Why North Carolinians Can’t Drink Their Well Water

Last week, controversy erupted in North Carolina when the state’s epidemiologist resigned via an open letter, saying that the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is willingly misleading the public.

It’s the latest installment in an ongoing battle over coal ash contamination in residents’ well water. Earlier this summer, a state toxicologist’s deposition accused the governor’s staff of pressuring him to sign on to letters saying well water near coal ash sites was safe to drink. In response, the governor’s office accused him of lying under oath.

How did we get here?

For the past 50 years the question of how to regulate coal ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants, has been left to the states.  In North Carolina, that meant utility companies were allowed to store hundreds of millions of tons of ash full of toxic metals in unlined pits, without any barriers to prevent them from leaking into the groundwater that feeds nearby rivers and wells.

In the spring of 2015, residents who live near coal ash pits across the state began receiving letters from DHHS telling them their well water was contaminated—primarily with vanadium and hexavalent chromium (the carcinogen made famous by Erin Brockovich)—and that they shouldn’t drink it.

In all, 369 households were told their well water was unsafe to drink.

State governments have allowed ash to be warehoused in communities with little political influence

For two generations, our state governments have allowed ash to be warehoused in communities with little political influence—that is, low-income communities and communities of color. These community members do not have the resources to get a meeting with their governor. But Duke Energy, the state’s major power company, does.

On June 1, 2015 the governor and his staff, including his top environmental official, met privately with Duke Energy leadership—despite the fact that the state is in litigation with the company over coal ash contamination.  A spokeswoman for Duke Energy described the meeting as a “routine update and conversation,” but this direct line between Duke Energy and the governor remains stronger than the voices of ordinary residents who need stronger environmental protections.

In May, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality completed a public comment and hearing process on ash clean up at 14 sites across the state.  Of the 7,819 comments filed, 98% were in favor of a removal process called excavation, which would move the ash to lined landfills that prevent contaminants from mixing with groundwater. The process is expensive, but effective: In South Carolina, where all ash is being excavated, early groundwater testing results show that arsenic levels beneath the old pits have declined by 60% to 90%.

In mid-June, the North Carolina state legislature passed a bill requiring coal ash sites to be excavated, and safe water be permanently provided to residents.  Governor Pat McCrory vetoed it. Instead, he signed a compromise bill that would allow Duke Energy to “cap in place” at some sites—that is, bury their ash without a protective liner to prevent groundwater contamination—instead of excavating, provided the utility ran water to residents and completed some dam repairs.  The new legislation was met with objections from neighbors around coal ash pits.

The disparate impact on minority and low-income communities has caught the attention of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which has been holding hearings in North Carolina and across the country to examine the impact of coal ash.  Eventually, this effort could lead to recommendations to the EPA that would protect coal ash neighbors from lax state enforcement against powerful utilities.  But in the meantime, residents have few options.

Compared to Duke Energy, we are all poor.  This is a Fortune 250 utility company worth nearly $50 billion.  Its territory stretches from Florida to Ohio, and regulators in many of these states are currently deciding how to handle coal ash.

We know Duke Energy will be heard. The question is whether or not residents will be heard, too.


First Person

The House Next Door

When my father, aunt, and uncle decided to pool their money to buy my grandmother a house closer to one of her children, they didn’t need to look far. The house next door to mine had just gone up for sale.

I had played with the children who lived next door for years, so my father asked me what the inside of the house was like. “I don’t think you want to buy that house,” I told him. He was confused—the house was in perfect condition on the outside, a cute little colonial-style two-story. Yes, it was built in 1921, but it had an immaculately kept lawn and a big tree with a swing in the backyard.

But the inside of the house looked nothing like the outside. The owners had started renovating the house years before, but stopped midway through when money got tight. There were no walls in the kitchen and dining room, and no flooring. Old nob-and-tube wiring hung, exposed, from the studs. One planned bathroom had barely been started, it was just exposed pipes in the wall. The basement had a dirt floor that got muddy when it rained, and the washing machine was propped on plywood in the corner.

An exposed stud in the kitchen was a sad testimony to the history of the house. The heights of the family’s three children were marked there, starting when the children were two. By the time the family moved, they were in their twenties—proof that the house had been unfinished for decades.  My family thought I was lying until they saw for themselves.

“I can’t believe they lived like that,” my dad said, “all those years.”

The basement had a dirt floor that got muddy when it rained.

The house next door is a symptom of and a metaphor for the larger phenomenon of suburban poverty. Americans have ready-made stereotypes for poverty in urban and rural areas, of crime-filled streets and crumbling housing projects or broken-down farmhouses and beat-up pick-up trucks. But suburban poverty, thanks to its stereotype-defying nature, is often more difficult to understand.

My family bought that house, and the more than two acres of land it sat on, for $20,000. The sale notice in the local paper caused a scandal in my suburban community—housing prices in the region are low, but not that low. Neighbors were unwilling to believe that $20,000 was all that house, with its pleasing exterior, was worth.

As my family worked to renovate the house, we realized that we had much more in common with the family next door than we thought. My father, a cabinet maker, had always gotten along well with the machinist patriarch of the house next door. They bonded over a shared identity as working class men, relating to each other’s long shifts and six-day work weeks. But my dad hadn’t realized how much they struggled. They had seemed so much more prosperous from across the property line.

We were also a working class family that struggled to make ends meet, fighting to finance a slew of large and small expenses—from car insurance to braces to broken household appliances. We did not always juggle these costs well. I went without health insurance for months when the premium swelled and my dad struggled to find a plan he could afford. My parents are divorced and because my mom lived in poverty, we received food stamps and free school lunches. My father, meanwhile, has struggled to scrape together $15,000 in retirement savings despite working full time his entire life.

Was it possible that each of our families had spent years thinking, wrongly, that their neighbors were doing better financially?

The neighbors likely didn’t know any of this. To them, the equation was clear: the interior of our home was finished, so we must be better off than them. Was it possible that each of our families had spent years thinking, wrongly, that their neighbors were doing better financially?

Across the country, the phenomenon of suburban poverty is growing. In my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, some 13.9% of suburban residents lived in poverty in 2011. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of suburban people in poverty in the U.S. grew 64%. These trends have been mirrored in rising student participation in the Free and Reduced Price Lunch Program—often used as a measure of families living in poverty–in suburban school districts nationwide. In 2011, 40% of students in suburban districts were eligible for this program.

The suburban poor face a unique set of challenges, because suburbs simply do not have sufficient infrastructure for handling poverty. Those struggling to get by in suburban communities can have a difficult time accessing public transportation to travel to work, reliable childcare for unpredictable work schedules, or even a soup kitchen.

Even as the numbers of suburban poor climb, awareness of their existence is minimal. The suburbs still conjure images straight from a 1950s sitcom, complete with soccer moms, family dinners around a table, and perfectly manicured lawns. And while these things still exist in the suburbs, it is shockingly easy to ignore the rising tide of poverty there.

The suburban poor themselves may help to exacerbate to these stereotypes by hiding behind them. Looking presentable and fitting in are made easier by hand-me-downs and thrift stores that sell nice clothes for cheap. Poor suburban children may be able to attend highly-rated suburban schools alongside the children of affluent families, their classmates and teachers none the wiser. And once proud middle-class citizens, now unable to pay for rent or food, may struggle with guilt or shame and opt not to share their stories or even seek out help.

The family next door succeeded in blending in, but they were not alone in their financial struggles—not in our neighborhood and certainly not in our larger suburban region. I don’t know if they realized that. Life in the suburbs can be isolating, especially when there is pressure to hide your circumstances from friends and acquaintances. If everyone who is experiencing poverty hides it, then all of those people end up thinking they are alone.

My family would have thought the same, if not for the house next door.


First Person

5 Olympians Who Represent the Diversity of American Families

The Olympics are here in all of their fist-pumping, flag-waving, Bob Costas-narrated glory, and I’m hooked. The games hold a special place in my heart: They are one of the few places in American sports where women get equal billing, they feature athletes who have overcome incredible odds—like Yusra Mardini, whose swimming saved the lives of nearly twenty refugees, and Chris Mosier, the first out transgender Olympian—and they have more drama than actual feature films.

And I can’t lie, one of my favorite parts of the Olympics is learning the athletes’ backstories. Commentators have botched some of this year’s big stories—NBC’s announcers credited Katinka Hosszú’s husband with her record-breaking success, and refused to acknowledge that Simone Biles’ adoptive parents are, in fact, her parents—but the athletes themselves are amazing. Their stories underscore the adversity many athletes—especially those who come from low-income or less privileged backgrounds—have faced to make the team. And they showcase the diversity of American families.

Far too many Americans, including policymakers, have a deeply flawed understanding of American families—largely informed by historical narratives that were never really true—that privileges a certain kind of family. That’s why highlighting the diversity of families of the Olympic athletes is invaluable. It’s one of the few times immigrant families, single mother families, families of color, LGBT families, and people with disabilities and their families are lauded and cheered by their nation.

Here are five Olympians whose personal stories highlight—and honor—the diversity of modern American families:

1.   Simone Biles

Simone Biles is a gymnastics phenom, and arguably the breakout star of the Olympics—she has already won three gold medals in Rio and is poised to win more before the end of the games. As a child, Biles and her sister spent time in foster care before they were adopted more than a decade ago. Since Biles and her sister were already related to their adoptive parents, her family was formed through what is often called kinship or relative adoption—just one of many ways adoptions bring families together. Biles’ story highlights the fact that, as her father said, adoption “is a wonderful thing.”

2.   Carlos Balderas

Carlos Balderas’ father took him to a boxing gym as punishment for fighting when he was 7 years old. Now, after years of coaching by his father and uncle, Balderas is one the U.S.’s top boxers. He’s also a first generation Mexican-American whose grandfather worked—and at times, slept—in strawberry fields trying to earn enough money to bring his family to America. Balderas said, “My family came from nothing… It feels like, this is sort of a way to pay them back.”

3.   Elena Delle Donne

Basketball star Elena Delle Donne is a rookie Olympian, and one of 43 LGBT athletes representing the U.S. in Rio. She’s also the proud sister of Lizzie, who is deaf and blind and has cerebral palsy and autism. Delle Donne acknowledges the challenges of having a close family member with a disability but also celebrates the joys, writing that Lizzie “inspires me…[and] has taught me more than anyone in my life.”

4.   Elizabeth Baker

Paratriathlete Elizabeth Baker will be representing the U.S. at the Paralympic games in Rio in September. Baker, who has a visual impairment, only started doing triathlons in 2004. When her eyesight began deteriorating in college Baker didn’t want to be underestimated: “I didn’t want anyone to count me out because they thought I couldn’t do something; I wanted to make those decisions.” Baker will be cheered on by her spouse and two children, whose support she credits as integral to her success.

5.   Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps, history’s most decorated Olympian, is a household name—and his mom, Debbie Phelps, is nearly as famous for her enthusiastic support. Raising Michael and his sisters as a single mom, she’s been on hand for countless victories over the years. This year, though, the Phelps cheering section looks at little different—it includes his fiancée, Nicole Johnson, and their son Boomer. Phelps’ take on becoming a new dad just months before the games? “It’s still crazy…it’s just awesome.”

These athletes—and many others like them—are a credit to their families and their country on the world’s biggest stage. Their diverse backgrounds clearly demonstrate there is no one right way to be a family—and that the constellation of people who love and support you can take a lot of shapes.

I’m not crying, you’re crying.



The ‘Save Our Social Security Act’ Proves Conservatives Lost the Social Security Fight

Earlier this summer, lawmakers introduced a bill to “save” Social Security that reads like a desperate attempt to appeal to the growing movement to expand the program. The proposal, introduced by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI), is called the “S.O.S. Act”—short for the “Save Our Social Security Act of 2016” (get it?).

The new legislation includes many of the stealth benefit cuts that conservatives have been pushing for years. It calls for increasing the retirement age from 66 to 69. Even a one-year increase in the retirement age is equivalent to a 7 percent cut in benefits for all retirees, so raising the full retirement age to 69 would cost millions of Americans thousands of dollars in benefits. It would also have a disproportionate impact on low-income workers, who get a larger share of their income from Social Security.

The bill also includes the now-infamous “chained CPI”—a measure of inflation that would chip away at Social Security benefits over time. In the long run, the new formula would cut earned benefits by an additional $1,000 a year.

But the new proposal does more than just cut Social Security—it includes something few Congressional Republicans were advocating just a few years ago.

Section 2 of the bill—titled “Increase Contribution and Benefit Base”—calls for raising the cap on the payroll tax that funds Social Security benefits from $118,500 to $308,750. In other words, the wealthiest Americans would be asked to contribute a little bit more to fund the program. The bill also increases benefits for the oldest beneficiaries, and creates a minimum benefit for beneficiaries who are at or near the poverty level.

These—albeit modest—concessions underscore just how far the Social Security debate has moved under President Obama.

These—albeit modest—concessions underscore just how far the Social Security debate has moved under President Obama. In 2010, with post-recession deficit concerns still running high, President Obama created a “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform” (often referred to as “Simpson-Bowles,” after its co-chairs) that proposed an increase in the Social Security retirement age and a new, more meager measure of inflation. Future House Speaker Paul Ryan’s budget plan that year went a step further: He not only put forward massive cuts, but set up private accounts that would bankrupt the program over the long haul.  Then in 2011, the White House offered cuts to Social Security and Medicare in “grand bargain” negotiations with Republicans.

The shift that followed the failed attempt at a “grand bargain” is now well-known. Progressives, led by groups like Social Security Works, organized labor, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, shifted from defense to offense. In 2013, New America released a comprehensive plan to expand Social Security. Last year, one of the program’s staunchest advocates, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, rallied all but two Senate Democrats to support a resolution to “expand and protect” Social Security. And in June, the President publicly endorsed expansion.

The “S.O.S Act” is nowhere close to the emerging progressive consensus around Social Security. In addition to benefit increases, it includes many of the same cuts proposed in Simpson-Bowles. And, since the Republican author of the bill is retiring at the end of this Congress (along with three of the bill’s original cosponsors), any progress should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.

But for the first time, conservatives are cloaking benefit cuts with the rhetoric of “strengthening” Social Security. The center on Social Security policy has moved—and conservatives don’t know how to catch up.



The Wealth Gap Between Black and White Families Is Getting Worse

The U.S. Constitution was ratified a full 228 years ago.  The cutting edge technology that year was the steamboat, and the country had not yet even had a presidential election.

If 228 years seems like a really long time, that’s because it is. But if current trends continue, that’s how long it will take for the average black family to reach the level of wealth the average white family has today.

Source: Corporation for Enterprise Development and Institute for Policy Studies
Source: Corporation for Enterprise Development and Institute for Policy Studies

The average Latino family fares slightly better—if the current trend continues, it would take them a little more than 80 years to amass the same amount of wealth white families have today.

Racial discrepancies in income and wealth are nothing new in this country. The troubling thing is that they aren’t improving. A new report by the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) compares data on white, black, and Latino households over the past 30 years to see just how big the gap is—and the findings are staggering.

Between 1983 and 2013, the average black family saw their wealth grow by a little less than $20,000. Latino families saw a bump of about $40,000. Meanwhile, the average white family’s wealth spiked by more than $300,000.

If current trends persist, the figures get even starker. By 2043, when people of color are predicted to outnumber white people for the first time in the U.S., the racial wealth gap will double—leaving the average white family with over $1 million more in assets than black and Latino families.

Source: Corporation for Enterprise Development
Source: Corporation for Enterprise Development and Institute for Policy Studies

Wealth is an important barometer of long-term financial stability. It translates into a first home, retirement security, and the countless opportunities afforded by having savings and investments.  Those without wealth lead a precarious existence – they have no cushion to fall back on if tragedy strikes or when they grow old.

So how did wealth become so skewed along racial lines?

The legacy of overtly racist public policy is partly to blame. Redlining, the practice of deliberately blocking non-white families from obtaining a mortgage, had a devastating impact on homeownership for black and Latino families. From 1934 to 1968—the period marking the biggest expansion of the American middle class—only two percent of Federal Housing Administration mortgages went to non-whites. The effects of that kind of discrimination are still reverberating today.

Unfortunately, current policy has exacerbated the problem. Consider, for example, federal tax expenditures. These tax breaks—all $600 billion of them—are designed to help families pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement, and start a business.  The problem is, the people who need the most help tend to get the least. Working families get an average of $174 each year in tax breaks, while the typical millionaire gets $145,000.

The Internal Revenue Service does not collect data on race, but since we know income is heavily skewed towards white earners—four out of five earners in the top the top 20 percent are white—we can be reasonably confident that these tax breaks are disproportionately benefiting white earners.

Wealth is concentrated in very few hands. And those hands are mostly white.

The racial disparity continues to grow at the very top of the economic pyramid. On last year’s famed Forbes 400 list, which enumerates the 400 wealthiest people in the country, just seven people are black or Latino. That’s worth noting, since America’s wealthiest citizens control a tremendous amount of the country’s wealth: the top 100 members of the Forbes 400 list own about as much wealth as the entire African-American population (42 million people), while the top 186 members own as much wealth as the entire Latino population (55 million people).

In short, wealth is concentrated in very few hands. And those hands are mostly white.

But just as public policy played a role in growing the racial wealth divide, it can play a role in shrinking it. An important first step would be to conduct a government-wide audit, launched by an executive order from the next president, to understand the role current federal policies play in perpetuating (or closing) the racial wealth divide.

With that data, we can begin to overhaul inequitable policies and take the steps needed to ensure our nation’s wealth-building system works for all Americans.