Meet the Congressman Trying to Bring Fresh Food to Low-Income Neighborhoods

The grocery industry is increasingly consolidated. Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods for $14 billion sent grocery stocks tumbling and had many analysts worrying about the end of local mom and pop grocery stores.

Nowhere would be harder hit than food deserts—areas, mostly low-income, without access to fruits, vegetables, or other healthy food. According to the USDA, 6,500 census tracts, or about 10 percent of American communities, are food deserts, and 25 million Americans lack access to a grocery store.

One of the leading champions on issues of food insecurity in Congress is Indianapolis Rep. André Carson (D-IN). In 2014, a study by rated the city as the worst in the country for food deserts. The following year, the iconic Double 8 Foods supermarkets—which served neighborhoods largely neglected by other chains—closed its four locations, citing declining revenues.

I spoke to Rep. Carson about his efforts to expand access to healthy meals and his recent legislation addressing food deserts.

Jeremy Slevin: What made you decide to take action on food deserts?

Rep. André Carson: In recent years, Indianapolis has been one of the worst food deserts in the country. Around 2014 we saw four Double 8 grocery stores close, and then last year it got even worse when several Marsh stores closed their doors. Many assumed that those customers would just get their groceries elsewhere. But unfortunately I think the implications were greater than that, and overnight we saw thousands of Hoosiers effectively lose access to the only grocery store they had available.

We’re talking about low-income families, often without vehicles or even access to public transit, and they’re living miles from the closest store. They had nowhere to go to buy fruits and vegetables and bread and milk, so they really relied on what they could find at their local convenience stores and fast food restaurants. The closure of these stores has created food deserts throughout the district.

JS: So tell us what your bill does to address this.

AC: The bill tries to address the absence of nutritious foods in many urban and rural communities by providing loans for the operation of grocery stores. The Department of Agriculture would provide grants to each state to establish a revolving fund, and each state would provide loans from its revolving fund for the construction (and even operation) of grocery stores, specifically for underserved communities. These loans would be made available to for-profit, non-profit, even locally-owned entities.

The states would handle loan processing and make awards to organizations that meet the requirements, but they have to have an emphasis on unprocessed nutritious foods, providing fresh fruits and veggies, providing staple foods like milk, bread, and wheat, charging prices below market average, and be sufficiently qualified to operate a store.

I think it’s important to note that priority will be given to applications that include a plan to hire workers from those underserved communities and provide information about healthy diet. They’re going to get their food from local gardens and farms, and a lot of these entities will not have beer and wine or tobacco products readily available—but I think in the future that’s an option that they can pursue if they want to go through the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission.

JS: So what’s at the root of this problem? Why are these stores closing in Indianapolis, and what’s the impediment to opening up new grocery stores in low-income areas right now?

AC: I think we haven’t brought enough attention to the issue nationally. It’s not specific to urban centers—rural communities are impacted as well. I think corporations and entities make corporate decisions that address their bottom line, but we have to make sure that the NGOs and other entities are in place so we can [incentivize] them to provide resources to these communities.

JS: Is part of the issue that it’s just not as profitable, unfortunately, in lower-income communities to have these grocery stores, and that’s why they need this leg up?

The demand is always there.

AC: Perhaps some would make that argument, but I would counter that and say that the demand is always there. If you look at the Double 8’s, there were customers there, but the facility was unkempt, the food offerings were spoiled or nearing spoilage, and it just wasn’t a great place to get food to attempt to live a healthy lifestyle. It wasn’t a sustainable existence. But the demand is always there. If you see a clean facility where healthy options are being presented, there’s a sense of pride that people will in doing business with that kind of operation.

JS: You mentioned transportation earlier, which seems like another huge driver of this. Do you think more investment in public transit in low-income communities could help stem this crisis as well?

AC: Absolutely, that’s always an issue. Folks who are on fixed incomes or have fewer means to purchase a vehicle, they have to rely on public transportation or friends and family.

JS: Do you see a path to this passing in Congress?

AC: We’re hopeful. It’s going to take a concerted effort to educate members of Congress, but also constituents and constituencies across the country to encourage and force their representatives to support this legislation. And the farm bill is a critical part of that conversation.

JS: And this is something that you’re hoping to be included in the farm bill negotiations?

AC: Absolutely.

JS: What’s been the response, if any, from the other side of the aisle?

AC: I think we’re in the midst of an austerity push, but we’re not in Europe. There are budget hawks that would be concerned about the cost of this, and understandably so. But this proposal helps their constituents. It helps spur economic growth, it helps their constituents live healthier lives, and have some sense of dignity about being able to go to a store that’s clean—where customer service is paramount, where food offerings are healthy, and the presentation is very professional.

JS: Obviously, we’re talking specifically about food deserts, but food insecurity is a problem that affects this entire country, particularly kids, that is not often talked about in the media. What more do you think we can do to shine a light on food insecurity more broadly?

AC: Studies have shown that when kids don’t have the nourishment they need, it impacts brain activity, it impacts retention in terms of memory, it impacts performance as it relates to their ability to contribute as a student and process information. And I think addressing these food deserts and having our schools be a part of this discussion will close the gap on many of these concerns. I even think that there are several attempts to get rid of the designation for free lunches for students because it removes the stigma. Schools have to be a part of this larger conversation if we’re going to address many of the issues in some of our schools that are underperforming.

JS: And we’ve even seen reports of school districts shaming kids for getting subsidized school lunches.

AC: That stigma’s been around for years. Kudos to those school districts and states that are attempting to remove the stigma. That’s something that’s been a source of bullying; it’s been a source of increased absences, so I think taking away that stigma will go a long way.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.



It’s Time to Stop Using Inmates for Free Labor

Last week, a Louisiana sheriff gave a press conference railing against a new prisoner release program because it cost him free labor from “some good [inmates] that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in the cars, to cook in the kitchen.” Two days later, news broke that up to 40 percent of the firefighters battling California’s outbreak of forest fires are prison inmates working for $2 an hour. Practices like these are disturbingly common: Military gear, ground meat, Starbucks holiday products, and McDonald’s uniforms have all been made (or are still made) with low-wage prison labor.

Inmates are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires that workers are paid at least the federal minimum wage. That makes it completely legal for states to exploit inmates for free or cheap labor. More than half of the 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons work while incarcerated, and the vast majority only make a few cents per hour.

Most inmates work in their own prison facilities, in jobs such as maintenance or food service. These jobs pay an average of just 86 cents an hour, and are primarily designed to keep the prison running at a low cost. Others may be employed in so-called “correctional industries,” where inmates work for the Department of Corrections to produce goods that are sold to government entities and nonprofit organizations. The highest median wages for these jobs top out at less than $2 an hour, and they’ve dropped over time—an incarcerated worker is paid less today than they were in 2001. In Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, most inmates working in prison facilities aren’t paid at all.

It is impossible to discuss prison labor without acknowledging the deep ties the criminal justice system has to the legacy of slavery in the United States. Targeted mass incarceration policies, racial bias, and other structural disadvantages have led to an overrepresentation of people of color—particularly African Americans—in prisons and jails. As activist and author Shaka Senghor notes in Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th, “The 13th amendment says, ‘no involuntary servitude except for those who have been duly convicted of a crime.’ So once you’ve been convicted of a crime, you are in essence a slave of the state.”

Though we run the risk of stating the obvious, there is a clear solution available: treating prisoners like people rather than chattel. That means paying prisoners a minimum wage for their work, and making sure the employment options in prison are designed to help people transition into their communities once they are released.

The median starting wage is 7 cents an hour.

Apprenticeship programs, which provide paid training that combines on-the-job learning with classroom instruction, may be the perfect solution. These programs can equip inmates with a marketable skill, a wage, and a credential that holds value in the labor market and can help them get a job upon release. A recent Center for American Progress report suggests using paid apprenticeships during incarceration to help inmates and their families support themselves after incarceration and reduce recidivism.

However, these programs frequently suffer the same pitfall as other prison work programs—they pay breathtakingly low wages. Since 2008, the median starting wage has been 7 cents an hour and the median exit wage 35 cents an hour—hardly enough to put inmates on the road to financial stability.

If these programs paid decent wages, they could increase economic stability of inmates, effectively easing the path to re-entry. They would allow inmates to pay off debts from their interactions with the justice system and reduce recidivism. They’re not a panacea, but well-paid apprenticeships can help put returning citizens on the road toward a good job and a secure future.

The criminal justice system has historically relied on a system of punishment and exploitation instead of rehabilitation, but we can change this going forward. Treating incarcerated people like human beings by paying them for their work is a good place to start.



D.C. Residents Are Fighting a Slumlord to Regain Control of Their Neighborhood

For the past four years, tenants in the five-building complex above the Congress Heights metro station have dealt with horrific conditions: cockroaches, rats, bedbugs, persistent flooding, roofs caving in. One resident told The Washington Post that “feces backed into her bathtub more than a dozen times – including once while bathing her 1-year-old.”

Ruth Barnwell, a 73-year-old resident and president of the Congress Heights tenants association, said that she told her landlord about raw sewage in the basement in July 2015, but they didn’t do anything about it until the following October. Barnwell has been living in Congress Heights for 34 years, but she says that they didn’t start having these issues until 2013.

“That’s when we found out the building was going to be turned into high-rises,” she says.

In 2013, two years after acquiring four of the five Congress Heights buildings, Sanford Capital and City Partners submitted a plan to the Zoning Commission to demolish the apartment complex and install 446,000 square feet of luxury offices and condos in its place. The tenants allege that Sanford—which has already racked up more than 200 housing code violations in its 19 apartment buildings across the city—has been intentionally letting the conditions degrade so that residents will be forced to move out to make way for the new development.

Robert Green, a 68-year-old resident who lives on a fixed income, says that the company has gone as far as soliciting damage. One day, as he was walking out of his apartment building, an electrician who was walking into the building stopped him. “You still live here?” The man asked. Green said yes.

“They paid me to go downstairs and mess up some wires,” he told Green. (Sanford Capital did not respond to requests for comment.)

If Sanford’s plan is to drive residents out of Congress Heights, it’s working: Since 2013, the number of occupied units of affordable housing has dropped from 49 to 13.

*          *          *

The Zoning Commission approved Sanford’s development plan in 2015, but the company can’t act on it yet. The plan requires control of all five of the Congress Heights buildings; Sanford currently owns four. In January, the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development repossessed the fifth and final piece of the Congress Heights puzzle: the vacant building at 3200 13th St SE. But the remaining residents, who would be forced to move, aren’t letting it go without a fight.

The costs of fighting a court case are so high that it’s as if residents aren’t allowed to return at all.

On September 6, the Congress Heights tenants association delivered a letter to Mayor Bowser’s office with a simple request: Instead of letting Sanford buy the vacant building in a public auction, let the current residents exercise their Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) rights to have their chosen nonprofit developer build 200 units of affordable housing on the land.

The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act wasn’t designed for situations like the one in Congress Heights—it grants renters the first right to purchase their property if the building owner wants to sell. The building at 3200 doesn’t have any tenants; it’s been vacant for years. But since it’s part of an entire neighborhood that will be demolished under the redevelopment plan, the tenants of the surrounding buildings have a vested interest in who ultimately controls the building.

If the district puts the building up for public auction and Sanford acquires it, Sanford will have assembled all the necessary pieces to execute its luxury development plan. But if the tenants are assigned ownership, they’re hoping that Sanford—now unable to complete its redevelopment—will cut its losses and sell the remaining buildings to the National Housing Trust (NHT). NHT would then execute its own plan to build 200 units of affordable housing on the land.

In either case, the current buildings will be demolished and residents will, at least temporarily, be displaced. The difference is what happens after the buildings are rebuilt.

An executive of City Partners has said that if it executes its redevelopment plan, “All current residents will be offered the chance to move back into the new building at their current lease rates.”

This is a common promise that developers offer residents when they’re displacing them, but it’s rarely fulfilled. A 2004 study by the Urban Institute found that only 19 percent of families returned to neighborhoods they were displaced from, despite promises that they could. Developers often simply ignore their previous promise and rely on residents suing them to retain their right to return. But the costs of fighting a court case are so high that it’s as if residents aren’t allowed to return at all.

The National Housing Trust has offered the tenants the same promise to return, in addition to an offer to house them at other properties in the meantime. But the tenants are more willing to believe that NHT will honor this promise than Sanford, because NHT’s goal is to build more and better affordable housing for these residents, while Sanford’s goal is to profit.

*          *          *

The District of Columbia’s affordable housing crisis extends far beyond Congress Heights. There are roughly 1,500 families, including more than 2,700 children, who are homeless on a given night in the district. And while homelessness is declining nationally, it’s grown in D.C. by almost 75 percent in the past five years. Housing is so expensive in the district that a single parent working a minimum-wage job would have to work 119 hours per week to afford a 2-bedroom apartment at market rate.

The district’s flagship program to deal with the homelessness crisis is the rapid rehousing program, which provides temporary vouchers that families can use for rent. But most reputable landlords won’t accept the vouchers, and they’re too small and too temporary to end most families’ housing insecurity, so many voucher recipients get caught in a cycle of rapid rehousing, eviction, and homelessness. Will Merrifield, an attorney who represents the Congress Heights tenants, says this creates a “subprime market for slumlords to take advantage of people with subsidies.”

Because a large portion of voucher recipients end up in Sanford properties, they receive millions of taxpayer dollars annually to house low-income families in deplorable conditions. City officials have been hesitant to hold Sanford accountable for its negligence, lamenting that it’s “not always easy” to find other landlords who are willing to house renters with vouchers. But it’s worth noting that Sanford also has direct ties to the Bowser administration: Mayor Bowser has received donations from Geoffrey Griffis, the head of Sanford partner City Partners; Mary Strauss, the wife of Sanford co-founder Patrick Strauss; and Sanford Capital itself. The Sanford Capital donation was $1,000 more than the legal limit.

“These politicians keep acting like this affordable housing crisis fell out of the sky, like it’s a piano that fell out of a window,” says Merrifield. “They created this.”

‘It’s not that we don’t have the money. It’s about leadership.’

The cycle of development and displacement is at work in almost every corner of the city. In Columbia Heights, H Street, Brookland Manor, and countless other neighborhoods, low-income, primarily black residents are being pushed out to make room for wealthy, primarily white Millennials. And the district often finances this displacement. They’ve given away hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of public land to private developers. In Congress Heights alone, they’ve allocated $103 million for a development project that will build a new practice facility for the Wizards—right across the street from residents who have to live with feces backing up into their bathtub.

At a town hall meeting in Congress Heights last week, Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White (D) admitted that the district has the resources to solve the affordable housing crisis. “It’s not that we don’t have the money,” he said. “It’s about leadership.”

The tenants view their request to Mayor Bowser as the perfect opportunity for her administration to demonstrate its commitment to affordable housing. “She’s going to continue to stand with the slumlords and developers, or she’s going to come over to the people’s side,” says Barnwell. “We believe that we can win. She’s coming up for re-election, you know.”

So far, the city government seems unmoved. Polly Donaldson, the director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, offered the following statement about the tenants’ request: “The plan for the vacant building is to put it out for competitive bid for solicitation once the litigation has cleared.”



A Poverty Expert Explains How We Make It a Crime to Be Poor

Officially, the United States ended debtors’ prisons in 1833. Unofficially, as we saw in the Justice Department’s report on racially biased policing in Ferguson, there is a system of fines and fees for minor crimes that often result in jail time for the poor, mostly black citizens who cannot afford to pay them.

To provide more context on the issue, I talked with Peter Edelman, Georgetown University law professor and former staffer for Robert F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, about his new book Not a Crime to be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America.

Rebecca Vallas: So, just to start off, what got you interested in writing this book?

Peter Edelman: I’d been working on poverty issues for long time, and I thought I’d kind of seen everything. But when it came out that Ferguson’s budget was based on hauling everybody into court and whacking them with these huge fines and fees, it got me interested. I realized this is really something that people need to know more about than they do.

RV: Part of what you did to research for the book was to speak with an array of lawyers who represent clients facing these problems. (In full disclosure, I’m one of those people you spoke with in my capacity as a recovering legal aid lawyer who used to represent these clients.) Would you mind sharing one of the client stories that came up in your research?

PE: Absolutely. Vera Cheeks, who’s a resident of Bainbridge, Georgia, was pulled over and ticketed for rolling through a stop sign. The judge hit her with a $135 fine—which in this business is a relatively small one—and ordered her to pay in full immediately. She told him she was unemployed and caring for her terminally ill father and had no money.

If you’re low-income and charged with a crime, you’re supposed to get a lawyer. And 43 states are charging money for it.

The judge said he would give her three months of “probation” to pay up, and he sent to her a room behind the courtroom where Cheeks says, “There was a real big lady, and there were cells on both sides of the room and there was a parade of people paying money to the lady. They were all black. It was like the twilight zone, totally mind-boggling.”

The woman said Cheeks now owed $267; the fine, plus $105 for the for-profit probation people, and $27 for the Georgia Victims Emergency Fund. The woman put a paper in front of Cheeks and told her to sign it. Cheeks said she would not. The woman said, “You’re refusing to sign the paper? I’m going to tell the judge and put you in jail for five days.” Cheeks still refused and finally the woman demanded $50 or else Cheeks would go to jail right then. Cheeks’ fiancé, who was at the courthouse, raised the money by pawning her engagement ring and a lawn implement.

She avoided jail, but Cheeks remained at risk of being locked up if she was late with even one payment.

RV: You mentioned that this practice first drew serious national attention after the killing of Michael Brown in 2014, which cast eyes, nationally, on Ferguson. But not only was this not a new phenomenon, it has not been restricted to Ferguson. I personally saw something very similar play out in Philadelphia when I was still working in legal aid. What’s the story behind the rise of fines and fees? You’ve put a face on the issue for us, but what’s driving what has really become a national trend?

PE: Well, you could say Grover Norquist. It’s the anti-tax rebellion that goes back quite a bit in the past, certainly a couple decades or more. Municipalities just didn’t get the money they needed to run their government, so they turned to going after people who were essentially defenseless because there aren’t anywhere near the number of lawyers that we need. And then you get added to that the broken windows.

RV: You’re referring to broken windows policing.

PE: Yes, absolutely. There was this belief that if we brought people in on junky little stuff, that would clean up the city. The big source of it that they use around the country is driver’s license suspensions. In California, for example, 4 million people just a couple years back had lost their licenses. They didn’t actually throw them in jails, like they do in many, many other places in the country. But they could take it out of their paycheck or their tax return. And so California was making billions of dollars going after these people.

And they don’t take away the driver’s license only for something you did when you’re driving. They do it for a lot of different things.

RV: People may be most familiar with traffic violations, but your book looks at a whole other range of types of fines and fees that states and localities are now leveeing on people, largely black and brown, largely low-income populations, some of which are particularly shocking. For example, you expose in your book that in 43 states people are actually charged for exercising their right to counsel if they need a public defender.

PE: That shocked me. It was a terrific study done by Joe Shapiro of NPR. It doesn’t compute, right? If you’re low-income and charged with a crime, you’re supposed to get a lawyer. And 43 states are charging money for it.

RV: Well, you’re a recovering lawyer, too. How is this not unconstitutional?

PE: Well, it is. But it’s got a combination of weasel language in the Supreme Court case, and it’s also so prevalent you would need the legislature to fix it and they want the money. And to sue in each instance is just very difficult, so there it is. The judge says, “Looks like you got a nice tattoo on your arm there, so you must have the money to pay for the lawyer or pay for the fine,” or, “You’ve got these fancy shoes and so you’re able to pay.”

RV: Wrapped up in this is effectively a vicious cycle. The people that you’re profiling in this book begin without having actually committed any crime, and it never ends just because they are poor and can’t afford to get out from under a debt.

PE: Well, this raises money bail, because it’s a major player in all of this. So, as you said, someone who’s innocent, but has allegedly done some very small-potato thing. Nonetheless, bail is set at $500 or $1,000, and they don’t have it and they can’t get it. So how do they get out of jail? They plead guilty even though they’re not. Then they get a payment plan. And then they can’t pay it.

At that point, when they haven’t paid it and they have pleaded guilty, it’s a whole new violation. They owe the criminal debt; they didn’t pay so they’re back in jail again. There’s another bail deal. There’s more money that they owe. It goes on and on and on.

RV: I think it’s helpful sometimes to put concrete examples to “small potatoes offenses.” Things like laws against public urination. There is also a different kind of subset of what I think of as the criminalization of survival, where we criminalize the types of behaviors that people need to engage in to scrape by. This is one of the stories I shared with you for your book—one of my own clients had sold blood platelets to a blood bank to supplement her family’s income from food stamps and disability benefits, because it wasn’t enough to live on. She ended up being charged with what’s known in public assistance jargon as an IPV, an intentional program violation, which can itself bring criminal penalties.

PE: Yes, it’s not just the fines and fees and the money bail. There’s issues with vagrancy Vagrancy laws make it a crime for someone to be 'without visible means of support or domicile.' In practice, these laws are used to criminalize homelessness or loitering in public spaces. and you can’t sleep in a car and you can’t sleep standing up and you can’t sleep lying down. Instead of having mental health services and housing to help people, they just tell them to get out of town. There’s a man in Sacramento who I talk about who had mental health issues. He was arrested 190 times.

RV: 190 times. So, we’ve talked about a lot, but I’m curious what shocked you the most in doing research for this book.

PE: The one that really got me are chronic nuisance ordinances. For example, say a woman calls 911 to get protection from domestic violence. If it happens two or three times, the police have been given the power to say to the landlord, “This woman is a chronic nuisance, and you have to evict her.” And it’s just totally shocking.

So how do they get out of jail? They plead guilty even though they’re not.

Now the good news is the ACLU in various parts of the country has found or been found by the person who has been hurt in this way, and won lawsuits. In Pennsylvania, both the local town and the whole state changed their laws.

RV: I mean it sounds like common sense that a domestic violence survivor shouldn’t be punished for experiencing domestic violence. It is sort of astounding to think that litigation could be necessary to make that the law of the land.

PE: It’s stunning.

RV: Your book argues powerfully that we need to be addressing these problems. But we also can’t miss the fact that addressing these problems is part of a larger anti-poverty agenda.

PE: That’s the last third of the book. It is about seven places that I visited and met the people doing the work. They’re organizers and they’re people who help families in a variety of ways, whether it’s early childhood or mental health support or the Promise Neighborhoods that President Obama started.

If we’re serious, we certainly have to have de-carceration. And Lenore Anderson in California with Prop 47, they’ve done the best job in the country and they’re the first ones to tell you that it’s not going to work if people get out but they’re homeless or they can’t find a job. They’re going to be back in. So, one way to look at it is it’s not going to work if we don’t actually attack poverty itself.

RV: There’s obviously a lot at stake under the current administration. There is a lot of real fear on the part of communities as well as advocates working on these issues who had been seeing a tremendous amount of bipartisan agreement and momentum up until the election when it came to criminal justice reform, and obviously now there’s not a lot of hope on that front at the federal level. But it sounds like you’re arguing for there being a lot to be done at the state and local level in the meantime.

PE: The action is heavily, mostly at the state and local level. Some of the things are suing in federal court and when you get up to the Supreme Court if you don’t have the five votes then that way of doing it doesn’t work. But that’s going and meanwhile all of these things that are happening at the local and state level and that’s now for example the chief justices and chief judges of all of the state systems as a group are strongly speaking about the fines and fees and not that long ago, ten years or so, they were talking about how “what a nice thing it is that we were getting money.” And then somebody said, “Wait a minute, that’s not right.”

This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and aired as part of a complete episode on October 13. It was edited for length and clarity.



The Latest Senate Tax Plan Will Open the Arctic for Drilling

This week, the Senate plans to vote on the fiscal year 2018 budget bill that would clear the way for tax reform. If the bill is going to pass, Republican senators will need at least 50 of their 52 members to vote in favor of the budget; with four senators undecided, and the sting of the failed Affordable Care Act repeals still fresh, Congressional Republicans cannot afford to lose any votes. So, the bill includes a powerful sweetener.

The reconciliation instructions for the Senate budget order the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to generate $1 billion in revenue. That’s not much in federal budget terms, but to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)—the chair of the committee and one of the Republican “no” votes who scuttled the Obamacare repeal efforts—it looks an awful lot like long-awaited permission to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for drilling.

Why do these instructions mean we’d start drilling in the Arctic Refuge?

The language in the Senate budget is vague: It simply instructs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to find a way to generate an additional $1 billion in revenue. But Senator Murkowski has made it known that the revenue would be raised by selling oil leases in the Arctic Refuge.

Like her father, Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-AK), did before her, Murkowski has taken opening up the Arctic Refuge to drilling as one of her core fights. She and fellow Alaskan Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) have previously introduced legislation that would allow oil and gas development on 2,000 acres of the Refuge’s coastal plain. At this point, Murkowski is pretty flippant about it: “You know me, I’m always trying to advance ANWR,” she said last month.

If the Energy and Natural Resources revenue request passes with the budget, the Senate could attach legislation opening the Refuge to drilling in its tax reform bill, which they plan to pass through reconciliation. That means the bill would only need a simple majority, rather than the regular 60 vote threshold. That’s crucial, because past attempts to open the Arctic for drilling have failed—once during the Clinton administration when it was vetoed by the president and again in 2005 when Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Susan Collins (R-ME) voted against it.

The lower vote threshold, combined with the fact that the provision is attached to tax reform—which Congressional Republicans and the administration need to pass—hands Murkowski something she likely wouldn’t be able to get through a normal legislative process.

Alaskan Native communities rely on the Refuge.

Why does it matter if we drill in the Arctic?

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was set aside for protection by President Dwight D. Eisenhower more than 50 years ago, and it’s often referred to as “America’s last great wilderness.” The coastal plain, where drilling would occur, is considered its “biological heart.” The infrastructure, rigs, pipelines, roads, and machinery required in industrial-scale drilling operations would put the 37 species of land mammals, eight marine mammals, 42 fish species, and more than 200 migratory bird species within the Refuge at extreme risk of permanent habitat destruction.

Further, Alaskan Native communities rely on the Refuge. The Gwich’in people have inhabited this region for generations and depend on the health of its land and wildlife for food, clothing, and cultural survival. The Porcupine caribou herd, which primarily breeds on Alaska’s coastal plain, is a staple for the indigenous Gwich’in people. Their way of life would be irreparably changed if oil and gas interests are able to open the area to development.

And those are just the problems that arise if everything goes according to plan.

Drilling in any part of the Arctic is risky. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, which dumped 11 million gallons near Prince William Sound, caused widespread damage that wildlife communities still have not recovered from. More recent attempts to explore Arctic drilling haven’t shown much improvement—Royal Dutch Shell’s $7 billion Arctic Ocean oil exploration program was abandoned after the company’s oil containment dome was “crushed like a beer can” during testing. And that failure was during “calm, tranquil conditions in the best time of year,” raising serious concerns about Shell’s ability to prevent an oil spill in more turbulent conditions.

It’s not even enough revenue to cover the costs of President Trump’s personal tax cut.

But isn’t it important to drill there as a revenue-generator?

One reason the Alaskan congressional delegation wants to open the Arctic Refuge is to put money into Alaska’s Permanent Fund, which pays out annual dividends to Alaska residents from oil and gas production in the state. The trouble is, the Refuge is not nearly the cash cow that drilling proponents make it out to be.

A Center for American Progress analysis found that offering oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is likely to yield a maximum of $37.5 million in revenue for the U.S. Treasury over the next 10 years—less than 4 percent of the $1 billion that Senate drilling proponents claim could be raised, and 0.01 percent of the increased deficit in the tax bill. It’s not even enough revenue to cover the costs of President Trump’s personal tax cut under the Senate Republican plan.

The upcoming debate in Congress about whether to sell out the Arctic Refuge is not actually about budgets or taxes. The caribou of the coastal plain are not grazing atop a pot of gold. Americans should see the Arctic Refuge drilling rider for what it is: a blatant attempt to buy Senator Murkowski’s vote.