Senate GOP quietly pushing pay freeze for federal workers amid deadly pandemic: ​'Cruel slap in the face'

With the government set to shut down in just two weeks without action from Congress, Senate Republicans are advocating an across-the-board pay freeze for civilian federal workers in 2021 as part of their plan to fund agencies amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crisis.

Employee organizations and Democratic lawmakers reacted with outrage after Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee quietly unveiled their pay-freeze proposal earlier this month, with the largest union of federal workers calling the plan a "cruel slap in the face to those who have risked their lives to maintain government services for all Americans during the worst health crisis in our lifetimes."

"Trying to outdo President Trump in disrespecting federal employees by eliminating even the paltry raise he put forth is completely unwarranted and will only worsen the government's ability to function effectively," Everett Kelley, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) said in a statement. "There is no justification for denying our civil servants a decent pay increase next year. We call on lawmakers to reject this insulting maneuver."

Jessica Klement, staff vice president for programs and policy at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, noted that "this is a year when federal employees have stepped up to respond to a global pandemic, with tens of thousands on the frontlines working on behalf of the American people and contracting Covid-19 in the process."

"Yet they face the prospect of a pay freeze," said Klement. "That's not just an affront to public service; it's a policy that risks losing highly competent and productive employees from the ranks of our federal government, to the detriment of the citizens they serve."

The GOP proposal—which falls short of Trump's call for a meager 1% across-the-board pay increase for federal workers in 2021—came as lawmakers are working to avert what would be a devastating government shutdown amid twin public health and economic crises with no end in sight. If Congress fails to reach an agreement or Trump refuses to sign off, the government will shut down on December 11.

Earlier this week, House and Senate appropriators reportedly reached an agreement on a framework for an omnibus spending package, but the details of the $1.4 trillion legislation—including whether the deal includes the GOP's proposed pay freeze or coronavirus relief—remain secret. Some House Democrats have pushed for a 3% across-the-board pay raise for civilian federal employees.

"Even with an allocations deal in place," Roll Call reported, "there is no guarantee that a bipartisan omnibus package can be written and passed... before current funding expires. Differences in funding levels between the House and Senate masked an array of partisan policy disputes that will still need to be resolved for an omnibus deal to come together."

While it is unclear whether the GOP push for a pay freeze will survive the negotiation process, the proposal served as evidence of Senate Republicans' priorities as workers across the U.S. suffer from the widespread economic fallout sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.

"As our federal employees work every day to deliver vital services to the American people, Republicans continue to try to strip them of their rights, politicize the merit-based system, and deny them fair pay for their hard work," Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in a statement. "We cannot let this stand. I will fight tooth and nail to stop this proposed pay freeze and ensure that the good work of federal employees is fairly compensated."

Comcast got $1 billion in public subsidies — now its hiking prices for new data fees

The only thing more American holiday season than conservatives pretending that liberals want to destroy them, is telecommunication companies telling consumers that right around the holiday season they are going to raise the prices of their services for bullshit reasons and there's nothing you can do about it. And as we head into Thanksgiving and then a grand consumerist run toward the birth of baby Jesus and the festival of lights Comcast has announced that it will be hiking TV and internet prices, as well as hidden fees! U S A!

The reason the hidden fees hike is an important note is that these fees are not included in promotional packages. This means that if you just signed up for a service, or are still technically inside of that promotional period, while you won't have your promotional costs change, you will have your "Broadcast TV" fee and your Regional Sports Network fee boosted. U S A! U S A! Wait until you hear Comcast's excuse for these hikes in price!

Arstechnica reports that Comcast released a statement saying that, "Rising programming costs—most notably for broadcast TV and sports—continue to be the biggest factors driving price increases for all content distributors and their customers, not just Comcast. We're continuing to work hard to manage these costs for our customers while investing in our network to provide the best, most reliable broadband service in the country and the flexibility to choose our industry-leading video platform with X1 or the highest quality streaming product with Flex, the only free streaming TV device with voice remote that's included with broadband service."

Wild. Also strange as numerous people point out that Comcast owns NBC Universal—one of those "content distributors" that are clearly "driving price increases." One of the oldest arguments in the world against the consolidation of media content distributors and telecommunication companies was that this very bogus thing would happen, and just get worse. The absurdity of it all is something that TechDirt's Karl Bode wrote about in what is arguably the greatest news headline on the subject in the history of headlines, "Comcast Tells Customers They May Lose Access To Comcast Channels If Comcast Can't Agree With Comcast."

Either way, these fights have been getting increasingly worse over the last decade, with consumers routinely losing access to TV content they pay for -- and almost never getting a refund. Regulators in the Trump era effectively giving up on consumer protection hasn't helped. And while the added competition from streaming has helped matters somewhat, you can expect entirely new issues as the battle over gatekeeper dominance simply changes shape.

As for the second excuse Comcast gives, investment in their network, let's remind everyone that since the Republican tax giveaway, telecommunications companies across the board (as well as most big businesses) have slowed down their infrastructural spending, not increased it. When you consider the spending that these companies do on infrastructure is built into their profit projections years in advance, it means that these companies are pulling back on infrastructure the more money they pocket because there is no reason to actually provide the better promised services in their respective monopolistically controlled areas. The reason there is no reason is that there is no law or accountability to the American consumer.

Telecommunications giants like Comcast make many billions of dollars in profit with "hidden fees." These are the fees that companies are somehow allowed to forget to mention when they are offering up big new deals to new customers. The level of consumer complaints against Comcast are almost cartoonish. But, even before the Trump administration used former Verizon lawyer and shill Ajit Pai to do away with net neutrality protections, consumers were always at the very short end of the stick with telecommunications monopolies like Comcast, Charter, Verizon, and AT&T.

A federal agency is gearing up to make wide-ranging policy changes on consumers’ access to their financial data

A federal agency is gearing up to make wide-ranging policy changes on consumers' access to their financial data.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is looking to implement the area of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act pertaining to a consumer's rights to his or her own financial data. It is detailed in section 1033.

The agency has been laying the groundwork on this move for years, from requesting information in 2016 from financial institutions to hosting a symposium earlier this year on the problems of screen scraping, a risky but common method of collecting consumer data.

Now the agency, which was established by the Dodd-Frank Act, is asking for comments on this critical and controversial topic ahead of the proposed rulemaking. Unlike other regulations that affect single industries, this could be all-encompassing because the consumer data rule touches almost every market the agency covers, according to the story in American Banker.

The Trump administration all but 'systematically neutered' the agency.

With the ruling, the agency seeks to clarify its compliance expectations and help establish market practices to ensure consumers have access to consumer financial data. The agency sees an opportunity here to help shape this evolving area of financial technology, or fintech, recognizing both the opportunities and the risks to consumers as more fintechs become enmeshed with their data and day-to-day lives.

Its goal is "to better effectuate consumer access to financial records," as stated in the regulatory filing.

The agency, established after the economic crisis of 2008 to ensure consumers were never manipulated and scammed again for unscrupulous profit, went off the rails under Trump. The current administration all but "systematically neutered" the agency, according to an article by The Brookings Institution.

The agency went from collecting $12 billion in fines for consumer abuses under its first director Richard Cordray, to collecting less than the cost of a half-decent sandwich over the first six months of this year. That's right, through the second quarter of 2020, the CFPB collected just $8 from two civil penalties.

Faced with eroding consumer protection and the economically crippling coronavirus pandemic Americans need the CFPB to do its job and protect them. So the agency is looking to implement section 1033. With the changing administrations, it's not a foregone conclusion what will happen.

The issue is who really owns the financial data – the financial institution itself or the consumer. It's become quite convoluted with the growing ubiquity of fintech as third-party owners of this information. Nearly 100 million American consumers use at least one finance app that takes data from their bank accounts, according to American Banker.

Consumers increasingly are turning to fintech to manage finances, using companies like and data aggregators like Yodlee. To use these services, consumers must turn over access to financial data via login credentials and security question answers to the fintech companies.

In turn, these companies act and access the financial accounts just like the consumers themselves. And as part of the process, they become owners of the financial data, too. One of the risks is that there usually is not a set window of ownership; these third parties can own that information until a consumer changes the password, essentially. While consumers who use these services agree to these terms, the financial institutions may not.

This proposed rulemaking coincides with the transition in government, which is important for a few reasons. The current head of the CFPB, Kathy Kraninger, is criticized widely. A recent Supreme Court ruling allows presidents to fire CFPB directors at will; directors of the agency are no longer independent and immune from politics. Second, a Biden administration almost certainly means more changes to the Dodd-Frank Act, assuming Biden will look to restore all of the law Trump gutted.

Trump took a hatchet to the financial law, "dismantling the core pillars of financial reform," according to an article by The American Prospect. Ever on the side of corporations and big banks, Trump, for examples, rolled back consumer and investor protections, reduced regulation of systemically significant banks 8.16 and stopped enforcing laws against financial predators.

So, the various players will jockey over what kind of guardrails get put in place going forward over what is expected to be a long battle.

With Biden overseeing the fight, at least it's not an automatic forfeit for consumers. And for the new president, it could be the stuff of legacies.

Economists, healthcare workers beg for COVID-19 relief — Mnuchin and McConnell give them the finger

It's been 192 days since the House passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act, and 56 days since the House passed their compromise $2.2 trillion bill, both of which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to take up. McConnell sent his Republican Senate on Thanksgiving vacation last Thursday, after having spent the post-election week confirming unqualified Trump judges.

The one Trump administration official who at one point seemed to give a damn, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, has reverted to Republican form. He's sabotaging the economy right alongside his boss, cutting off emergency lending programs administered by Treasury and the Federal Reserve and trying to claw back uncommitted funds. To be an even bigger dick, Mnuchin is going to put the $455 billion he's clawing back into the General Fund, requiring future Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to get congressional authorization to use it.

This will hamstring both Yellen and the Fed in the future. That's in part because it's running out of tools to juice the economy. It can't do anything with interest rates since they're already at zero. It can't give to the people to boost consumer spending. Top economists are pleading with Congress to do just that. More than 125 economists organized by the Economic Security Project have written an open letter to Congress calling for more direct payments to families. Now.

"We urge policymakers to use all the tools at their disposal to revitalize the economy, including direct cash payments," the economists wrote, "which are one of the quickest, most equitable and most effective ways to get families and the economy back on track." The one round of checks that Congress released under the CARES Act, they write, boosted spending the most among the lowest-income Americans. It was an "essential tool" that kept millions out of poverty for the first months of the crisis. A second round, "especially if targeted to the bottom half of households," would help support the most vulnerable low-income families, and particularly households of color. Two more rounds of direct payments, they write, could keep 14 million people out of poverty. In addition to the stimulus checks, they're calling for reupping the enhanced federal unemployment insurance (UI) benefits that will expire at the end of December, and provide state and local aid as well as funding for nutrition and child care programs.

It's not just economists. In what should be required reading for every goddamned Republican senator, former ICU nurse Janet Campbell-Vincent details just how desperate healthcare workers are right now, how critically they need help. Here's what she'd tell McConnell on his Thanksgiving vacation: "I wish medical workers could take vacation days, too. I ran out of those months ago, when I contracted Covid-19 treating patients in the ICU. I'm exhausted. I'm angry. I'm sick of watching patients die. I'm tired of comforting families feeling guilty over the birthday party that cost their loved one's life."

She just quit her job providing direct patient care because, she writes, "Without sufficient personal protective equipment and staffed hospital beds, a national plan for testing and sufficient relief for those hardest hit by the virus, including hospitals, I didn't have the strength to continue." She speculates that her colleagues are reaching that breaking point as well, and warns of a "mass exodus" from nursing. "Our leaders have left it up to medical workers to save American lives, but they've denied us the resources to do so," she writes. "I can't fathom why they're on vacation when there is so much work to do."

"Trump, McConnell and other Republicans must get back to work and meet with the Democrats to pass a coronavirus relief package as soon as possible," she says. "They also need to step up their counteroffers to Democrats on what a Covid-19 stimulus package will look like." This is on McConnell, and clearly you don't have to be a political junkie at Daily Kos to see that. The problem is thus far McConnell is perfectly fine with having the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on his hands, and having the weight of millions of people going hungry and losing their livelihoods and their homes on his head. He's fine with the total destruction of the economy as long as he can troll the Democrats.

$427 billion lost each year to tax dodging by corporations and the rich: landmark study

A first-of-its-kind international report released Friday shows how wealthy countries are the primary drivers of tax revenue loss each year—contributing to $427 billion in losses to public funding annually and affecting the ability of countries all over the world, including developing nations, to provide services to the public.

The Tax Justice Network's inaugural State of Tax Justice report is the first study to thoroughly measure how much money each country loses each year to corporate tax abuse and private tax evasion, using data that was self-reported by corporations to tax authorities.

The report notes that in light of the global coronavirus pandemic, the loss of revenue to tax abuse and evasion has major implications for public health efforts. One nurse's annual salary is lost every second to tax havens—the equivalent of 34 million nurses' salaries each year.

"A global tax system that loses over $427 billion a year is not a broken system, it's a system programmed to fail," said Alex Cobham, chief executive of the Tax Justice Network.

"Under pressure from corporate giants and tax haven powers like the Netherlands and the U.K.'s network, our governments have programmed the global tax system to prioritize the desires of the wealthiest corporations and individuals over the needs of everybody else," he continued. "The pandemic has exposed the grave cost of turning tax policy into a tool for indulging tax abusers instead of for protecting people's wellbeing."

Lower-income countries are particularly affected by tax evasion during public health crises like the current pandemic, with losses are equivalent to 52% of their public health budgets. While rich countries lose hundreds of billions more dollars each year to tax evasion and abuse, their losses only make up about 8% of their public health budgets.

Latin America and Africa's tax losses are equivalent to about 20.4% and 52.5% of their public health budgets, respectively.

Contrary to data compiled in the European Union's "highly politicized blacklist" of tax havens, the Tax Justice Network said, high income countries are behind a vast majority of global tax abuse. The British territory Cayman Islands is responsible for other countries losing $70 billion in public funding each year, while the U.K.'s tax laws take away more than $42 billion. The U.S. is in fifth place globally, robbing other countries of $23.6 billion each year.

While countries including Palau and Trinidad and Tobago are on the EU's blacklist and are not cooperative with international tax regulations, the Tax Justice Network reported, they "did not create any observable tax losses for other countries."

Meanwhile, high-income countries are behind 98% of public funding losses around the world, contributing to a loss of $419 in annual tax revenues.

Corporate abuse by multinational corporations is directly responsible for the loss of $245 billion each year, with companies shifting $1.38 trillion in profits out of the countries where those profits were earned into tax havens, the report said. Private tax evaders also stored a total of $10 trillion in offshore accounts, leading to a loss of $182 billion in public funding.

Joe Boughner, public affairs director for Canada-based labor union ACFO-ACAF, tweeted that corporations which penalize workers for "crippling our economy" by taking time off should focus far more on the $5.7 billion lost each year to tax evasion and corporate abuse.

Rosa Pavanelli, general secretary of the global labor union Public Services International, who took part in Tax Justice Network's webinar launching the report, pointed to the notion of "building back better" after crises like the pandemic, which has been adopted by the United Nations and U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.

"If you really believe in building back better then pay your taxes!" Pavanelli tweeted. "If governments don't act now our democracies are really in trouble."

To ensure countries around the world don't continue to lose hundreds of billions of dollars each year which could go to strengthening their public health, infrastructure, and education systems, the Tax Justice Network said, governments must promptly take three far-reaching actions:

  • Introduce an excess profit tax on multinational corporations making excess profits during the pandemic, such as global digital companies, in order to cut through profit shifting abuses.
  • Introduce a wealth tax to fund the Covid-19 response and address the long term inequalities the pandemic has exacerbated, with punitive rates for opaquely owned offshore assets and a commitment between governments to eliminate this opacity.
  • Establish a UN tax convention to ensure a global and genuinely representative forum to set consistent, multilateral standards for corporate taxation, for the necessary tax cooperation between governments, and to deliver comprehensive, multilateral tax transparency.

The report also called on G20 member countries, which are collectively responsible for 26.7% of global tax losses and cost countries $114 billion each year through their tax laws and loopholes for the wealthy, to address the issue at their summit this weekend and require the publication of individual multinational companies' tax reporting, "so that corporate tax abusers and the jurisdictions that facilitate them can be identified and held to account."

"Now more than ever we must reprogram our global tax system to prioritize people's health and livelihoods over the desires of those bent on not paying tax," Cobham said.

Here's how Joe Biden can cancel student debt on day one

The incoming Biden administration is facing increasing pressure to cancel federal student loan debt, something Joe Biden is reportedly considering through executive action, which would not require Congress to pass legislation. Astra Taylor, a member of the Debt Collective, says canceling student debt would be a boon to debtors and the wider economy, and could be part of a larger wave of progressive action from the Biden administration. "There was a sense right after the election … that because Democrats didn't take the Senate that it would be impossible for a Biden administration to govern," says Taylor. "There are things that Biden can do if he's willing to play hardball, if he's willing to actually understand that's what Republicans do, and the Democrats can do the same."

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to turn right now to Astra Taylor. Astra Taylor of the Debt Collective. The protest comes as the incoming Biden administration is also facing increasing pressure to cancel all federal student loan debt. On Wednesday, a group of 200 groups sent a letter to Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris urging them to "use executive authority to cancel federal student debt on day one of their administration."

So yes, we are turning now to the writer, to the filmmaker, to the organizer Astra Taylor, who is a member of the Debt Collective which has just published a book titled Can't Pay, Won't Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition. Astra wrote the foreword to the book as well as a new piece in The Guardian that's headlined We're being told Biden won't be able to achieve much. We must reject that idea. We turn right to that theme. Astra, let's begin there. What does it mean to say that we must reject this idea that not much can be achieved during a Biden administration?

ASTRA TAYLOR: First, thanks so much for having me. Wonderful to follow up on those brave words from Representatives Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The "Biden, be brave" rally also captures this spirit. There was a sense right after the election, the election that is still unending, that because Democrats didn't take the Senate that it would be impossible for a Biden administration to govern. What is so great in this moment is how the grassroots are saying, "No, we actually have a deep understanding of how power works and what power you will have, even if the Democrats do not manage to flip those Senate seats in Georgia." Of course flipping those seats would be ideal, keeping those seats and winning those for the Democrats would be ideal. But nevertheless, there are things that Biden can do, if he's willing to play hardball. If he's willing to actually understand that that's what the Republicans do and the Democrats need to do the same.

So there's a movement afoot to pressure the Biden administration to do this, first by saying, "We know that you possess this power." So for example, Biden can make appointments using the Vacancies Act, the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. This is a power that Trump used even though he had the Senate on his side. This essentially allows the president to appoint Cabinet-level posts, people who have been confirmed by Congress or senior employees within certain agencies. I would recommend people follow Demand Progress and the Revolving Door Project, which have been doing a lot of great work on this, essentially saying there is a way to put people in positions of power so that you can advance the progressive agenda that you were elected to advance.

Because as AOC made so clear, progressives won this election. And in a moment of pandemic and economic crisis, we simply cannot afford to have a government that fails to govern in the interest of the people. It's also the self interest of the Democrats, because they will be crushed in 2022 or 2024 if they don't do this. So I am very heartened by movements paying attention of these sorts of things, thinking about staffing, thinking about important positions.

I think all of these social moments, whether we're talking about climate change, whether we're talking about economic justice, student debt—we recognize the importance of positions like the Treasury or the Office of Management and Budget, and realize it's all interconnected. And we need people who are committed to meeting the moment as opposed to the same old politics of austerity. We need those people in place right now. So the Debt Collective is very concerned, for example, with issues—who staffs the Department of Education, to ensure that we don't have a repeat of the Obama-Biden administration. We cannot afford to have an Obama 2.0 at the level of the Department of Education.

AMY GOODMAN: And of course we're talking about the Obama-Biden administration, except Biden would be—is the president-elect. Now, can you talk about the wish list for Cabinet members? A lot has been talked about. Apparently, President-elect Biden is about to name his treasury secretary. Among those who progressives have really been pushing is Senator Elizabeth Warren, but there is concern that because she comes from Massachusetts, which has a Republican governor, that that would not guarantee who would fill that Senate seat.
And of course, the Senate, it has not been decided who will run the Senate, because of the two Georgia senatorial runoffs. But the possibility of Elizabeth Warren. Now the name being floated among others is Janet Yellen.

You have Bernie Sanders wanting to be labor secretary. The concern that his state, Vermont, the governor is also Republican. Phil Scott, who says that he would choose an independent, which of course, Bernie Sanders is, that would possibly caucus with the Democratic Party. But in both these cases, you've got these Republican governors who make the final decision. What about the Cabinet, how important it is and these particular candidates, Astra?

ASTRA TAYLOR: It is absolutely important that we put forward—I think the first thing that the Biden administration needs to do is put forward bold progressive options like Elizabeth Warren. Sarah Bloom Raskin is another person that people are interested in. I think she was at the Treasury under Obama and has said some really interesting things about climate and the power of the Treasury to halt climate change. So there are these dynamics to consider.

Whether or not the Democrats have the Senate is a big concern. If they don't, then what there needs to be, and organizations are doing this, is creating lists of people who are already in government. So people who have positions on independent commissions within the government that could be appointed through the Vacancies Act. At the Department of Education, some of the names being floated are Randi Weingarten of the AFT, the American Federation of Teachers. Having the head of a teachers union at the Department of Education would be significant progress.

But we don't know what is going to happen. We're not at the point where we can rest easy. But I think as people in the movement, we need to signal that we're paying intense attention to this and that we understand just how critical these positions are. Again, we need to look at things like the OMB, the Office of Management and Budget as well, sort of more boring agencies we don't pay a lot of attention to that actually are influential when we are thinking about the power of the purse.

AMY GOODMAN: In the foreword of the new book Can't Pay, Won't Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition, you write, "If we don't get organized, debtors will keep getting pushed deeper into a financial hole. In the throes of the pandemic, some payday lenders are charging close to 800% interest on short-term loans, taking advantage of people who have no other way to keep a roof over their heads or put food on the table. Mass unemployment in the absence of a functioning safety net intensifies mass indebtedness, fueling the already vastly unequal distribution of wealth along predictable racial lines."

We are moving into the holiday week. There are people blocks long on food lines across this country. Charity groups, food groups that are giving out turkeys or any kind of food are running out of food. Unemployment numbers are going up. We are talking about millions of people about to lose their unemployment benefits. Can you talk about the whole issue of debt and what you think is possible?

ASTRA TAYLOR: Indebtedness was an absolute crisis before the COVID pandemic. I think we have to begin there. Already, household indebtedness was reaching historic proportions. The thing is that access to credit has masked stagnating wages and deepening, mind-boggling inequality. So what people have had to do, because they're not paid enough, is they've had to borrow to compensate. So in that sense, people are robbed twice. You're robbed at the workplace by being paid poverty wages, then you're forced to borrow and pay interest to make ends meet. So we have to borrow money to get an education so we can get a job. The average student borrower now has about $32,000 of debt. It goes up and up every year. People have to take out payday loans to keep a roof over their head. We know the research shows that people tend to put necessities on their credit cards. We are talking basic things like food, sustenance.

People of course are drowning in medical debt because we live in a country that lacks universal healthcare. Medical debt, as Bernie Sanders often pointed out on the campaign trail, is the number one cause of bankruptcy in this country. If you live in a country with universal healthcare, medical debt does not exist. So these are political structural problems.

So we are a country of people in debt. The vast majority, 75% of people, are in debt. Americans died—before the pandemic, Americans were dying on average with $62,000 of debt. The pandemic hits, millions of jobs evaporate and this becomes an even more urgent crisis. We know before the pandemic that people didn't have $400 for an emergency. What happens when your incomes dries up? You go deeper and deeper into debt, delinquency, default. And all of the psychological and physical consequences that come with that. We all know that debt is incredibly stressful. It's bad for our health.

So these are structural problems, and the Debt Collective, which is a union of debtors, demands structural solutions. So just like workers organize in the workplace and want higher wages, benefits, fair terms of employment, we believe debtors also have to organize. So debtors do not share an office space or a factory floor, but we can come together and organize against our creditors. That might be a private entity like the bank, or in the case of student loans, the federal government. The federal government holds the vast majority of student debt, an overwhelming amount of it, over 95%.

So we are trying to build debtor power in this moment, and underscoring the fact that in a crisis like this, the one we're living in, what we need is cash to the people, just like those unemployment benefits, the checks for $1200 that were not nearly enough. People need the money, the financial support to survive, but we need to couple that with a program of debt cancellation, of a jubilee. Otherwise, those cash payments are just going to pay people's debts.

In fact, we know that the $1200 stimulus checks that were sent to people were just basically sent to debt servicing because that's what people were doing. They were paying their debts instead of spending the money in the economy which would then provide an economic boost. And it shows that their priority is paying off their debt, that that's what they are afraid of.

So we need to couple relief programs with debt cancellation. And there are calls emanating from all over to cancel medical debt, cancel rent. And the Debt Collective has been leading the fight for the last ten years to cancel student debt. And that is now seriously on the table and being debated in Washington, and we have pushed the Biden administration to at least commit to the immediate cancellation of $10,000. We need to push them further, and we need to push them to use executive power to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk more deeply about student debt, But first, in 2005, then Joe Biden, who, alongside most Republicans, favored the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, a bill that essentially made it more difficult to file for bankruptcy. The credit card industry, much of which is based in Biden's home state of Delaware, also supported the bill and even wrote some of the bill's key amendments. This is an exchange between Biden, who at the time was a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Elizabeth Warren, who at the time was a Harvard law professor, now of course a senator.

ELIZABETH WARREN: They have squeezed enough out of these families in interest and fees and payments that never pay down the principal.
SEN. JOE BIDEN: Maybe we should talk about usury rates, then. Maybe that's what we should be talking about, not bankruptcy.
ELIZABETH WARREN: Senator, I'll be the first. Invite me.
SEN. JOE BIDEN: No, I know you will. But let's call a spade a spade! Your problem with the credit card companies is usury rates, from your position. It's not about the bankruptcy bill.
ELIZABETH WARREN: But Senator, if you're not going to fix that problem, you can't take away the last shred of protection for these families.
SEN. JOE BIDEN: I got it. Okay. Well, you're a very good professor.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Astra Taylor, if you can describe where Biden has stood—of course he was a longtime senator from Delaware, home of the credit card companies, very much seen as in bed with them—to where he is today, and what kind of concessions he has made and where you think he needs to be.

ASTRA TAYLOR: Biden's role in the student debt crisis goes way back to 1978 when he supported the Middle Income Student Assistance Act, which essentially eliminated restrictions on federal loans. So he has been very involved in expanding lending while also repealing bankruptcy protections, as that clip just pointed out. Indeed, he was the longtime senator from Delaware, the credit card capital of the world. So this is his track record. We have no illusions about who we're dealing with.

And I think that is one of the benefits of a Biden administration: nobody thinks he is a Messiah. We know who he is. The 2005 bankruptcy bill was a travesty. It was written by the credit card industries, parts of it, as you pointed out. It was actually vetoed under Clinton and then Biden fought passionately for it and it was passed under the Bush administration. So this is not an encouraging track record in many ways.

And as I said earlier, the Debt Collective was in a fight with the Obama administration, the Obama-Biden administration. We led a student debt strike that was made up of students from predatory for-profit colleges. These students had been defrauded. They had been lied to. And the Department of Education had basically supported and bailed out these predatory corporations that pretend to offer education and don't. They leave students—disproportionately working-class, black and brown, single mothers, veterans—buried in debt, unable to get the employment that they were promised. And that administration absolutely failed to use the power at its disposal to help these students. In fact, many former OBiden Department of Ed officials went immediately from that administration to working in the for-profit college sector. They just waltzed right through that revolving door.

So we have been calling on the Biden administration, along with so many of our allies in the education space, to break with this tradition. And there are some signs that under pressure, he is doing so. After Joe Biden won the Democratic nomination, he moved and finally formally embraced student debt forgiveness. Of course, we know that Bernie Sanders had a policy of full student debt cancellation. That is what the Debt Collective supports. We think every penny should be erased because those loans should not exist in the first place. We should not have to mortgage our futures simply to get an education. Senator Elizabeth Warren has been very good on this issue. She pushed quite an ambitious student debt plan and is still pushing today. So Biden has taken up some elements of that plan. He still needs to go further.

As I said, because of COVID, he has said that he will immediately cancel $10,000 of student debt. This is included in his racial equity plan. He has a long Medium post about this. The question now though is how is he going to do it, and will he do more. And we are committed to building a movement to ensure that the Biden administration cancels far more than $10,000 of student debt. Again, we believe he should cancel all of it, and that he uses an authority that the Department of Education already possesses called compromise and settlement.

The Biden administration can erase all student debt on day one. Legal research from the Debt Collective shows this is possible. Senators Warren and Schumer have embraced this legal argument. And indeed the Trump administration already used this authority to cancel interest on student loans a few months ago because of the pandemic. So we are in a very interesting moment where public pressure could really actually make a massive difference and turn Joe Biden from the person who has basically advanced the student debt crisis into the president who finally helps roll it back.

AMY GOODMAN: Astra, if we can cut across the political spectrum, and as we move into this holiday season get biblical, canceling debt obviously is not a new idea. In Deuteronomy 15, at the end of every seven years, you must cancel debts. Go back to that history of debt jubilee.

ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, jubilee has a long tradition. Here we can lean on the work of the late and great anthropologist David Graeber. David Graeber was a friend of mine. He brought me into the Occupy Wall Street movement and recruited me to the cause of debt resistance. In his beautiful book Debt: The First 5000 years, he talks about how in ancient societies, there were these periodic jubilees, a wiping of the slate.

Essentially, societies would become torn apart by indebtedness. People started selling themselves and their children into debt slavery. And there was a recognition that often people would be driven into debt because of circumstances that weren't their fault. Maybe it was bad crops or maybe there was warfare. And to keep society from breaking in two, and also to mitigate the power, to reduce the power of the lenders, there would be these periodic amnesties. So there was the laws of Hammurabi, very famous from 1750 BC, that says there need to be debt amnesties.

So this is not some utopian future-looking idea. This is something that has deep historical roots. And there have been critical policies of debt cancellation in the modern era. Scholars and economists who look at this period often point to Germany after World War II where the debts were wiped away so that Germany would have a chance to restart its economy, and became the economic miracle.

So part of the call for jubilee is part of this long tradition. And it's both a kind of moral argument and it says these debts are destroying people's lives. They are having disastrous social consequences. We can't afford as a society have those. But then there's a kind of practical economic thing, which is that it will actually boost the economy for everybody. Everybody will be better off if we get rid of these debts, based on the logic that debts that can't be paid won't be paid. So let's face that fact.

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'The Walton family is the real welfare queen': GAO report details how taxpayers subsidize corporate giants' low wages

Pinpointing a reality denounced as "morally obscene" by Sen. Bernie Sanders, a new government study shows how some of the nation's largest and most profitable corporations—including Walmart, McDonald's, Dollar General, and Amazon—feast upon taxpayer money by paying their employees such low wages that huge numbers of those workers throughout the year are forced to rely on public assistance programs such as Medicaid and food assistance just to keep themselves and their families afloat.

According to a statement from Sanders' office, the study he commissioned the Government Accountability Office to carry out—titled "Millions of Full-time Workers Rely on Federal Health Care and Food Assistance Programs"—found that an estimated 5.7 million Medicaid enrollees and 4.7 million SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients who worked full-time for 50 or more weeks in 2018 earned wages so low that they qualified for these federal benefits. In addition, an estimated 12 million wage-earning adults enrolled in Medicaid and 9 million wage-earning adults living in households receiving SNAP benefits worked at some point in 2018.

Upon the study's release Wednesday, Warren Gunnels, staff director and policy adviser for Sen. Sanders, tweeted: "The real looting in America is the Walton family becoming $63 billion richer during a pandemic, while paying wages so low that 14,541 of their workers in 9 states need food stamps—all subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. Yes. The Walton family is the real welfare queen in America."

According to the Washington Post:, based on the GAO report:

Walmart was one of the top four employers of SNAP and Medicaid beneficiaries in every state. McDonald's was in the top five of employers with employees receiving federal benefits in at least nine states.

In the nine states that responded about SNAP benefits—Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee and Washington—Walmart was found to have employed about 14,500 workers receiving the benefit, followed by McDonald's with 8,780, according to Sanders's team. In six states that reported Medicaid enrollees, Walmart again topped the list, with 10,350 employees, followed by McDonald's with 4,600.

In Georgia, for example, Walmart employed an estimated 3,959 workers on Medicaid—an estimated 2.1 percent of the total of non-elderly, non-disabled people in the state receiving the benefit. McDonald's was next on the list, employing 1,480 who received Medicaid, or 0.8 percent of the total of non-elderly, non-disabled people on the program.

"At a time when huge corporations like Walmart and McDonald's are making billions in profits and giving their CEOs tens of millions of dollars a year, they're relying on corporate welfare from the federal government by paying their workers starvation wages," said Sanders in a statement. "That is morally obscene."

With the individual wealth of high-ranking executives and members of billionaire families like the Walton's, who own Walmart, soaring even as front-line, minimum wage employees and their families struggling to stay afloat amid the devastating Covid-19 pandemic, Sanders argues that the stark contrast should be a wakeup call for those who have refused to see how unjust and economically backward it is for the federal government, meaning taxpayers, to subsidize the cruel wages that massive profitable companies force their workers to accept.

"U.S. taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize some of the largest and most profitable corporations in America," said Sanders. "It is time for the owners of Walmart, McDonald's and other large corporations to get off of welfare and pay their workers a living wage."

"No one in this country should live in poverty," Sanders added. "No one should go hungry. No one should be unable to get the medical care they need. It is long past time to increase the federal minimum wage from a starvation wage of $7.25 an hour to $15, and guarantee health care to all Americans as a human right."

Experts explain the economic situations that beget successful coups — and why Trump's attempt won't work

Throughout history, coups and coup attempts are more often than not linked to economic distress: the coup's leaders side with one group of industrialists or power-brokers, and opposition groups are supported by another. Now, Trump's own refusal to concede in the 2020 presidential election after a legitimate election loss, and his machinations to remain in power, have led to public debate over whether he is trying to perform a coup — or if that's even possible given the political and economic climate.

Salon reached out to economists who explained the ways in which current America's economic struggles have, and have not, created the climate in which Trump's coup attempt is possible. The verdict? The situation may not be quite right for Trump to be successful — with some caveats.

Because of Trump's political disposition, his coup d'etat would epitomize a right-wing coup — in which an authoritarian seizes control to consolidate their power on behalf of the ruling classes, from which Trump originates. Disregarding the legal and (possibly) military elements required for success, Trump could very well have popular support from his base were he to seize power. Indeed, polls show that 70 percent of Republicans accept Trump's disinformation about the election not being "free and fair," and seem willing and ready to turn against the concept of democracy.

"As for the broader question, there are tensions," Dr. Ioana Marinescu, assistant professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy & Practice, wrote to Salon. "Rising inequality and stagnation of wages among the less educated should have empowered the left, but the left has increasingly become the party of the educated elites so they were not able to fully capitalize on this."

Marinescu noted that economist Dr. Thomas Piketty explored these themes last year in his book "Capital and Ideology," then added that "the populist or conservative right has then been able in some cases to speak to disaffected workers (those for example who lost their jobs to the China shock) by showing more respect for them and their values, and by promising a return to the prior state of the world (bring back manufacturing, something that is pretty hopeless given the economics)."

Dr. Richard D. Wolff, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, talked to Salon about how economic factors can usually be found in coups and attempted coups, although it would be a mistake to assume they are the only relevant variables.

"These are always multi-causal, multi-dimensional events," Wolff told Salon. "We can talk about the economics, but the economic aspects — and that's what they are — are never alone, or are never the only significant factor. . . . Economics always contributes to the attempt to make a coup, whether or not it's successful, and economics are always affected by a coup — again, whether it's successful or not. It's part of the story, but it's never some kind of dominating part, at least not in my experience. . . . but it's never absent either, and it wouldn't be here in the United States."

Wolff proceeded to explain to Salon that the United States "is in an extreme economic turmoil situation, fraught with enormous suffering coming at the end of a period of very profound changes and confronting [t]he upsurge in coronavirus cases all over the country." He noted that these conditions can make people either more politically active or resign themselves to political inactivity. The last occasion when America faced levels of unemployment, income inequality and lack of economic opportunity for young people was during the Great Depression in the 1930s, Wolff pointed out.

"Interestingly, during that Great Depression, the reaction of the mass of people was to become more politically active, not less so," Wolff said. "What struck so many of us was that, already at the period in 2008 and 2009 when we had the so-called Great Recession, was the level of non-activism. The fact that you didn't have the rise of a massive union organizing movement, the way you did in the 1930s with the CIO. You didn't have a mass upsurge of people joining two socialist and one communist party this time. You did have a bump up with the Democratic Socialists of America, but it was much smaller, much more modest, much more isolated, than what you had in the 1930s."

He added, "Now we have record-breaking inequality before and during the COVID-19 crisis, at least since it hit in March. The Bezoses of the world have gotten way richer, the mass of people the opposite, et cetera, et cetera. I think you've had pretty much the resignation of the mass of people, with the exception of a few signs, but I don't think they've congealed yet to give you the mass progressive upsurge that you had in the 1930s."

By contrast, America is finding itself in a situation now where a far right-winger like Trump is able to undermine the core institutions of democracy, although Wolff stopped short of saying that it will amount to a full-fledged coup.

"The bottom line of what I'm telling you is that the things that make coups happen, that have any kind of traction, don't seem to me to be present here," Wolff said, pointing out how American right-wingers misread public sentiment when attempting to pull off recent coups in other countries like Venezuela and Bolivia.

"My reading of the United States — and I'm frightened by it all too, so I'm not sitting on some pedestal of of self-assuredness — but I don't read a situation that would allow [Trump] to get away with anything more than either a quiet exit or, if that's not available, a blustery exit," Wolff explained. "If he's not smart enough to see that's his best option, some kind of coup-type event about which Stephen Colbert will have a lot of fun."

Dr. Karl Widerquist, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University–Qatar who has doctorates in political theory and economics, told Salon that economic factors were probably a "wash" in terms of the 2020 election, with some American voters likely blaming Trump for the current bad economy (and correctly so) while others may have blamed the COVID-19 lockdowns and supported Trump's opposition to them.

"He's taken advantage of being president to further his white nationalism, but I don't think that's his main goal," Wilderquist told Salon. "I think Trump's main goal for his entire life is to convince as many people as possible that he's a winner that he wins and wins and wins, and that he's the world's biggest winner. And like a lot of us, he doesn't want to be a loser. The way to step down without feeling like a loser is to convince his echo chamber that he didn't lose. He won and that it was stolen from him. He doesn't need a coup to do that. He just needs to complain a lot."

Corporations take a back seat as Joe Biden readies government takeover

Among the many challenges Joe Biden's administration will have to confront after Donald Trump ends his temper tantrum is deciding what posture to take toward big business.

There will be a battle for the soul of the new president as corporate Democrats vie with progressives to influence policy in areas such as regulation and antitrust.

Initial signs are encouraging.

The Biden transition just released a list of some 500 individuals who will be staffing the Agency Review Teams charged with preparing the way for a transfer of power in all parts of the executive branch.

Most of the people are from academia, state government, law firms, non-profits, unions, think tanks and foundations.

Surveying the list of affiliations, I found only about 20 for large corporations. Most of the people are from academia, state government, law firms, non-profits, unions, think tanks and foundations.

It is likely some of the law firms are there to represent specific corporate interests, but the numerous representatives from progressive public interest, environmental and labor groups should serve as an effective counterweight.

Unions in Labor Department

In the Labor Department list there are no law firms or corporations; in their place are representatives from five different unions along with people from the National Employment Law Project and other progressive groups.

What is particularly significant is the near absence of people affiliated with Wall Street banks.

The Defense Department list has someone from JPMorgan Chase; Homeland Security has a representative from Capital One; and the International Development group includes someone from U.S. Bank. There is no one from Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Wells Fargo or Morgan Stanley.

The Treasury Department group is led by someone from Keybank, which is based in Cleveland and ranks about 29th among U.S. banks. Fortunately, the Treasury group also includes representatives from places such as the Center for American Progress, the American Economic Liberties Project and the AFL-CIO.

Environmentalists at EPA

Other balancing acts include the list for the Environmental Protection Agency, which includes a representative from Dell Technologies but also from Earthjustice (the lead person) and The Sierra Club.

Some of the corporations show up in surprising places. Walt Disney is represented on the Intelligence Community list. The cosmetics firm Estee Lauder has someone on the State Department list. Someone from Airbnb is in the National Security Council group.

Tech Companies at OMB

Looking at current corporate villains, the one that stands out is It shows up on two lists—the one for the State Department and the one for the Office of Management and Budget.

Lyft and Airbnb are also on the OMB list, along with some academics, a consultant, state officials and someone from Meow Wolf, a Santa Fe-based non-profit that produces immersive art experiences.

Given that OMB oversees regulatory policy, the absence of public interest, union and environmental people raises a concern. Otherwise, it appears that the Biden team is limiting corporate influence in the emerging administration.

Let's hope it stays that way.

Biden's free childcare plan is a worthy feminist reform

Joe Biden wasn't the first choice for many women during the Democratic presidential primaries, yet the president-elect's social agenda has proven to be surprisingly feminist in its orientation. Nowhere is this clearer than in his proposal for subsidizing toddler-age childcare, a progressive platform that has earned plaudits from feminists and which has been a local success story in local jurisdictions in which it has been implemented.

According to the Biden-Harris transition website, the administration plans to make it "far easier to afford child care and to ensure aging relatives and people with disabilities have better access to home and community-based care." The new administration also promises to "elevate the pay, benefits, and professional opportunities for caregivers and educators; to create millions of good-paying new jobs in these areas with a choice to join a union; and to free up millions of people to join the labor force and grow a stronger economy in return."

This refers to the $775 billion plan Biden announced while campaigning in Delaware in July, when Biden proposed a national pre-K for all children ages 3 and 4. In that proposal, families earning less than $125,000 a year would receive an $8,000 child care tax credit per child, up to $16,000. Parents earning less than 1.5 times the median income in their state could subsidize child care and would pay no more than 7 percent of their income. Those with a very low income would pay nothing.

Notably, the pandemic's economic affects are seriously setting back gender equality, as I've previously written. Large swaths of women in America left the workforce or cut down their hours to be a stay at home caregiver during the pandemic. As of May 2020, women account for 54 percent of initial coronavirus-related job losses. According to the Women in the Workplace report, Black women said they were more likely to consider stepping away from their careers due to the pandemic. One in four women are thinking of either leaving the workforce of downshifting their careers—a move that would have been dubbed "unthinkable" last year.

This is all to say that the Biden-Harris administration's focus on reviving the economy will largely hinge on whether it prioritizes making it easier to get women back to work, and that means universal childcare.

Research shows that universal preschool can have a big impact on the economy. For example, Washington D.C. has been running what is arguably the most comprehensive universal childcare for three and four-year olds since 2009; it spends an estimated $17,545 per child enrolled in preschool, which is the highest any state (or district, in this case) pays in the country. A Center for American Progress study found that this program increased the city's maternal labor force participation by 12 percentage points. In D.C., the labor participation rate for mothers with 3- and 4-year-olds is now about the same as it is for mothers with kids in elementary school, which is already free and compulsory. These positive trends were observed among both low-income and high-income families; the largest participation increases were among mothers without a high school degree, according to the study.

"These results suggest that two years of universal, full-day preschool is associated with a large positive effect on maternal labor supply—comparable in magnitude to the impact found in studies of universal preschool programs in other countries," the Center for American Progress study noted. "On a national scale, policies that support maternal labor force attachment could contribute to faster growth in gross domestic product (GDP); stronger financial security for young families; and fewer career sacrifices by women, who assume a disproportionate share of their families' care responsibilities."

As Vox explained in 2018, the D.C. program has had some unintended consequences, specifically on private child care business, which became less likely to take infants and toddlers at subsidized rates.

Yet the Biden-Harris plan doesn't just focus on making it easier for families to afford childcare. It is also a jobs plan. First, it proposes a bailout for child care centers, many of which are at risk of closing due to the pandemic. A survey of California providers by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) found that 80 percent of open child care programs face higher costs associated with pandemic cleaning requirements; in some cases, these centers are funding the additional costs themselves. The survey found that 77 percent of that state's child care centers lost income due to the pandemic, and it warned that without more public funding "the California child care industry will continue to collapse."

In July, when Biden revealed his plan, he also called for an increase in pay for child care workers, along with health benefits and freedom to unionize. A CSCCE report found that 57 percent of pre-K teaching staff report household incomes of less than $30,000 a year. Many caregivers in general aren't paid, and hence, the Biden-Harris plan proposes to give these unpaid caregivers a $5,000 tax credit in addition to Social Security credits.

The inclusiveness and intersectionality of the Biden-Harris plan makes it effectively a feminist reform. Three-fourths of American teachers are women, while over half of the country's family or informal caregivers are women. Meanwhile, women are more likely to sacrifice their careers when a crisis hits home, as they generally make less money than men. A workforce without affordable childcare and one that treats caregivers less than they deserve is the modern-day equivalent of the dire conditions faced by impoverished seamstresses in the late nineteenth century: long hours, no bathroom breaks, unsafe working conditions. These conditions kept many women out of the workforce. I'd argue that today's economic climate is not too dissimilar, in that it stresses mothers, their families, and oft-underpaid and undervalued professional female caregivers.

Besides D.C., a few other American cities and counties have enacted subsidized or universal childcare policies. Last week, Multnomah County, home of Portland, Oregon, passed one of the most progressive universal preschool policies in the nation, Measure 26-214. Universal preschool advocates in Portland won by assembling a coalition of parents, teachers, unions, and progressive groups like the Democratic Socialists of America; the newly-passed measure is funded by a progressive income tax. "By making preschool free for every 3- and 4-year-old and guaranteeing preschool workers a living wage, Measure 26-214 gives Multnomah County families options, lets kids thrive, and addresses the deep inequities in our community," the proposition's boosters in Oregon argued. Now, Biden's similar plan may see such progressive feminist reforms grow beyond local communities like Portland and D.C., with resounding economic effects.

As winter approaches, America's racist produce distribution system makes food insecurity worse

In late July, a group of Kentucky gardeners and farmers marched through downtown Louisville, pushing wheelbarrows and demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old unarmed Black woman who was fatally shot by Louisville Metro Police Officers in March.

They started at a local farmer's market and moved 1-1/2 miles westward, towards Jefferson Square Park — now called Injustice Square, after serving as the nightly gathering place for protesters — where they had planted Breonna's Roots, an edible garden that was bursting with summer produce like ruby red tomatoes and peppers, deep purple eggplants and bunches of kale, dill, rosemary and parsley.

According to volunteer Jody Dahmer, the vegetables were harvested and transported a few miles further west to be distributed in Russell, one of Louisville's historically Black neighborhoods that is also one of the city's most barren food deserts. There are only two accessible major supermarkets to serve nearly 60,000 residents (and there's a longstanding rumor among food access advocates in the community that the nearest Kroger will eventually close permanently, after it shuttered sporadically amid protests, leaving only one option).

But now, the weather is snapping cold. Temperatures dip into the low 30s overnight, and soon, Injustice Square will be blanketed with morning frost, so the garden volunteers are having to pivot.

"With frost dates approaching, we are focusing on cole crops," Dahmer said, referring to a designation of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and brussels sprouts that grow better in cooler temperatures. "But [we] also have garlic and onions planted between."

This isn't a unique conversation — all across the country, community garden leaders are having to adapt their plots for the winter or, in some cases, simply latch the garden gates behind them until early spring. But in food insecure neighborhoods, those decisions can have a community-wide impact on produce access, a sad reality that is particularly evident during the colder months.

"It becomes a real scarcity over winter," said Cordia Pugh, the founder of Hermitage Community Gardens in Chicago. "A real scarcity as we race through the winter, waiting for spring to come when we can get back in the gardens to get fresh produce."

Pugh spoke with Salon earlier this year about her community gardens, which are located in Englewood, where, according to municipal data, nearly 95% of the neighborhood's residents are non-Hispanic Black, and nearly 80% of that population lives with low or volatile access to fresh produce.

"This is not hobby gardening, this is food security for us," Pugh said at the time. "This is food insurance in the epicenter of a food desert. If we did not grow this fresh produce, we would not have fresh produce accessible to us. There is no accessible big box store in this community — or if we bought it through those venues, it would be from vendors that would quadruple the price."

Typically, Pugh works with garden volunteers over the spring and summer to preserve fresh produce for the colder months, but the pandemic lockdowns and social distancing recommendations drastically impacted that initiative. There is very little produce stockpiled, as a result, and Pugh said that she's currently in the midst of attempting to get fresh produce boxes to her garden members.

"I'm speaking out of my own desperation this year, because I'm really scrambling now to get the resources in place for fresh produce food distribution over the course of November through April of next year," Pugh said. "Especially because some of our members don't have access — financially or otherwise — to those big box stores."

And even if they can get to the store, Pugh said, there's no guarantee that the quality of the produce available will be the same as in stores in more affluent or mixed-race areas.

This is a well-documented phenomenon. In 2010, The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based food access nonprofit, and the Oakland-based PolicyLink published "The Grocery Gap," a comprehensive paper that detailed how, in hundreds of lower-income communities of color, access to healthier foods like high-quality produce, high-fiber bread and low-fat milk was compromised.

In Louisville, Shauntrice Martin has taken the last several months to examine these disparities, focusing specifically on the city's food deserts, like Russell. Martin is the founder and director of #FeedTheWest, a community food justice initiative that advocates for a Black-owned, fresh food source for residents.

She published her findings under the title, "The Bok Choy Project," wherein she compared five Krogers across five different zip codes, assessing four characteristics: the number of organic produce options available, the presence of police officers, the Black population of said zip code, and the availability of bok choy.

According to Martin, she chose bok choy as a stand-in for "premium produce" because it was an item that she only saw on shelves once she moved out of West Louisville to Maryland when she was in her 20s. Now that she's back, she definitely sees discrepancies in selection and quality between the supermarkets in the zip code with 11% Black population — 11 organic produce options — compared to the one with 92%, which had only three organic options.

"When you walk into that store, there is an 'organic section,'" Martin said. "But it usually only has pears and apples. The rest of it is conventional produce. It's wilted, some of it is rotten or expired on the shelf."

These are the options that are available, Martin and Pugh said, for food insecure communities, which statistically tend to be lower-income communities of color. And while community gardens like Hermitage Community Gardens and Breonna's Roots serve as a stopgap in warmer months, they aren't a replacement for equitable food access and distribution systems.

In Toronto, the food access nonprofit FoodShare spends a lot of time thinking about what food security actually means and what food sovereignty would look like in Northern climates that experience winter. According to Natalie Boustead, the organization's community gardens leader, a lot of our current eating habits are reliant on expensive greenhouse production and imported items to maintain a level of consistency in our diets throughout the year.

"Which, if we were actually eating locally, seasonally [and] within a framework of true self-reliance here in Northern climates, would not be possible," Boustead said. "If we were to shift our cultural expectations around eating seasonally to involve only eating dried fruits, and fermented, salted and sugared foods from summer harvest . . . we may have a shot at actual food sovereignty and self-sufficiency."

Not to mention, she said, there would need to be a complete overhaul of North America's racist food distribution system.

"Until all of that begins to shift, there are very few deeply meaningful ways that those experiencing food insecurity in an urban setting can do to lessen their systematically entrenched relationship to an unfair food system, especially in winter months," she said.

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