‘Up in the air’: If displaced by storm, where to call home?
By RUSS BYNUM and GARY D. ROBERTSON
Wednesday, September 19
BENNETTSVILLE, S.C. (AP) — As the pounding rains from Hurricane Florence finally ended, Lutrice Garcia left the shelter where she had spent several nights on a cot and tried to head home. But floodwaters from overflowing Crooked Creek covered the road and an emergency responder told her water was seeping into the houses.
The 28-year-old nurse had left photo albums and other important keepsakes stashed on high shelves before she fled Friday. She worried about the wedding dress she plans to wear on her big day in November, still hanging in the closet.
With the creek still rising, Garcia mostly wondered if the home she recently finished repairing from Hurricane Matthew’s flood damage in 2016 would once again wind up uninhabitable. Her mother lives nearby, but already has eight other relatives under her roof. If she can’t go home, Garcia isn’t sure where she’ll go.
“It’s up in the air. I’m just taking it day by day,” Garcia said Tuesday as she returned to the middle school where more than 30 people remained in a disaster shelter in rural Marlboro County in northeast South Carolina.
Officials overseeing evacuations and emergency rescues following Florence’s catastrophic crawl across the Carolinas will soon face a long, hard recovery. Among the first tasks: finding temporary housing for thousands whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged by the storm’s coastal surge and inland floods.
It’s too early to say how many will end up homeless because of Florence, as rivers swollen by days of rain still threaten to swamp communities barely touched by the storm’s landfall. North Carolina had about 10,000 people in shelters Tuesday, and South Carolina had another 320. Many could need a place to stay for weeks, even months.
They might get vouchers to stay in hotels, or rent to move into apartments. Some could get trailers deployed after disasters by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The federal government has approved major disaster declarations for the Carolinas, meaning immediate funds can go to help with damage repairs and recovery.
Tom Farigone of the Incident Management Assistance Team at FEMA said “everything was on the table” in terms of possible temporary housing.
“But our first priority is to get people out of areas that are immediately dangerous to their health and into a safe, sanitary and secure temporary shelter-like accommodation,” Farigone said. “And then we will move them into something that better suits their needs.”
FEMA officials have been in North Carolina for days looking at housing options, said Mike Sprayberry, director the state Division of Emergency Management. He said they expect to use FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, which uses state and federal funds to house displaced residents in hotels.
The demand for hotel rooms for Florence’s victims could be much greater than after Hurricane Matthew. While 4,000 evacuees found protection in North Carolina shelters during Matthew, that number during Florence peaked at over 20,000.
FEMA reduced its reliance on trailers after they became symbols of the troubled federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when more than 144,000 trailers were deployed to Louisiana and Mississippi.
The agency’s downsized trailer stock led to shortages last year amid high demand after Hurricane Harvey slammed Texas and Hurricane Irma struck Florida. FEMA had just 1,700 trailers when Harvey hit in August 2017, and the agency rushed to put out bids for an additional 4,500.
FEMA hasn’t said how many trailers it has available after Florence, but agency officials have said they’re better prepared this hurricane season than in the past.
The long-term recovery will take years. Although more than $740 million in federal, state and local funds have been spent to address Matthew’s damages, North Carolina officials are still working to distribute $236 million allocated by the federal government last year to help reimburse or pay for extensive home repairs.
Jackie and Quinton Washington lost their home in Lumberton, North Carolina, to flooding during Matthew. They finished rebuilding last October. Then on Friday the couple and their two children evacuated again as the Lumber River began overflowing.
Even before the river crested, photos from neighbors showed the Washingtons’ house surrounded by water Monday, with the river still expected to rise several more feet.
“So it’s pretty much we’ve lost the house again. There’ no doubt about it,” Jackie said from her mother’s home in Rock Hill.
She said her family should be fine staying with relatives, as they did after Matthew. Their greatest worry is affording another round of rebuilding. FEMA gave the Washingtons $20,000 two years ago, not nearly enough to cover the cost, she said. They couldn’t afford flood or homeowners insurance then, and they don’t have it now. Every extra dollar the couple had went into rebuilding the first time around.
“Our whole life savings is in that house,” Jackie said. “And now it’s gone again.”
Robertson reported from Raleigh, North Carolina. Associated Press writers Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, and Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this story.
For the latest on Hurricane Florence, visit https://www.apnews.com/tag/Hurricanes
Puerto Rico has not recovered from Hurricane Maria
Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, University of Texas at Austin
Disclosure statement: Lauren Lluveras does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Puerto Rico was in crisis long before Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20, 2017.
For years, this U.S. territory had been struggling with debt, economic crisis and drought. In May 2017, the government defaulted on US$73 billion in loans and declared bankruptcy.
Then Hurricane Maria slammed the island with 155-mph winds and coastal flooding that rose to 6 feet within 30 minutes of landfall. The storm caused the longest power blackout in U.S. history.
Sixty-four Puerto Ricans died during Maria and an estimated 2,975 Puerto Ricans perished from hurricane-related problems in the five months afterwards – many from treatable chronic illnesses because the power outage prevented them from getting antibiotics, insulin and other medical care.
To say that the island of 3.3 million has not yet recovered – from the damage or the trauma – is an understatement. One year after Maria, nearly every pillar of Puerto Rican society remains devastated.
Here’s a snapshot of Puerto Rico today, based on my academic research and visits to family who stayed on the island both during and after the hurricane.
1. The economy
A few months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s government proposed significant changes to the fiscal plan put in place in 2017 by the federally appointed financial management board that has run Puerto Rico’s economy since its bankruptcy.
In light of Puerto Rico’s post-disaster needs, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló sought to ease some cuts to education and public services while still paying down Puerto Rico’s $73 billion debt.
But the oversight board objected, calling certain proposals “inconsistent” with the fiscal board’s mandate to restructure the Puerto Rican economy.
The ongoing austerity measures have complicated Puerto Rico attempts to recover economically from Maria.
Small businesses, the island’s main job creators, are struggling. Roughly 8,000 of Puerto Rico’s 45,000 small employers have closed up shop over the last year.
Four in 10 Puerto Ricans reported losing a job in the storm’s aftermath.
Maria also destroyed nearly all agricultural production in Puerto Rico.
Overnight, farmers who were already struggling with climate change and lack of agricultural workers saw nearly 80 percent of their crops destroyed – a US$780 million loss.
There is one bright spot: For the first time since 2013, unemployment on the island is below 10 percent because rebuilding has created so many construction jobs. Those positions, however, are temporary.
Puerto Rico’s economy isn’t expected to stabilize for another five years.
2. Health care
All of Puerto Rico’s 93 clinics and hospitals have reopened since Maria.
But its health care sector remains devastated by the storm.
An estimated 500 to 700 physicians and surgeons out of roughly 10,000 on the island have left since Hurricane Maria.
According to Dr. Wendy Matos, executive director of the University of Puerto Rico’s faculty practice plan, most health service providers in Puerto Rico are privately owned. That means the bad news about shuttered small businesses and mass unemployment applies to the island’s health care sector.
Just before Maria hit, the Urban Institute think tank found that 72 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities lacked adequate primary care services in relation to their population and health risk.
The storm did not improve coverage. Today, just 20 health centers in Puerto Rico – roughly one-fifth of all medical facilities – provide primary and preventative care services.
Eleven months after Hurricane Maria knocked out Puerto Rico’s power, the island’s department of energy announced on Aug. 15, 2018 that electricity was fully restored.
Early on in the blackout, many Puerto Ricans hoped the power crisis would lead Puerto Rico to build a cleaner, more sustainable power grid. The island generates almost half of its electricity by burning oil or diesel.
Instead, the island’s power authority struggled just to function, churning through three directors and five chief executives in the past year.
Some residents grew so tired of waiting for their lights to come on that they repaired power lines themselves.
On June 20, 2018, Gov. Rosselló signed a controversial bill putting the island power authority up for sale, saying it would allow the island to “jump into new energy models.”
Many islanders feared that privatizing the public utility would worsen its existing problems with mismanagement and corruption. Environmentalists counter the move actually stunts any hope of a green energy shift.
Half of the authority’s board members resigned in protest.
Education is another of Hurricane Maria’s casualties.
This past summer, Puerto Rico closed 283 schools – about a quarter of all public primary educational facilities – due to dropping enrollment.
Almost 39,000 fewer students registered for the 2018 school year, according to Puerto Rico’s Department of Education, presumably because their families emigrated.
The Department of Education says that its $300 million deficit, which existed prior to the hurricane, did not drive the school closures.
Hurricane Maria has brought new urgency to an old debate about Puerto Rico’s status as a United States territory.
The island is home to an estimated 2.5 million voting-age American citizens who cannot vote for any representatives in Congress.
Though lawmakers in Florida, New Jersey and New York have tried to advocate for Puerto Ricans’ needs since Maria, island residents are effectively “disenfranchised,” says Gov. Rosselló.
Many commentators have observed that Puerto Ricans’ lack of political representation may explain why the island’s recovery has lagged, equating its territorial status with second-class citizenship.
But the number of Puerto Ricans who can vote in federal elections is growing. An estimated 135,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida, New York, Texas and Pennsylvania since Maria.
Voter advocacy groups are connecting with these new Latino voters ahead of the upcoming midterm congressional elections.
On Sept. 7, a federal judge ordered 32 Florida counties to ensure Puerto Ricans can cast ballots in Spanish.
Before Maria, politicians may have found it easy enough to disregard Puerto Ricans. Now, they represent an angry and energized electorate in some of the country’s most important swing states.
Politics and paper towels: Disputing disaster death tolls
Author: Korey Pasch
PhD Candidate in Political Science and International Relations, Queen’s University, Ontario
Disclosure statement: Korey Pasch does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: Queen’s University, Ontario provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation CA.
Hurricane Florence’s battering of the southern United States has brought natural disasters and their devastating impacts back into the daily news cycle.
The Atlantic hurricane season is in full swing and while earlier assessments predicted a normal year compared to 2017’s monstrous season, 2018 is now poised to potentially set records for the number of named storms occurring simultaneously.
Layered on top of updates on Florence’s strength and path in recent days, as well as warnings to citizens about how to protect themselves, was an ongoing tirade from U.S. President Donald Trump disputing the death toll of last year’s Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
Trump’s gale of tweets was unleashed when a new study from the Milken Institute School of Public Health of George Washington University estimated a revised death toll of almost 3,000 due to the hurricane.
Trump’s self-serving objections aside, this is not the first time Hurricane Maria’s death toll had been revised. The numbers have been adjusted several times, with estimates varying from a Harvard study that pegged it between 800 to 8,500 dead to the government of Puerto Rico’s confirmation in early August that 1,427 people died as a result of Maria’s fury.
But more importantly, Trump’s display of self-serving, defensive narcissism as he disputed Maria’s death toll has demonstrated in real time what many observers and students of disasters and the politics that surround them have long known: Disaster death tolls are notoriously difficult to determine accurately.
That’s despite our best efforts, and amid obvious attempts to use these estimates for political purposes.
What’s in a number?
As scholars and practitioners in the governance area of disasters have made clear, there are limitations to the accuracy of estimates for a variety of reasons.
These include the unique conditions of each disaster as it unfolds, its immediate aftermath and disputes about who gets counted and who doesn’t.
As we have seen with the evolution of Hurricane Maria’s death toll, the numbers are subject to change and revision. In the case of Maria, the number has gone from the 16 deaths Trump cited when he visited the island and tossed half as many paper towel rolls into a crowd to the estimates of 3,000 we see the president angrily disputing today.
Because air-tight accuracy can be difficult when estimating disaster death tolls, it’s unsurprising these numbers are not only contentious but are also leveraged politically. Death tolls, along with other estimates of a storm’s strength, size and impact, (such as the Saffir-Simpson Scale that rates hurricanes by category), as well as damages estimated in total economic loss or insured losses, can all be used for political purposes.
Playing politics with perception
As I have written previously, disasters are immensely powerful and costly events that spawn a variety of responses and strategies.
While novel financing mechanisms and insurance strategies are certainly one way to address them, another is to manage the public’s perceptions regarding a particular natural disaster.
Political strategies aimed at shifting public perceptions are obviously nothing new, but they’re becoming even more important given the effects of climate change and increasingly intense weather systems. Trump’s howls of outrage over Hurricane Maria’s estimated death toll are likely aimed at changing public perceptions about the scope of the disaster, but it’s important to understand that he’s is hardly an innovator in this area.
Indeed, studies have shown that even the declaration of states of emergency within the United States are subject to political considerations. Researchers have demonstrated that FEMA disaster payments in different states are dependent on political considerations due to upcoming elections and races important to the president and his party.
Other governments have leveraged disaster death tolls and other statistics for political purposes. In his 2015 book The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer, John Mutter highlighted two cases in which governments have utilized death tolls for political purposes: Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, and Taiwan following Typhoon Morakot that struck the country in 2009.
What is most interesting about these two examples is that the death tolls were used for contrasting purposes.
In the Haitian case, Mutter points to evidence that the government inflated the death toll due to the earthquake in order to solicit more donations and humanitarian aid.
Mutter says the government of Taiwan, on the other hand, chose to downplay the number of dead in the aftermath of the typhoon. This was due to a desire to be viewed as in control as well as more developed, as higher death toll numbers would negatively impact public perceptions of Taiwan.
What Florence and the inevitable storms to follow should underscore is that it’s important to remain critical of the narratives that are presented in the aftermath of these events. Politicians have many reasons to both underestimate and overestimate death tolls in the aftermath of natural disasters.
While we should continuously strive for the most accurate assessments of the impacts of these events, politics will continue to play an important role in which figures receive primacy and why.
Financial Health Indicators
Westerville Earns Rare “Positive Financial Outlook” from Auditor of State Scorecard Rates
The City of Westerville continues its tradition of excellent financial stewardship by earning a “positive outlook” on all 17 of the Ohio Auditor of State’s Financial Health Indicators (FHI) for 2017.
With its final numbers for FY 2017 submitted this summer, Westerville is one of three Central Ohio cities to receive a perfect scorecard.
Each City and County are evaluated based on their performances within a number of indicators. In turn, each City receives a rating per indicator of either a “positive outlook,” “cautionary” or a “critical outlook.”
The data collected is presented in a scorecard format, providing a high-level view of the financial health of Ohio cities and counties. Read the 2017 Financial Health Indicator Report.
The City has a history of outstanding financial performance, with an Aaa rating from Moody’s Investors Service and an Aaa rating from S&P. Westerville’s financial position can be attributed to the conservative nature of City Council and the administration, coupled with the considerable growth seen over the last several years. Westerville also continues to benefit from a strong local economy. Taxable resources, including assessed property valuations and income levels, continue to show consistent growth.
For 34 consecutive years, the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) has awarded a Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting to the City for its Comprehensive Annual Financial Reporting. The GFOA award, earned by less than 2% of the nation’s government entities, demonstrates a constructive spirit of financial disclosure to the community it serves.
Learn more about the City of Westerville’s Finance Division at www.westerville.org/finance.
Trump’s tariffs could sow trouble for GOP in farm districts
By KEVIN FREKING and NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS
Wednesday, September 19
SPANGLE, Wash. (AP) — In the aptly named Harvester Restaurant, wheat farmer Roy Dube makes clear he’s no fan of President Donald Trump’s trade policy.
“We get him elected into office and he pulls us out of trade agreements,” Dube said last week as local farmers gathered to hear Democratic House candidate Lisa Brown.
Dube says China is buying less wheat from eastern Washington farmers and Trump’s policies have opened the door for Australia and Canada to wrestle away business. His frustration extends to his congressional representative, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who is the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House and running for an eighth term.
“I’m concerned that Cathy McMorris Rodgers didn’t put up more resistance,” Dube said.
The U.S. tariffs on agriculture products, sown by Trump, have grown into an election-year threat to Republicans in rural districts that are heavily reliant on exports for their economy. With the livelihoods of farmers at risk, opposition to the tariffs could make a difference in some races and help determine which party takes control of Congress.
McMorris Rodgers has made it clear she opposes the president’s actions on tariffs, but so far, the Republican-controlled House has not taken up legislation to block them. Democrats characterize GOP lawmakers as unable or unwilling to check Trump, who has declared that “tariffs are the greatest.”
“My opponent, though she would say she’s concerned and talking to the administration about these issues, she’s still mostly a cheerleader for the president,” said Brown, a former state legislator.
Facing what appears to be the tightest re-election race of her career, McMorris Rodgers is emphasizing that she has encouraged the president to “move from tariffs to agreement.”
“I have made it very clear that I don’t support the across-the-board tariffs, that we should take a more targeted approach,” McMorris Rodgers told The Associated Press.
Clues that the president’s trade policies will play a role in the November midterm elections can be seen in Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s travel schedule. Over the past few months, he’s been to Eastern Washington to join McMorris Rodgers in meeting with farmers. He’s also been to California’s Central Valley to meet with farmers in the districts of Republican Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao. He also went to Iowa, where Republican Reps. David Young and Rod Blum are both in close races.
The battle for the Senate could also be affected by the tariff issue, particularly in North Dakota, Indiana and Missouri, where Republicans hope to knock off three Democratic incumbents.
The president has tried to allay farmers’ concerns with an aid package of up to $12 billion to help them weather the trade war.
J. Read Smith, a rancher near St. John, Washington, said he shares Trump’s goal of seeking a level playing field in trade.
“But antagonizing our trading partners is not the way to do it,” said Smith, who emphasized that he is not a Democrat. “I’m an American.”
Aaron Flansburg, who runs a diversified farm near Pullman, Washington, said he’s skeptical the tariffs will change the way most farmers vote, though.
“Farmers often vote for Republicans,” Flansburg said. “Whether that will change, I have my doubts.”
McMorris Rodgers said it’s her sense that voters are willing to give the president time to negotiate better agreements.
“Yes, there’s a lot of uncertainty. There’s a sense that we need to get these trade agreements into place as soon as possible, but there’s also a recognition that for too long America has not taken action, especially against China,” she said.
In July, the United States began imposing a tax on $34 billion in Chinese imports. Last month, it added tariffs to $16 billion in Chinese goods and is readying taxes on an additional $200 billion worth. China retaliated with its own tariffs on U.S. products. The world’s two biggest economies are clashing over allegations that China steals technology from American companies.
The Trump administration also announced that it will begin taxing $200 billion in Chinese goods starting Monday. The tariffs will start at 10 percent and rise to 25 percent in 2019.
The Trump administration also imposed a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and a 10 percent tariff on imported aluminum that included imports from the European Union, Canada and Mexico — and just about everyone else — in the name of national security.
Those tariffs also drew retaliation. For example, the EU targeted bourbon, a key industry in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, where Republican Rep. Andy Barr and Democratic challenger Amy McGrath are battling in a close election.
Overall, about 6 in 10 Americans disapprove of how the president is handling trade negotiations with other countries.
Farm groups have testified in congressional hearings that retaliatory tariffs increase the cost of their products for customers abroad, giving foreign competitors an edge.
“The current tariffs, continuing back-and-forth retaliatory actions and trade uncertainties are hitting American agriculture from all sides and are causing us to lose our markets. Once you lose a market, it is really tough to get it back,” said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau.
Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who is overseeing Democratic efforts in House races, pointed to Iowa as a state where he believes the administration’s tariffs could backfire. He said primary turnout was up, in part because small family farmers and the businesses they buy from are worried. “I really believe that in those districts, you’ll see people come forward and hold everyone accountable not standing up for them,” Lujan said.
GOP lawmakers from Iowa, including Young and Blum, signed onto a letter calling on the president to act quickly to save rural economies. Blum also wrote Trump separately urging him to “consider the consequences tariffs have on American manufacturers.”
When the president visited Blum’s district a few days later, he thanked him for his “political courage” on trade.
“You’ve taken some heat for it in the short term, but in the long run, the farmers, the manufacturers, the employers are all going to be better off,” Blum told the president.
His Democratic challenger, Abby Finkenauer, has seized on that thank you.
“There is no way he should stand there and thank the administration for throwing the livelihoods of Iowans in flux,” Finkenauer said.
Republicans are putting their faith in the economy.
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said that he personally views tariffs as damaging in the long term but that it’s not an issue that constituents bring up.
“As long as the economy overall is doing well, it’s hard to see losing on tariff issues,” Cole said.
Freking reported from Washington, D.C. Associated Press writer Juana Summers in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
One big problem with how Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos are spending a small share of their fortune
Postdoctoral Fellow, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main
Ted Lechterman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, recently announced a plan to spend US$2 billion of their $164 billion fortune on homeless shelters and preschools.
Since Jeff Bezos has taken flack for giving away far less of his money than some other billionaires, such as Bill Gates, the announcement may look like a sign that this tech titan is becoming more generous. The announcement also responds to criticism of the $1 billion per year that Bezos already spends on Blue Origin, his space travel experiment.
But as a political theorist who studies the ethics of philanthropy, I think Bezos’s charitable turn raises grave concerns about the pervasive power of business moguls.
The Bezos family’s philanthropy is following an unsettling pattern in terms of its timing. Amazon’s market value had recently topped $1 trillion, raising more questions than ever around Amazon’s overwhelming size and power.
This wasn’t the first time that Bezos effectively redirected attention from Amazon’s immense clout with a big announcement about philanthropy. When news broke in 2017 that Amazon was acquiring Whole Foods, raising new concerns about the company’s retail domination, Bezos made a dramatic public appeal through Twitter for advice on how to focus his giving.
The timing may have been coincidental both times, but the suspicion that philanthropy distracts the public from questionable conduct or economic injustice is a familiar worry. Since the days of robber barons like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, social critics have charged that philanthropy is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
This cynical view holds that magnificent acts of generosity are nothing more than cunning attempts to consolidate power. Like dictators who use “bread and circuses” to pacify the masses, the super-rich give away chunks of their fortunes to shield themselves from public scrutiny and defuse calls for eliminating tax breaks or raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
Good intentions are not enough
Today, political theorists who study philanthropy – like Emma Saunders-Hastings and Rob Reich – tend to think the problem is more complicated. They accept that many philanthropists are sincere in their desire to help others, and the solutions donors develop are sometimes remarkably innovative.
But they also contend that noble intentions and strategic thinking aren’t enough to make philanthropy legitimate. And my own research reaches a similar verdict.
That’s because massive donations can perpetuate inequality and threaten democracy in several ways.
Dramatic acts of charity by the ultra-wealthy may reduce pressure on governments to tackle poverty and inequality comprehensively. Depending on private benefactors for access to basic necessities can reinforce social hierarchies. And when the elite spend their own money on essential public services like housing the homeless and education for low-income children, it lets the rich mold social policy to their own preferences or even whims.
In other words, even if Bezos has great ideas, no one elected him or hired him to house the homeless and educate kids before they enter kindergarten. Great wealth is not a qualification for all jobs.
The tax deductibility of the donations made by the richest Americans can exacerbate these concerns because it effectively subsidizes their giving. Some scholars argue that the point of tax incentives is to encourage donations for things the government can’t or shouldn’t support directly – like maintaining a church property.
Observers, including MarketWatch reporter Kari Paul and Guardian columnist Marina Hyde, have noted that if people like Bezos and the businesses they lead were to stop fighting for low tax rates, democratically elected officials would have more money to spend tackling big problems like homelessness and other urgent priorities.
By making tax-deductible donations, they argue, Bezos is effectively diverting tax dollars to fuel his private judgments about public policy.
Questions about accountability and generosity
My research indicates that using tax deductions to supply essential public services, such as education and housing assistance, may be a misuse of this privilege because it has the potential to undermine democratic control.
Members of the public have a vital interest in being able to oversee the provision of goods and services that support their most basic needs. This kind of accountability is possible only when these needs are served by democratic governments, not rich benefactors operating in their place.
And Bezos’s behavior as a businessman has raised other questions about his generosity and respect for democracy. When Amazon’s hometown of Seattle proposed to tackle runaway housing costs with a tax on the city’s largest employers, Amazon resisted. The city backed off after the company threatened to scale down its Seattle operations if the bill passed.
It may seem odd that someone who opposed a tax intended to help cover housing costs for his low-income neighbors would want to spend part of his fortune on housing. But to me it makes sense, because in my view, Jeff Bezos’s beef isn’t with his duties to help the least fortunate, but with the limits on economic power that democracy requires.
Opinion: Energy Efficiency Is Key to Reducing Inequality
By Basav Sen
This summer saw record-busting heat across the United States, with 90- to 100-degree days throughout the East, South and Midwest lasting well into September.
When temperatures soar, so do electric bills. These rising bills are an aggravation for most people. But for 31 percent of American households, they can be much worse. They can force families to choose between paying their electricity bills and being able to put food on the table, or fill their prescriptions.
They can lead to people turning off the air conditioner to save electricity, which can have deadly consequences for elderly asthma patients. Or they might have to skip payments, risking disconnection.
These 31 percent of Americans are the ones considered “energy insecure,” according to U.S. government data. Every hot summer — and every cold winter — presents difficult choices.
That number is unacceptably high on its own, but it’s much higher for some populations. It rises to 51 percent for households with annual income below $20,000, 52 percent for black households, and 62 percent for Native American and Alaska Native households.
Think about this for a moment. In one of the richest countries in the world, almost a third of people — and most people of color and poor people — have trouble paying for enough energy to live a healthy and comfortable existence.
We’re not talking about being able to heat a swimming pool or operate a large number of electronic gadgets at home. We’re talking about heating one’s home adequately in a frigid winter or keeping it cool enough to avoid serious health consequences during a blistering summer heat wave.
We often hear that fossil fuels are a necessary source of affordable electricity. But it’s plain as day that our fossil-fuel-powered, dirty energy system is leaving millions of people out.
At the same time, the very people who can least afford the benefits of our energy system are paying a disproportionate share of its costs. One illustration of these unfair costs is the stark racial disparity in exposure to nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants produced by burning fossil fuels. Another is the higher rate of pollution-related asthma experienced by people of color and poor people.
One key tool to address these inter-related problems is energy efficiency, I argue in a recent Institute for Policy Studies report.
Energy efficiency isn’t just about lowering power bills or limiting pollution. It can also be a tool for mitigating some of the deepest inequalities in our society. Energy efficiency addresses the inequalities of energy insecurity and environmental injustice at both ends, by making energy bills more affordable for vulnerable people while also reducing the need for energy production (and therefore reducing the associated pollution).
Just and effective energy efficiency policy must include mechanisms to ensure that the most affected people have access to its benefits. In the IPS report details many successful mechanisms to do that across the country.
These include requiring utilities to fund energy efficiency programs for low-income households, and to offer assistance for low-income households facing imminent disconnection for unpaid bills. Illinois has passed legislation with these provisions for utilities. Other states, like Maine and New York, fund energy efficiency programs for low-income households themselves.
Other smart ideas include doing outreach about energy efficiency programs to people who need it the most, ideally performed by community members themselves. Knoxville, Tennessee, for example, employs local young people as ambassadors to perform energy efficiency outreach in their own communities.
Energy efficiency isn’t just an expense — it’s a huge job creator. Nationally, it’s responsible for more than double the number of fossil fuel extraction and power production jobs combined. In Oregon, smart state policy has led to nearly half of new energy efficiency jobs going to people who have been left out of the fossil fuel economy, like women and people of color.
Energy insecurity isn’t insurmountable. States and cities can make life-saving energy accessible to poor and vulnerable people with well-designed energy efficiency policy, so no one has to choose between paying for food or keeping the heat on in an Alaska winter, and no one has to turn off the air-conditioner to save electricity in an Arizona summer.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.