is emerging all over the developed world due to declining job prospects for young people, increasingly expensive higher education, and the increasing costs of living on one's own. The responses to this trend--social, political, and economic--will shape generations to come. Brilliant and important." --Robert B. Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California-Berkeley and author of Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future
Katherine Newman is professor of sociology and James Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, and has taught at the University of California-Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, and Princeton. Newman is the author of ten books on middle-class economic instability, urban poverty, and the sociology of inequality, including The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near-Poor in America.
One idea promoted at last month's UN Climate Summit in Durban was “climate-smart agriculture," which could make crops less vulnerable to heat and drought and turn depleted soils into carbon sinks. The World Bank and African leaders are backing this new approach, but some critics are skeptical that it will benefit small-scale African farmers. Here, in a post that originally appeared on Yale Environment 360, Fred Pearce looks at what this kind of agriculture could mean for some of the world's poorest farmers.
The glacial pace of international efforts to curb climate change continued at the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa last month. Governments concluded that by 2015 they should agree on legally binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions that involve all major nations — including China, India and the United States. But they also agreed that those targets would probably not come into force until 2020.
The climate isn’t waiting for the diplomats. Most experts agree that by 2020 it will likely be too late to halt dangerous warming above two degrees Celsius. So the race is now on to find new, unconventional initiatives to fill the gap. One possibility that came to the fore in Durban is fixing some of that carbon dioxide in the soils of Africa. And that is why the continent’s political leaders met in Durban to launch an initiative known, somewhat cryptically, as “climate-smart” agriculture.
The new buzz phrase went down well. Host president Jacob Zuma extolled it. Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian former UN secretary-general, praised it as a panacea to Africa’s problems. “Till now agriculture has been sidelined from climate change discussions,” he said. “But Africa has a huge potential to mitigate climate change.” Beside him sat the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the chair of the African Union Commission. They were all on hand as the World Bank announced plans to turn climate-smart agriculture into the next big thing for the world market in carbon offsets.
So what exactly is climate-smart agriculture? It sounds as if it might involve making agriculture resilient to climate change, by making soils and crops less vulnerable to droughts and heat waves. And that is part of the plan. But only part. The real prize — the one that can lure private finance — is the potential for carbon offsetting. If farm soils can be used to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then they can generate carbon credits that can be sold to industrial polluters who want to offset their emissions.
The offer from the world of carbon finance to poor farmers in Africa and elsewhere is this: Let us use your soils to capture carbon from the atmosphere, and we will, in return, make those soils more productive and less vulnerable to the climate.
This is a big deal. Nurturing the organic matter in soils on the world’s farms has as much potential to absorb carbon dioxide emissions from industrialized countries as the much better-known plans to fund forest conservation, such as REDD. Rattan Lal of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center at Ohio State University suggests soils worldwide could capture as much as a billion tons of carbon a year — more than a tenth of man-made emissions.
Climate-smart agriculture neatly combines the twin goals of today’s climate negotiators, helping to prevent climate change while at the same time adapting farms to inevitable change.
Africa is the big prize. Its farmers are more vulnerable than any others to climate change. Some estimates suggest a hotter, more dire world could cut African farm yields by as much as 20 percent by mid-century. Without an African green revolution, that would spell disaster for a continent with a population that is expected to double to two billion people.
But the continent’s huge land area — greater than the U.S., China, India, Mexico and Japan combined — also holds huge potential as a planetary carbon sink that, many believe, could create the necessary green revolution.
Currently, African soils are leaking carbon as they erode and lose organic matter due to bad farming practices. An estimated 43 percent of Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions come from land clearance, including farming. But the same soils could be turned from a carbon source to a carbon sink, absorbing many tens of millions of tons of carbon a year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
If an agricultural carbon offset program were in place, carbon dollars from Western companies could pay for composting, mulching, recycling crop waste, planting farm trees, and much else on the world’s poorest farms. Those improved soils, richer in organic matter, would grow more crops, help soils withstand droughts and floods, and — vital to earning those carbon dollars — capture carbon from the atmosphere.
The World Bank is keen to mastermind a global effort to fix carbon in African soils. It brought agriculture ministers from across the continent to Johannesburg in September to promote the idea and continued to push it in Durban.
For the past year, the bank’s BioCarbon Fund, which sets up demonstration carbon-capturing projects in both forests and farms, has been running the first pilot African soil project among smallholder farmers near Kisumu in western Kenya. The bank’s climate envoy Andrew Steer said in Durban that the maize and bean farmers “are getting higher yields, improving the resilience of the soils to drought and getting stronger soils that sequester more carbon.”
If all goes according to plan, the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project, which covers 40,000 hectares of farmland in a densely population region of the country, should capture 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. It could also increase annual farm incomes by $200 to $400 per hectare.
That’s the plan. Will it work? The Stockholm Environment Institute, a think tank that looks at both climate and development issues, is supportive. The institute’s Olivia Taghioff, who has studied the Kenyan scheme, says, “Carbon finance even in modest amounts can make a big difference for smallholders.”
But there are concerns. In Durban, Annan warned: “These efforts must have at their heart smallholder farmers. Without their participation we will fail.” And many critics fear that climate-smart agriculture is in reality a Trojan horse for marginalizing smallholder farmers. They believe the arrival of carbon markets, brokers and traders in the fields of Africa can do nothing but harm.
“Soil carbon offsets will promote a spate of African land grabs and put farmers under the control of fickle carbon markets,” said Teresa Anderson of the UK-based Gaia Foundation, an NGO that promotes indigenous farming, speaking in Durban. “The [World] Bank’s agenda is more money for the bank and for carbon project developers, not development,” said Doreen Stabinsky of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
The high costs of employing scientists, consultants, and field surveyors to assess and monitor the carbon uptake of farm soils will make it impossible for smallholder farmers to pocket any income from the sale of the carbon absorbed by their soils, these critics maintain. Only large landowners will be able to reduce these transactions costs sufficiently to profit from the carbon markets, they say, and the result will be a new phase of land grabbing. “Soil grabbing,” some are calling it.
Across Africa, governments are already leasing wide areas of land traditionally used by smallholder farmers to foreign companies for industrial agriculture or for planting trees as carbon sinks in order to gain carbon credits. The fear is that the process will accelerate if the soil itself becomes a carbon commodity.
There is another reason why peasant farmers may lose out. Early evidence gathered by the World Bank in Kenya suggests that the cultivation of commercial crops of the kind that large agribusinesses specialize in have a much greater potential to soak up carbon than smallholder subsistence crops.
Data presented last year at the FAO in Rome by Rama Reddy of the World Bank’s carbon finance unit show that the carbon-capture potential for a hectare of smallholder maize in Kenya is around half a ton of carbon dioxide per year, whereas the potential for commercial biofuels is between 2.5 and 5 tons, and for a sugar cane plantation up to 8 tons per hectare.
The dream of enthusiasts for climate-smart agriculture is that investors will one day invest billions of dollars in the fields of Africa in order to purchase the resulting credits from capturing carbon, while at the same time improving the continent’s soils. In truth, any credible solution to climate change will probably involve finding ways to get the landscape to absorb more carbon, whether in trees or soils, probably financed from carbon markets. Can it be done in a way that helps smallholder farmers? Or will it drive them off their land? That remains far from clear.
In December, yet another global climate change conference – this one in Durban, South Africa – failed to bind the world’s greatest polluters to specific, quantifiable curbs in their greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, America was among the leading forces fighting the adoption of greenhouse gas reduction targets, just as we fought these targets in Bali the previous year, and in Copenhagen the year before that.
Even as America shirks its responsibility before the international community, there is a lot we can do here at home to reduce our nation’s massive carbon footprint. Boosting renewable energy’s share of our electricity supply should be at the top of that agenda.
The Congressional uproar over the failed federal loan guarantee to solar manufacturer Solyndra shouldn’t be allowed to cast a shadow over our government’s broader efforts to stimulate renewable energy growth. Nowhere have federal energy incentives been more effective than in launching American wind power. Part of that success hinges on a production tax credit that gives wind manufacturers and wind farm developers enough confidence to break into a field still dominated by underpriced fossil fuels and heavily subsidized nuclear power.
Today wind supplies a relatively modest three percent of our electricity, but it’s growing fast. The Department of Energy projects that wind, with the right incentives, could supply a fifth or more of our power by 2030. Others see as much as half of our electricity coming from wind by mid-century. Wind farms already account for 17 percent of Iowa’s electric output and nearly 7 percent of power generated in Texas, America’s biggest electricity user.
Looking at the American wind industry’s overall supply chain, the story gets even better. Hundreds of companies employing thousands of skilled and semi-skilled workers are now involved in manufacturing components and subcomponents for turbines. American labor today creates about 60 percent of the value of a typical turbine sold in the United States. Rust Belt stalwarts like Ohio-based Timken, maker of the “million-mile bearing” for the automotive sector, have made a major strategic shift toward wind. The rugged weather endured by turbines is a perfect match for Timken’s super-high standards.
Add to manufacturing jobs the thousands of people who build our wind farms. Truckers, crane operators, electricians, concrete suppliers, and civil engineers are all finding new jobs in wind farm construction. And once these farms are in operation, thousands more are employed keeping turbines running reliably.
Roughly 75,000 Americans now have jobs in the wind industry. The Department of Energy predicts that over a quarter-of-a-million people will be gainfully employed by this sector as we approach the 2030 date for supplying a fifth of our power from wind. As important as the number of jobs is where many of those jobs are located – in rural communities where it’s been hard to find work even in good economic times.
In an ideal world, power suppliers would compete in a marketplace that reflected the true costs of each technology. The European Union is moving in this direction, with a carbon emission-trading regime that has begun to monetize the global-warming impacts of coal and other fossil fuels used by electric utilities and other major industries. In America, fossil fuel producers and users do not pay for the environmental devastation they cause. To the contrary, they benefit from billions of dollars in subsidies each year, nurtured for decades by an army of well-paid lobbyists.
Faced with these imbalances, renewable energy producers are fighting an uphill battle. Federal incentives, like the 2.2 cent-per-kilowatt-hour production tax credit for wind that is due to expire at the end of this year, are essential to leveling the playing field. Thanks to this tax credit, wind farms can compete with proposed new coal plants, and even with electricity from new natural gas facilities in some locations. If the tax credit expires, many wind developers will hold off on siting new wind farms, and wind turbine manufacturers will have to scale back production. Aside from the lost environmental opportunity, tens of thousands of people now employed by the wind industry risk losing their jobs.
Many years may pass before Congress summons the resolve to cap America’s greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, extending the renewable energy production tax credit – a measure that has already proven its worth to our economy and the environment – is a worthy step.
Yesterday, the Justice Department announced the filing of "its largest residential fair lending settlement in history to resolve allegations that Countrywide Financial Corporation and its subsidiaries engaged in a widespread pattern or practice of discrimination against qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers in their mortgage lending from 2004 through 2008." In the settlement, Bank of America agreed to provide $335 million to compensate victims of lending discrimination.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the settlement showed that the Justice Department would “vigorously pursue those who would take advantage of certain Americans because of their race, national origin, gender or disability,” adding: “Such conduct undercuts the notion of a level playing field for all consumers. It betrays the promise of equal opportunity that is enshrined in our Constitution and our legal framework.” (New York Times)
By 2006 a number of major banks—including Bank of America, Countrywide, and Citicorp—and smaller banks that specialized in sub- prime loans were in this lucrative market. Over 25 percent of home purchase loans made in 2006 were subprime loans. And that same year, 31 percent of mortgage refinancing was made on subprime terms. (Anita Hill: Reimagining Equality, p 130.)
The Justice Department was not the first government entity to address discrimination in the lending market. In Reimagining Equality, Professor Hill looks at court cases in Baltimore, Illinois, and elsewhere that aimed to shine a light on these abuses and make communities financially whole. What follows is an adapted excerpt from the book that provides context for yesterday's settlement announcement.
As the mortgage meltdown went into full force, hundreds in Baltimore saw their American Dream vanish. Hundreds of homes went into foreclosure, and a host of associated costs began to pile up. Nevertheless, United States District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz viewed with skepticism the city leaders’ lawsuit aimed at recovering some of Baltimore’s losses. In January 2010, Motz, a Baltimore native, dismissed the claim, citing “other factors leading to the deterioration of the inner city, such as extensive unemployment, lack of educational opportunity and choice, irresponsible parenting, disrespect for the law, widespread drug use, and violence.” Judge Motz’s critics would attribute his remarks to his background in law enforcement or what many had long perceived as conservative, pro-business leanings. Over the course of his career in the legal profession, Motz had served as both assistant U.S. attorney and U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland. President Reagan had appointed him to the federal bench in 1985. As a judge, he had heard a number of high-profile cases involving the likes of the Microsoft and Wal-Mart corporations. His “probusiness” label came from a decision he rendered in favor of the latter in a case that challenged Maryland’s legislative attempt to require large employers to provide health care for their employees. Motz’s choice of language in the Wells Fargo case echoed the political rhetoric of the man who put him on the court. The federal judge concluded that the bulk of the problems alleged in Baltimore’s litigation against Wells Fargo Bank were due not to the bank’s actions but to flawed government policies (“lack of educational opportunity and choice”), individual neglect (“irresponsible parenting”), or criminal activity (“widespread drug use, and violence”).
Judge Motz’s observations can’t be chalked up to politics entirely. As a prosecutor and a judge, he was perfectly positioned to observe what happened in the city. Frederick J. Motz had lived in Baltimore most of his life. For eight years, during some of the city’s most troubled times, he had been a member of the advisory commission for the City of Baltimore’s Department of Social Services. Judge Motz, like The Wire creator David Simon, portrays a city that few could love.
Judge Motz had concluded that the collapse of the housing market in the city was the inevitable result of years of urban decline. Motz’s words amounted to a sweeping pronouncement that Baltimore’s black neighborhoods were destined to fail. Indeed, for decades prior to the subprime era, many Baltimore neighborhoods were notorious for high crime rates and communicable disease outbreaks. Some would declare them dysfunctional. Yet they had never completely collapsed as they did under the weight of the mortgage meltdown. Was it realistic to believe that such massive disintegration could be attributed to preexisting conditions in a few neighborhoods? Presumably, homeowners held titles to structures with some market value; landlords still collected rents; and the city continued to assess taxes on the properties in even the most troubled areas. And neither any of the city’s leadership problems nor the decline in Baltimore neighborhoods should have given Wells Fargo a free pass to exploit Baltimore’s residents.
One might read Judge Motz’s assessment as an attempt to distinguish blighted neighborhoods from other Baltimore communities that still had some chance of weathering the foreclosure storm. Taken in this light, in giving the city leave to refile against the bank after dismissing the first complaint, Judge Motz may have been engaging in a bit of ju- dicial triaging, encouraging the city’s legal counsel to narrow its claim to neighborhoods whose circumstances were less notorious. But in its second amended complaint, the city chose another route. In essence, the new pleadings alleged that Wells targeted poor black men and women in distressed communities because they were in the throes of crisis and were individuals desperate for credit. The attorneys set about to convince the court that Wells Fargo had siphoned off the equity left in the residences of down-and-out neighborhoods and left those communities to perish along with the rest of the municipality.
The City of Baltimore’s attorneys reasserted that “Wells Fargo’s discriminatory practices, and the resulting unnecessary foreclosures in the city’s minority neighborhoods, [had] inflicted significant, direct, and continuing financial harm on Baltimore.” This time the city’s claims were more circumspect, but its allegations of deliberate bank wrongdoing directed at black neighborhoods were still detailed and damning. Baltimore introduced into the record statements from former bank employees about training they had received that helped them sell loans in poor, primarily African American neighborhoods throughout Maryland. One New York Times article quoted a Wells Fargo bank officer, Elizabeth Jacobson, describing the bank’s “emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches, because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans.” In her affidavit submitted by the City of Baltimore in its amended complaint, Ms. Jacobson attested to a consistent pattern of steering black loan applicants to subprime loans, even though they may have qualified for conventional loans at lower interest rates. Jacobson even admitted that loan officers would tell the bank’s underwriting department that applicants who had been steered to subprime loans did not want to file proper documents that would qualify the customers for prime rates.
In the heat of the meltdown, commentators would question what kind of individuals enter into potentially disastrous loans, loans that they could not possibly repay once teaser rates expired. As I read the allegations in the Baltimore suit, I began to ask what kind of persons would market these kinds of products to homeowners. But that approach puts undue emphasis on the individual participants. Although it is admittedly tempting to demonize Jacobson and her fellow agents, the problems that led to the lawsuit were systemic. The more revealing inquiry looks into the atmosphere that existed inside banks and the banking industry as the subprime crisis brewed. The environment was one that, from top to bottom, fostered detachment. And my conclusion is that there were agents who were given financial incentives to make high-risk loans while simultaneously being encouraged to disengage from borrowers and the neighborhoods in which the borrowers lived. Reportedly, Wells Fargo also gave lavish gifts and trips to successful subprime loan officers.
Parts of Jacobson’s declarations and those of Tony Paschal (another Wells Fargo employee) read like instructions for how to marginalize cus- tomers based on where they live and skin color. The two reported that “subprime loan officers described African-American and other minority customers by saying ‘those people have bad credit’ and ‘those people don’t pay their bills,’ and by calling minority customers ‘mud people’ and ‘niggers.’” Paschal reported hearing fellow employees refer to “loans in minority communities as ‘ghetto loans.’ ” Elizabeth Jacobson was an extremely productive lender: in a span of three years, she reportedly sold more than fifty million dollars’ worth of subprime loans in Baltimore’s black communities.
Wells Fargo also relied on brokers, who would take loan applications from potential borrowers and shop the papers to a number of lenders. These independent brokers sometimes earned as much as $15,000 in com- mission on $130,000 loans. Even when brokers knew the borrowers or knew the neighborhoods, they rarely had any idea of the terms the lenders ultimately offered Baltimore residents. Brokers never evaluated borrowers. Their job was to fill out the forms, and Wells Fargo exercised stunningly little oversight over how they accomplished that task.
And just what were the consequences of the bank’s purported “sub- prime lending spree”? According to the lawsuit filed by the city, subprime loans led to foreclosures, and foreclosures led to abandoned properties. Baltimore’s housing department has had to board up scores of vacant homes, stabilize properties that threatened public safety, and condemn some others that could not be boarded and stabilized. The crisis has strained public safety resources, as police and fire departments have had to step up efforts to respond to incidents related to unoccupied homes. It is clear that the fallout is citywide, not limited to geographically or racially distinct neighborhoods, when public safety costs and losses in tax revenues attributed to the foreclosures are taken into account. Although Baltimore was once nicknamed Charm City, if the projection of nearly half a million home foreclosures is correct, its lure may be a long time re- turning. And sometimes lost in the talk about lost tax revenues and police and fire department expenditures are the individuals who had no part in the subprime market debacle but are left behind in impacted neighbor- hoods. Some remaining residents are at the mercy of squatters who take up residence in foreclosed and unsellable properties as close as next door.
Beginning to See a Pattern
Skeptics might conclude that the situation in Baltimore was an anomaly. And even with the evidence against Wells Fargo, it’s uncertain exactly what part of the problem in Baltimore was the fault of that one lender. Judge Motz dismissed the City of Baltimore’s second complaint against Wells Fargo too. “Theoretically, the city does have viable claims if it can prove property specific injuries inflicted upon it at properties that would not have been vacant but for improper loans made by Wells Fargo,” he wrote. “ In the interest of justice,” Judge Motz gave the city “leave to file a third amended complaint.” Nevertheless, the dismissal casts doubt on whether Wells Fargo will ever be held liable for the problems in Baltimore.
But when other public officials began raising claims, questions about Wells Fargo’s behavior got more intense. Were the practices alleged in the Baltimore lawsuit the product of rogue loan officers, or of local—or even headquarters—Wells management, or were they the way business was done throughout the industry? In March 2008, Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan gave two lenders, Countrywide and Wells Fargo, a chance to explain what she described as the “alarming” disparities “between the home loans sold to white borrowers and those sold to African American and Latino borrowers.” Madigan’s investigation looked into disparities in the issuance of “high-cost” loans—those that were three percentage points above the U.S. Treasury standard—which performed in ways similar to subprime loans. The attorney general had been tipped off to the problem by an investigation conducted by the Chicago Reporter, a monthly investigative news magazine. In a study of loans issued in 2003, the Reporter found that African Americans, even those with six-figure salaries, were far more likely to get subprime loans than whites or Asians and that the preponderance of those loans were given out in black and Latino neighborhoods. High-cost loans made up 64 percent of all the loans Wells Fargo made to blacks and 50 percent of the loans Countrywide gave to blacks. Comparable figures for Wells Fargo’s and Countrywide’s white borrowers were 17 and 20 percent, respectively.
In October 2008 Madigan’s office settled with Countrywide, which by then had been bought by Bank of America. The State of Illinois was granted both injunctive and prospective relief, including an agreement that qualifying borrowers might have their loans modified. In July 2009 the attorney general announced a lawsuit against Wells Fargo Bank. The bank was once again accused of targeting black communities. And in the Illinois case, Latinos were also allegedly preyed upon for subprime loans. “As a result of its discriminatory and illegal mortgage lending practices, Wells Fargo transformed our cities’ predominantly African- American and Latino neighborhoods into ground zero for subprime lending,” said Madigan. “The dreams of many hardworking families have ended in foreclosure due to Wells Fargo’s illegal and unfair conduct.” This lawsuit continued even after Madigan’s office settled another claim against Wells Fargo over allegedly deceptive marketing of extremely risky loans. The costs of foreclosures in Chicago specifically are social and economic, with borrowers, their neighbors, local businesses, and the city all paying a price.
Where the complaint in the Baltimore suit gives one a sense of sub- prime lenders’ predatory assaults on the African American community, the Illinois complaint does that and more. It chronicles the growth of sub- prime lending practices nationwide and the parallel expansion of Wells Fargo’s role in it. Madigan’s filing gives insight into how the subprime mortgage market grew—both because of larger immediate returns and because bankers assumed that securities backed by subprime mortgages would perform in the same way as those backed by prime mortgages. The court documents state that Wells Fargo undertook an aggressive growth strategy and, according to one bank employee, “wanted to be the number one lender in all markets it served and wanted to serve all markets.” One employee maintained that Wells Fargo’s goal was to have the subprime lending division cover the fixed costs of all the bank’s operations.
In time, as the company vigorously pursued its fast-paced growth, the market for subprimes grew. According to the Illinois complaint, subprime mortgage lending increased from $35 billion to $625 billion between 1994 and 2005. By 2003 Wells Fargo’s subprime lending totaled $16.5 billion, and by 2007 Wells was the eighth largest subprime lender, by loan volume, in the nation. At roughly the same time, Wells Fargo was the Chicago area’s second-largest lender by volume, making over twelve thousand high-cost loans. The complaint suggests a culture inside the bank that was dominated by subprime loans. The bank set quotas for the number of sub-prime or high-cost loans “every area had to close” and “kept scorecards” that recorded managers’ subprime loan tallies.
In 2009 the City of Memphis filed a suit against Wells Fargo Bank. Allegations mirror those in the cases coming out of Baltimore and the State of Illinois. Wells Fargo denies the allegations of the plaintiffs in these suits. In addition to existing urban woes, they blame the foreclosure problem on borrowers themselves.
Indeed, by 2000 a number of cultural and economic factors had fueled a passion for home ownership among single black women. In the popular press, Essence magazine ran a campaign for home ownership. Even the Economist, a magazine that caters to middle-class and business readers, promoted owning a home as a way for black women to live the Ameri- can Dream. In fact, since the mid-1990s, even the gap between black and white unemployment rates, a historically persistent and seemingly intractable problem, had been shrinking. Apparently unaware of the dramatic rise in subprime lending, the Economist reported:
The growth in home ownership both drives and feeds off continued gains in wealth. The University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth says that black buying power has increased steadily across the country, from $318 billion in 1990 to $723 billion in 2004 and a projected $965 billion in 2009. At a time when every American seems to be paying for his credit-card debts with home-equity loans, blacks have (for better or worse) joined the party, helped partly by the fact that many mortgage firms now rely more on color-blind computers than on sniffy clerks to check up on applicants.
But when lenders began targeting black and Latino communities for subprime loans, the positive effect of computerized processing went out the window. Race and ethnicity were reembedded in the process in a way that no computer could deflect.
In 2006 Corey Booker, the dynamic and popular mayor of Newark, New Jersey, advocated home ownership as “a critical step, especially [for] those [families] headed by a single parent, in breaking the cycle of violence and poverty.” Not-for-profit agencies set up seminars in Newark to show women how they could make home ownership a reality despite high interest rates and poor credit ratings. And why not? At the end of an era when the political message to those in poverty was to take personal responsibility, how better to evidence responsibility than to invest in their own neighborhoods and put a roof over their children’s heads. In the mid-1990s President Bill Clinton had used the rhetoric of personal responsibility and economic prosperity in reforming welfare and in his National Homeownership Strategy, which was introduced by a document subtitled “Partners in the American Dream.” Following in Clinton’s footsteps, President George W. Bush and Alan Greenspan, the longtime Federal Reserve chairman, also promoted the idea of home ownership in both rhetoric and policy. In 2003, when housing prices were beginning to spike, Bush introduced the American Dream Downpayment Initiative, promising that the law would help Americans realize the dream of home ownership and help close the gap between “minority households and the rest of the country” in that regard.
Nevertheless, none of the leaders, conservative or liberal, seemed aware of what was happening in the financial industry. Bush and lenders encouraged potential purchasers to “buy high” with the promise that housing values would continue to climb. Builders and developers responded. The average size of new single-family homes increased from around 2,000 square feet in 1992 to 2,241 square feet in 1999, then to over 2,500 square feet in 2006. Understandably, buyers spent more on new homes. The average-size home in 1999 cost $195,600. By 2006, in order to get the average home a buyer would have to come up with $305,900. Average household income enjoyed some growth, but it wasn’t steady and didn’t keep pace with the cost of housing. During this period of steeply rising home costs and inconsistent income growth, the number of sub-prime and high-cost loans spiraled upward.
Whether Baltimore or Memphis or the State of Illinois will be able to prove that Wells Fargo or any other bank targeted minority neighbor- hoods and violated fair housing laws remains to be determined. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s analysis of data available under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) suggests that in the late 1990s, a potentially calamitous situation existed in black neighborhoods. HUD’s analysis of the situation in Baltimore, for example, pointed out the following facts:
1. As reported in HMDA, the number of subprime refinance loans originated in Baltimore increased over ten-fold between 1993 and 1998....
2.Subprime loans are seven times more likely in low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore than in upper-income neighborhoods. . . .
3.Subprime loans are six times more likely in predominantly black neighborhoods in Baltimore than in white neighborhoods. . . .
4.Homeowners in middle-income predominantly black neighbor- hoods in Baltimore are almost four times as likely as homeowners in middle-income white neighborhoods to have subprime loans. . . .
5.The findings are similar when borrowers (rather than neigh- borhoods) throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area are examined. . . .
6.Like originations, the subprime share of foreclosures is highest in low-income and predominantly black neighborhoods.
In the HUD’s own words, Baltimore’s African American residents bore an “unequal burden” of the burgeoning high-cost and subprime mortgage product market. Baltimore’s attorneys have filed for the third time in the suit against Wells Fargo in an effort to persuade the court of the merit of the discrimination claim. Will the numbers ultimately speak for themselves? An attorney in both the Baltimore and Memphis suits explained to a Memphis newspaper why the data reveal disparities that are, absent racial targeting, hard to explain: “Wells [Fargo] is getting it eight times more wrong in the black community than in the white community [in Memphis]. . . . That just can’t happen in and of itself. What it means is they’re making loans they know at the time can’t succeed. Or they’re pricing people beyond their means or too high.”
If most Americans know about any single piece of litigation, it is likely not to be Marbury v. Madison, which established the Supreme Court’s power of constitutional judicial review, or the civil rights landmark of Brown v. Board of Education. Instead, it involves the more ordinary circumstances of Stella Liebeck, the 79 year old victim of a coffee spill at a McDonald’s drive-thru. The story became a staple of attacks on the civil justice system as an example of frivolous litigation, runaway juries, and activist judges who were denying personal responsibility and threatening American business.
As I describe in Un-Making Law: The Conservative Campaign to Roll Back the Common Law (Beacon, 2004), the facts are different than the legend. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns that required skin grafts and a week of hospitalization because McDonald’s served its coffee thirty degrees hotter than its competitors, too hot to drink but hot enough to burn. Prior to Liebeck’s case, McDonald’s had received over 700 complaints about the temperature. Even then, the jury reduced Liebeck’s compensatory damages by twenty percent because she was partly at fault, and the judge cut the jury’s punitive damage award from $2.7 million (the jury’s estimate of how much McDonald’s made from two days’ coffee sales) to $480,000.
Liebeck’s story has been retold in a documentary film, Hot Coffee, that premiered at film festivals and on HBO this year and is now available on DVD. Susan Saladoff, a successful Oregon trial lawyer, gave up her law practice and devoted two years to making the film. Hot Coffee graphically portrays Liebeck’s story, showing her as an ordinary senior citizen, not a greedy plaintiff, and shows in grisly detail the effects of her burns.
The film also gives a broader picture of corporate America’s attempt to transform the civil justice system. For example, it presents the story of Oliver Diaz, Mississippi Supreme Court Justice who was opposed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a heavily financed smear campaign that was fictionalized in John Grisham’s novel The Appeal. It attacks mandatory arbitration clauses through which workers and consumers are denied access to the courts, using the story of Jamie Leigh Jones, a Halliburton employee in Iraq whose allegations of gang rape were blocked from litigation by her employment contract.
Hot Coffee and Un-Making Law tell related versions of the same story. My book describes the conservative transformation of tort, contract, and property law in historical perspective and great detail. As a visual medium, the film is visceral. And both end with a call to action that is echoed in the Occupy Wall Street movement—it’s time to reclaim law as a progressive force for the benefit of ordinary people.
Rita Nakashima Brock, PhD is Founding Director of Faith Voices for the Common Good (www.faithvoices.org). Her latest book, Saving Paradise, co-authored with Rebecca Parker, was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of 2008.
Wednesday, I hopped on a city bus and headed to Frank Ogawa Plaza at Oakland city hall for a liberation Bible Study led by the Seminary of the Street whose motto is "Meet Us at the Corner of Love and Justice!"
I never made it to the Bible study. Instead, I got pulled into a heated conversation with the legal advisor for Mayor Jean Quan, Dan Siegel, who is a labor rights and sex discrimination attorney of 35 years. A young man showed Siegel a huge dark mottled bullseye-shaped bruise that covered his left midsection, caused by a rubber bullet. Siegel had been at the protests Tuesday night, witnessed the unwarranted police violence against demonstrators, and was tear-gassed himself. He did not defend the city's actions and made it clear his advice had been not to conduct the raid. He urged us to come back every evening and grow the movement.
I think the 99% Movement may wind up being Obama's greatest legacy, partly because he has disappointed so many on issues such as health care, financial reform, and the wars. We are going to have to create change we can believe in.
On election day in 2008, I worked in Oakland at a polling place near downtown. An enormous number of determined, hopeful young people cast their ballots that day. I remember thinking at the time that the Obama campaign had trained an entire generation of idealistic young people into a hard-core, boots-on-the-ground, community-organizing style of activism. Then, he had delivered to them the biggest success of their lives. Whatever happened in his presidency, they were never going to forget how it felt to succeed, and they were going to be a trained, effective generation of activists. They were going to understand how much intense work social change requires. They were going to have enough skills to negotiate complex differences, listen respectfully, and work really, really hard for months and months.
The 99% Movement I have been seeing in Oakland has that bedrock of good will, determination, and complexity. Its processes of consensus, its liturgical style of discussion--the people's mic--that requires the crowd to listen carefully to the speaker and repeat their words out loud so they can be heard, and its surprising patience with process and decision-making make it a different kind of movement that is puzzling to pundits. It has no messianic leader but a lot of good thinkers and leaders, no single issue with a list of demands but a lot of things they want done, and no one lead organization but a vast coalition of groups.
Anger there is, for sure, and it erupted Wednesday around a rush to take down the cyclone fence the police had erected around the site of the occupation. The conflict started near where I was standing. A back and forth physical struggle over the fence lasted a half-hour before it was dismantled and the parts were neatly stacked in piles. But the anger about the fence lacked a hard self-righteousness I've seen often among activists. Instead, the anger of those attacking the fence came from sorrow. The first few to attack the fence said they had been camping since the first day. They felt as if their home and neighborhood had been destroyed--it was a real community when I visited it on its fifth day, complete with a children's play tent, Sukkot Booth, and first aid station. Those opposing taking down the fence didn't want to provoke any more police violence. The argument about the fence at Occupy Oakland on Facebook (which doubled its members between Tuesday night and Thursday morning) did not dissolve into polemical posturing, but remained a debate with a lot of points of view and calls for respect.
Ogawa Plaza was filled last night with so many fierce, determined young people. The younger men are not the kind of males I demonstrated with in my generation who tended to ignore or shove the females aside. And the women exhibit confidence--I saw quite a number of courageous women calling for nonviolence and standing up to angry men. At one point, when I wanted to ask Dan Siegel a question, I was too short to be seen and too far back to be heard, so I asked my question to a tall young white man standing next to me thinking he might ask it. Instead, he pressed politely several times saying "this lady has a good question; let her ask it." And I got my chance.
At first the prohibition on amplified sound at Occupy Wall Street was seen as a handicap that led to the "people's mic" in which people have to speak in short phrases and everyone repeats their words. This ancient liturgical method has forced deeper listening and respect for speakers, and it has created a movement comfortable with complexity and patient with process. Without amplified sound, the 99% Movement has used, instead, the largest most effective microphone ever invented, the internet, and it's an international sound system.
At the end of the General Assembly in Oakland last night, someone announced that a message of support and solidarity had come from organizers in Tahrir Square, who were planning a march for Oakland on Friday. A huge roar of joy and jubilation erupted, then people headed to the BART station to join the protesters in San Francisco, where police were gathered in force to evict the occupation. In response, the Oakland police closed all the nearby BART stations. An Occupy Oakland Facebook post Thursday morning said that the eviction was called off because there were too many protesters--including members of the city Board of Supervisors who sat with the protesters.
As I was leaving downtown Oakland to catch a bus home, I saw an older man in a blue suit and tie, carrying a sign, "I am 65 and retired. I have 4 grandchildren and I'm with the 99%." Whatever happens in this election year, the new generation of activists I've seen in Oakland are my reason for hope, and there's room here for all ages. Together, we must create the changes we believe in.
“With extraordinary grace and clarity, Anita Hill weaves the story of her family with that of other American families struggling to find and define homes for themselves. What emerges is a powerful story of our nation’s ongoing quest for equality of opportunity, viewed through the eyes of the people who have been deeply engaged in that quest. Beautifully written, elegantly seen, compellingly argued.” --Robert Reich
From the heroic lawyer who spoke out against Clarence Thomas in the historic confirmation hearings twenty years ago, Anita Hill's first book since the best-selling Speaking Truth to Power.
In 1991, Anita Hill's courageous testimony during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings sparked a national conversation on sexual harassment and women's equality in politics and the workplace. Today, she turns her attention to another potent and enduring symbol of economic success and equality-the home. Hill details how the current housing crisis, resulting in the devastation of so many families, so many communities, and even whole cities, imperils every American's ability to achieve the American Dream.
Hill takes us on a journey that begins with her own family story and ends with the subprime mortgage meltdown. Along the way, she invites us into homes across America, rural and urban, and introduces us to some extraordinary African American women. As slavery ended, Mollie Elliott, Hill's ancestor, found herself with an infant son and no husband. Yet, she bravely set course to define for generations to come what it meant to be a free person of color. On the eve of the civil rights and women's rights movements, Lorraine Hansberry's childhood experience of her family's fight against racial restrictions in a Chicago neighborhood ended tragically for the Hansberry family. Yet, that episode shaped Lorraine's hopeful account of early suburban integration in her iconic American drama A Raisin in the Sun. Two decades later, Marla, a divorced mother, endeavors to keep her children safe from a growing gang presence in 1980s Los Angeles. Her story sheds light on the fears and anxiety countless parents faced during an era of growing neighborhood isolation, and that continue today. In the midst of the 2008 recession, hairdresser Anjanette Booker's dogged determination to keep her Baltimore home and her salon reflects a commitment to her own independence and to her community's economic and social viability. Finally, Hill shares her own journey to a place and a state of being at home that brought her from her roots in rural Oklahoma to suburban Boston, Massachusetts, and connects her own search for home with that of women and men set adrift during the foreclosure crisis.
The ability to secure a place that provides access to every opportunity our country has to offer is central to the American Dream. To achieve that ideal, Hill argues, we and our leaders must engage in a new conversation about what it takes to be at home in America. Pointing out that the inclusive democracy our Constitution promises is bigger than the current debate about legal rights, she presents concrete proposals that encourage us to reimagine equality. Hill offers a twenty-first-century vision of America-not a vision of migration, but one of roots; not one simply of tolerance, but one of belonging; not just of rights, but also of community-a community of equals.