"A Movement Is Not a Flash of Light"

Current events leave many feeling disillusioned and in despair. Yet hope emerges from the visionaries, disrupters, activists, and all those who are taking to the streets to resist attacks on our constitutional and human rights; to defend hard-fought policy gains; and to safeguard freedom, dignity, and equity.

That hopeful spirit recalls the wisdom of poet Mayda del Valle shared in Our Moment, the video that opened the 2015 PolicyLink Equity Summit: “A movement is not a flash of light — it is a flame, a torch passed from one generation to the next."

Recent changes have only strengthened the resolve to fight.  “Our moment” is not lost, far from it. Now is the time to build on the progress and diversity of powerful movements — from Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the Dreamers, the Fight for $15, and water protectors to the bold display of resistance in the women’s marches in the United States and abroad and protests against travel bans and deportation.  Resolution is essential; Resistance is the call to action.

#ClaimTheTorch

“Best for NYC Challenge”: Small Businesses Leading the Way in Best Practices

As many cities struggle with rising income inequality and unemployment, some urban leaders are looking to businesses as potential sites for social action.

"The question becomes, how can we support and encourage businesses in being good employers and good community members?" said Christine Curella, director of business initiatives and job quality in the Mayor's Office of Workforce Development in New York City.

Enter the "Best for NYC Challenge," a first-of-its-kind, New York City-based program designed to teach businesses how to create high-quality jobs and be a stronger force for good in their communities. The program is directed by the Mayor's Office of Workforce Development, with support from the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) and in partnership with diverse community-based business organizations. Now in its second year, Best for NYC gives participating businesses access to tools and services that help them measure and improve their business practices. 

"Cities cannot be only a place of regulating business practices; they will need to foster a culture in business where companies are voluntarily striving to do good for their workers above and beyond what is required," said Hardik Savalia. Savalia is a senior associate at B Lab, the organization that invented B Corporation certification and the technical partner that powers the Challenge's assessment tool.  Though New York City was the first city to launch the Challenge, B Lab has more cities in the pipeline, and Savalia noted that several dozen cities are interested in launching similar efforts.

In its inaugural year, the program reached more than 1,200 New York City businesses with its impact assessment tool, which provided businesses with insight into how their practices compare to other businesses, by sector and size. The 101 top-scoring businesses were recognized in 2016 as "Best for NYC Honorees." For those already doing well, or those who wish to do better, the idea is to "get companies immediately in communication with peer businesses who can discuss best practices and share lessons learned on implementation," Savalia explained.

"Most business owners aren't trying to make a quick buck. They want to leave a legacy in their community," he added, and campaigns like Best for NYC can help shape that legacy in the mold of a more inclusive economy.

The three businesses profiled below, representing three New York City boroughs, were honored as some of the top scorers in the Best for NYC.

The Bronx: Spring Bank

Spring Bank is an exemplar of equitable business practices — from the services it provides to the jobs it creates to the assets it brings to the community. 

"We opened our doors to provide affordable and transparent banking products to low-income customers and to move people away from predatory lending and check cashing," said Melanie Stern, director of Community Lending. The bank is a federally certified community development financial institution, which allows it to leverage U.S. treasury grants to offer services to low-income communities that are underserved by mainstream banks. 

With 3,500 customers and assets of just over $160 million, Spring Bank offers a variety of products and services. Small business loans make up the bulk of their business and help subsidize unique products aimed to meet the needs of low-income residents.

"Our small-dollar loans have become our marquee products because they give people an alternative to predatory payday loans and use a more holistic gauge of ability to pay — not just a credit score," Stern said.  Through its newest product, Employee Opportunity Loans, Spring Bank partners with employers so that they can offer employees loans of up to $2,500 that are paid back over time through paycheck deductions. These loans are designed to encourage savings by deducting monthly paycheck payments into a Spring Bank savings account, from which the loan is repaid.

"The idea is that once the loan is paid, employees can continue to save into that same account because they've become accustomed to the paycheck deduction," Stern said. Of the 30-plus customers whose loans have been fully repaid, the majority have chosen to continue saving in this way.

As an employer, Spring Bank focuses on hiring locally so that the majority of staff are bilingual (the majority of its customers are Spanish speaking). They also start wages at $15/hour and employ staff full time with benefits, including health care and retirement plans.  

As a community member, Spring Bank provides free tax filing services, lends its office space to community organizations, offers free financial counseling days, and is pursuing ways to share its business best practices with others. 

"It's more than doing good work, it's being part of a movement of corporations doing good," said Stern.

Queens: Valente Bakery Supplies

At the height of the recession, Valente Yeast Company, Inc. was struggling.  Though Valente had been a leading bakery ingredient wholesale supply business serving NYC bakers and bakeries since 1909, the recession required an overhaul of the business's operations.  It was then that employees Bob Chory and Tom Siegenthaler saw an opportunity to take the company in a new direction that could help turn its fortunes around.

"We both believe a successful business had to be based on our customers loving us and our employees feeling that they are valued as an important part of our team," said Chory, now CEO of Valente Bakery Supplies.  "When you're driven only by profit you risk skimping here and there; and you might lose sight of what makes your company great and stop investing in your future and your people."

On the business side, Chory and Siegenthaler updated the company's facilities with energy-efficient systems and brought in business consultants and technology solutions to help modernize and streamline operations to increase efficiency and boost sales.

On the employee side, they adopted a holistic view of seeing their workers as long-term partners in growing the company. For Chory this means that basic benefits are a must: in addition to standard medical and dental benefits, Valente contributes to workers' retirement plans, and offers profit sharing to all employees after their first year.

The company's new approach also means investing in professional development for employees who want to learn a new skill set, or promoting from within to enable career progression such as transitioning a driver to a leadership role. It means offering compassionate paid leave when a worker's child or spouse is sick. It means hiring those that may face barriers to employment, including recent immigrants, veterans, and formerly incarcerated workers.

"The way I see it, making a business better starts with enabling your employees to better themselves and their life opportunities" Chory said.

Brooklyn: GreenHouse Eco-Cleaning

When GreenHouse Eco-Cleaning began in 2006, founder Saudia Davis had a vision of a healthier, safer cleaning service — one that spared both clients and workers from exposure to harsh chemicals.  This mission was a deeply personal one, as Davis's grandmother, a housekeeper from the West Indies, had lost a battle with cancer that was likely caused by a lifetime of inhaling toxic cleaning fumes.

Eleven years later, GreenHouse Eco-Cleaning is a certified B Corporation that employs 40 full-time workers and uses its own line of products made from vegetable-based, organic, biodegradable ingredients.

"When we started it was about bringing healthy options to both our employees and our clients, but it has grown into a place where we not only keep staff healthy, but empower them," Davis said. 

In addition to benefits like paid sick leave and paid time off, the company partners with local community colleges to provide financial literacy classes and with Neighborhood Trust to bring in financial advisers skilled in the socioeconomic challenges of lower-wage workers. They also provide paychecks on ATM cards that allow employees to withdraw money free of charge without having to set up a bank account.

"We try to bring in resources that can assist them with whatever goals they're setting for themselves," Davis explained. For example, when employees reported that changing apartments is prohibitively expensive in New York, because move-in costs require tenants to come up with multiple months' rent, GreenHouse Eco-Cleaning responded by forming a new partnership with Spring Bank to offer Employee Opportunity Loans — short-term loans to help longstanding employees access capital without turning to predatory payday lenders.

"We are in an industry that considers workers a commodity; where people are often abused, underpaid, and not given the security or benefits of full employment. We wanted to set a new standard, and B Lab has helped us see that there are others in the city fighting the same fight," said Davis.

An Overview of Governor Jerry Brown's Fiscal Year 2017-2018 Budget Proposal for California

On January 10, Governor Jerry Brown revealed his proposed budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, which projects a state budget deficit ($1.6 billion) for the first time since 2012. The $179.5 billion proposal maintains the state’s commitment to implementing the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), preserving the California Earned Income Tax Credit, and expanding healthcare access to vulnerable groups. Unfortunately, the budget proposal also recaptures nearly $1 billion in one-time expenditures provided in the Budget Act of 2016 (Budget Act) and delays spending increases for various programs and services, some of which, like LCFF, are designed to improve outcomes for low-income communities and communities of color.
 
We applaud the Administration’s continued commitment to important issues like healthcare access, LCFF implementation, and transportation, but believe more should be done through the budget to build an equitable California, one where all of the state’s residents can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. We urge the Governor to work with communities, advocates, and the Legislature in the coming months to develop a budget that allows California to address its intensifying housing crisis, maintain health insurance for the newly insured, guarantee immigrants targeted for deportation have effective legal representation, and protect and invest in the state’s most vulnerable populations.
 
Below we highlight areas of the budget that are likely to be of interest to equity advocates, including health and human services, education, housing, transportation, public safety, and climate change.
 
Health and Human Services
The budget maintains current spending levels for programs that ensure California residents have access to quality, affordable health care and services. For example, the proposal provides funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, as well as the expansion of Medi-Cal coverage to undocumented children and individuals earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. It also maintains funding for substance abuse programs and the transition of new immigrants from Medi-Cal to Covered California. In addition to continuing financial support for these services, the budget provides new funding to reflect the repeal of the Maximum Family Grant rule.
 
While we are encouraged by these aspects of the budget, we urge the state to continue investing in care coordination and integration programs for vulnerable residents, including the Coordinated Care Initiative, health care workforce initiatives, community infrastructure grants, and children’s mental health services grants. 

Education
The education budget provides a small increase of $2.1 billion in Prop. 98 funding for K-14 education and proposes cost-of-living adjustments for LCFF funding targets, as well as for various programs funded outside of LCFF. Unfortunately, due to the projected revenue shortfall, the Governor’s proposal, while providing an additional $744 million for LCFF implementation, “maintains the implementation formula at the current-year level of 96 percent.”[1]  Though we understand the new economic reality the state faces, we urge the Governor to fully implement LCFF as quickly as possible.
 
The budget also boosts investment in California’s Community College system. Notable areas of increased spending include efforts to address student disparities; the Guided Pathways program, an institution-wide approach to improving student completion rates; and school facilities energy efficiency projects financed through the Prop. 39 Clean Energy Job Creation Fund, which, in addition to improving energy efficiency on school campuses, targets training and jobs to individuals with barriers to employment.
 
Despite these positive investments in the community college system, the budget disappointingly proposes to phase out the Middle Class Scholarship Program, which provides has helped thousands of student to afford enrollment at CSU and UC campuses.
 
Housing
Even though the state faces a growing housing affordability crisis, the budget provides virtually no new funding for affordable housing. The proposal recaptures $400 million for affordable housing development included in the Budget Act,  and conditions continued financial support for the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Initiative (AHSC), a major source of state funding for affordable housing in recent years, on the extension of the cap-and-trade program by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.
 
In the coming months, we urge the Administration to partner with the Legislature to allocate resources for AHSC without condition, provide meaningful new investments in affordable housing, and establish a permanent source of funding for the construction, preservation, and rehabilitation of affordable units.
 
Transportation Infrastructure
Although much of the transportation budget continues to focus funding on maintaining highways and roads in California, we are pleased to see an annual increase of $100 million for the state’s Active Transportation Program, which aims to improve the mobility, health, and safety of vulnerable residents by targeting walking and bicycling infrastructure in low-income communities.

To ensure our increased transportation spending achieves state equity and climate goals, funding should be targeted to grow investment in transit operations and complete streets, prioritize transportation projects that provide meaningful benefits to low-income people of color, and connect disadvantaged community residents to transportation sector training and jobs.
 
Public Safety and Justice
While the budget’s public safety proposal highlights many of the anticipated positive effects of Proposition 57[2], we hope the revised budget will deepen California’s commitment to investing in our people and communities, divesting from systems that separate families and perpetuate trauma, and eliminating policies that serve as barriers to the success of low-income people and people of color. These values are reflected in the budget’s proposal to end the use of driver’s license suspensions as a debt collection tool, a counterproductive practice that has caused financial insecurity throughout California’s low-income communities of color.
 
We hope the May Revision will build on the proposed repeal, by reducing funding for harmful institutions, including immigration detention centers, prisons, and law enforcement, and investing in reintegration services, quality legal representation for immigrants, and support for other vulnerable groups.
 
Climate Change and Natural Resources
The budget proposes a $2.2 billion dollar Cap-and-Trade Expenditure Plan using revenues generated through the State’s carbon trading program. This plan includes needed investments in transportation, housing, pollution reduction, and other programs that provide benefits to low-income, pollution-burdened communities. Unfortunately, the budget makes allocation of these proposed investments contingent upon the Legislature approving an extension of the state’s cap-and-trade program. Accomplishing this will require support of two-thirds of the Legislature and poses a significant hurdle to securing these important investments.
 
The Governor’s environmental and natural resources proposal also acknowledges the severe drinking water challenges faced by disadvantaged communities across California and commits to working with the Legislature and stakeholders to address these challenges. This commitment is very encouraging. However, with over one million Californians being served drinking water from systems that do not meet safe drinking water standards, we urge the Administration to take this commitment further and prioritize developing a sustainable funding source to ensure that all Californians have safe and affordable drinking water.

Conclusion
As we learn more about the incoming presidential administration’s policy goals, the Governor’s budget proposals are likely to change. In the coming months, advocates should engage their legislators and the Governor to ensure that hard fought gains for California’s low-income communities and communities of color are protected and expanded.
 
________________________________________


[1] Governor’s Budget Summary – 2017-18, “K-12 Education,” 20, http://www.ebudget.ca.gov/2017-18/pdf/BudgetSummary/K-12Education.pdf.
[2] Proposition 57 allows non-violent offenders who have completed the prison term for their primary offense to be considered for parole and authorizes the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation to establish a “credit” system under which individuals can earn an early release from prison. The law also provides that only judges may determine whether juveniles 14 and older can be prosecuted or sentenced as an adult.

Secure Retirement for All Californians: An Interview with State Senator Kevin de León on the Nation’s Largest Retirement Savings Program Since the New Deal

Thanks to nearly a decade of advocacy and research, and to the inspiring leadership of California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León — the kind of leader the nation needs — California has taken another step forward by making  portable, auto-enrolled, individual retirement accounts available to millions of Californians who lack such benefits.  Workers participating in the newly passed Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program will have at least 3 percent of their earnings deducted from their paycheck and deposited in an individual retirement account, managed by the Secure Choice Retirement Savings Investment Board. They will be able to opt out at any time.

Given that many participants will have no experience with saving for retirement and many may currently rely on public benefits programs, PolicyLink worked with partners and De León's office to advocate for equity measures within the bill to ensure that the program best serves the needs of low-income workers. Thanks to this advocacy, the Board is required to establish a comprehensive outreach and education program to inform eligible workers of the risks and benefits of the program, and there is now increased attention on ensuring that retirement savings do not count toward assets, which could potentially disqualify low-income workers from receiving vital public benefits.

Touted as the broadest enhancement of retirement benefits since Social Security, Secure Choice provides a crucial opportunity to prove the merits of state-backed retirement pans. 

Senator de León spoke with Christopher Brown, director for financial security at PolicyLink, to share his insight into this innovative new policy and discuss how other states might follow in California's footsteps.

Why is it so important that the state step in to provide opportunities for workers to save for retirement?

We have close to seven million workers in California in the private sector with no access to any retirement security plan — neither a defined benefit nor a defined contribution plan. This means that 50 percent of middle-income workers are at risk of retiring into poverty. The numbers are worse for women retirees, who make up two-thirds of retirees today who live in poverty. When I think of women like my mother or my aunt, women who raised us, clothed us, fed us — it's immoral that these women should retire into poverty. After a lifetime career of hard work, helping to make California the sixth largest economy in the world, they deserve to live with a modicum of dignity and respect. This is a not a partisan issue. Retirement insecurity impacts all Americans, regardless of the hue of your skin or your geographic location. Secure Choice is a complete game changer. It gives millions of workers the option to save automatically, through their employer's payroll.  No matter what job you hold in California, you can plan for your future. 

What were some of the challenges you faced in creating this legislation, and how were they overcome?

It's been a long, arduous journey to get this approved. The first iteration of this measure failed in 2008, and again in 2009. But in 2012 Governor Jerry Brown signed a measure that allowed us to appoint a Secure Choice Board and raise money to conduct the necessary feasibility studies and market analysis to show that this would be financially viable and self-sustaining.  It took years of going back and forth to Washington, DC to meet with the Department of Labor, the Treasury Department, and other key players on Capitol Hill. We rolled up our sleeves and went to work, going over the arcane technical aspects and trying to find a solution to this vexing problem of retirement insecurity.

All along the way we had very strong opposition on Wall Street and in Washington, DC, because our program was seen as competing with financial markets for retirement.  However, we were able to make the case that this wasn't about competition or cannibalizing an existing financial market sector, because we are trying to reach a highly fragmented, diverse community made up largely of lower-income workers who need retirement security the most and aren't being reached by private financial providers. We also stressed that this is a policy issue, not a commercial one — that too many people are hurting because they don't have access to retirement savings as part of their employment, and too many people would be forced to rely on government assistance in retirement because they had not had the opportunity to save throughout their careers.

What will be the next steps in implementing Secure Choice?

The law will go into effect on January 1, 2017, and will authorize the Secure Choice Board, chaired by Treasurer John Chiang, to begin the development of the program. Over the course of three years we will phase in employers by company size; ultimately, all employers with five or more employees will be required to participate.  We still have a lot of work to do to educate consumers about what's going to happen and why it's important. We have seven million people in California who will be eligible for this, so we need to take them all on a journey to educate them about the importance of retirement savings, and the power of saving early so that you compound your principal investment.

We've scaled the mountain and withstood the powerful, well-moneyed opposition, but now we need to roll up our sleeves and take this to the people to make sure the outcomes are positive.

The Department of Labor recently issued a proposed rule that would pave the way for local governments to follow California's lead in providing retirement plans. What advice would you give to other states wishing to provide their own retirement savings plans?

I'd say the critical thing that is going to help expand these policies is leadership — both nationally and within states. This leadership needs to be bipartisan, as it was in California, and they need to step up and make their fellow politicians understand that their citizens are hurting in retirement. They have a choice: they can represent the people and try to increase access to retirement benefits, or they can represent the interests of Wall Street and do nothing. The good news is that the concept of state-backed retirement savings has caught on like wildfire.  We know of at least 15 other states that are following our lead with plans to adopt similar programs in the future, and we couldn't be more excited.

We Are The Humanities

Cross-posted from California Humanities

What are the humanities, why do they matter? How have they made a difference in your life?

To celebrate our 40th year anniversary of grant making, programming, and partnerships that connect Californians to each other, we invited a group of 40 prominent Californians to explore what the humanities mean to them. 
 
We invite you to watch, listen, and read as they dig into the deep importance of the humanities in shaping their lives and understanding the world. We are sharing what they have to say every week via our website, and social media channels, and invite you to tell us why the humanities are important to you!
 
 

Pages