The Frenzy Over Amazon’s HQ2 Should Be a National Embarrassment

Amazon’s HQ2 auction is finally over.

On Tuesday, the internet retailer announced that its search for a second headquarters has ended, with Long Island City in Queens and “National Landing,” Virginia, a conglomeration of Washington, D.C. suburbs, selected as sites for its big expansion. The company is promising to bring tens of thousands of jobs to the two areas, along with billions of dollars from direct investments and a broadened tax base from its new, highly-paid workforce. The company also announced a smaller expansion in Nashville, Tennessee.

However, there’s a catch: Both Virginia and New York offered Amazon monetary incentives in an attempt to win HQ2, as it’s known. Until now, the public — and even some lawmakers in those states— had no idea what those incentives were. And it’s ultimately low-income residents in both places who will pay the biggest price.

Amazon’s announcement included the news that it will receive $1.5 billion in tax breaks from New York, and another half a billion from Virginia, along with promises from both states to make significant infrastructure improvements. As a result, each new job that Amazon brings will cost these cities tens of thousands of dollars.

Depending on which analysis you look at, cities and states in America spend up $90 billion annually on corporate tax incentives. That category of spending has more than tripled since 1990. The theory at work is that incentives are an investment in corporations creating jobs and boosting local economies.

Corporate tax breaks have little to no effect on job creation or economic growth

The evidence backing up that theory, though, is thin. In fact, most studies have found that corporate tax breaks have little to no effect on job creation or economic growth, because they mostly encourage shifting jobs from one locale to another without creating any new economic activity. (Think, for instance, of a worker who leaves her current job to take one at Amazon, or moves from Amazon’s Seattle headquarters to Long Island.) What these tax breaks really stimulate is politicians’ efforts to get re-elected, as doling them out is correlated with rising vote shares.

The secrecy surrounding the effort to woo Amazon adds insult to that injury. 238 cities responded to the corporation’s initial request for proposals. Only a few of them made what they offered Amazon public. Reporters and activists in several cities took their local governments to court in an effort to ascertain what they promised Amazon.

The secrecy even extended to local elected officials.“My understanding is the public subsidies that are being discussed are massive in scale,” a New York state senator who represents Long Island City said to CNN before Amazon’s announcement.

New York’s incentive package was overseen by the state’s development office, with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo promising to go to great lengths, including naming both a polluted creek and himself after Amazon, in order to secure HQ2. Already, New York spends more on corporate tax breaks than any other state, including $8.25 billion in 2015.

That officials promised a private corporation unknown amounts of taxpayer money is troubling on its face, and prevented activists and elected officials from organizing against specific proposals. But it’s also problematic because every dollar that winds up going to Amazon is taken from programs that are designed to help the area’s residents more directly.

Since most states have balanced budget requirements, the money spent on Amazon can’t be spent on education, health care, infrastructure, affordable housing, or the host of other responsibilities of local governments. (For instance, the entire annual budget of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development is about $150 million — less than one-third of what the state offered to Amazon.) And other corporations have said they want the same deal Amazon received, which would strain budgets even more as states promise ever-bigger sums to major corporations.

The New York and D.C. areas are already among the most economically unequal in the country.

Plus, the influx of money and people that Amazon brings will exacerbate inequality in the New York and D.C. areas, which are already some of the most economically unequal in the country. According to the Urban Institute, D.C.-area rents have risen by about 10 percent since 2011, and the median house price is now north of half a million dollars. Per that analysis, “the challenges of rising affordability pressures and lengthening commutes will intensify, and more households will experience hardship” with the influx of Amazon money and workers.

Even before Amazon made its announcement, D.C. was facing a housing deficit of tens of thousands of units, while Arlington County, Virginia, has seen its affordable housing stock plummet by 90 percent over the last two decades. New York is facing similar concerns. Though the effect will be more muted than it would have been in some smaller cities, it will still be significant.

Already, other cities have experienced the downside of being home to big tech corporations that stress local housing markets, including Seattle, Amazon’s main home. An effort to tax big corporations there in order to raise funds to address the lack of affordable housing was defeated thanks to opposition from Amazon.

In many ways, the Amazon HQ2 process has been a charade. After gathering data on hundreds of cities, Amazon wound up going with the home of Wall Street and the home of America’s government, two advantages no amount of money could buy.

Meanwhile, struggling cities across the country were led to believe that an economic renaissance could be headed their way, and spent time and money trying to win something they possibly never had a chance at to begin with, instead of expending those resources on the people they are supposed to serve. The whole thing should be a national embarrassment.



What Progressives Won Last Night That You Might Have Missed

The 2018 midterm elections were a mixed bag for progressive policies. We had some big wins: States expanded Medicaid, increased the minimum wage, and gave voting rights back to more than a million Americans. But we also faced some hard losses: There are new regressive tax laws, restrictions on abortion access, and tough votes against criminal justice reform.

The undisputed good news is that Americans chipped away at the old guard last night. After two years of constant stress about losing our health care, massive tax handouts to the wealthy, and open animosity towards anyone perceived as different, we finally gained some ground.

To celebrate, we’re taking a break from our usual doom and gloom and rounding up the results that we were excited to wake up to this morning.

We finally have some good news about health care.

Congressional Democrats are in a better position to defend the Affordable Care Act, and are likely to work on stabilizing the ACA and addressing high drug prices in the new congress.

On a state level, voters were clearly motivated by concerns about health care. They also approved Medicaid expansion in three states: Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah. This extends Medicaid coverage to 340,000 low-income people.

The victories for Medicaid don’t stop there. In Maine, where the governor and voters have been engaged in a protracted battle over Medicaid expansion, Governor-elect Janet Mills says she’ll implement Medicaid expansion “immediately” upon taking office. Tony Evers in Wisconsin and Laura Kelly in Kansas could also drive expansion in their states, where leadership has historically resisted it. Sadly, all isn’t rosy: Montana voters rejected a ballot measure that would have extended Medicaid funding via a tobacco tax, ending coverage for nearly 100,000 residents.

A number of pro-choice candidates performed well last night. But two states, West Virginia and Alabama, amended their constitutions to specifically rule out the right to abortion. It’s a symbolic amendment for as long as Roe v. Wade stands, but the new balance on the Supreme Court could place it in jeopardy.

Florida is giving the vote to 1.4 million residents.

Florida’s Amendment 4 restored voting rights to people with felony records. Until last night, it had been one of only three states (now two) that denied people convicted of felonies the right to vote after they served their sentences. That disenfranchised more than 9 percent of the state’s population overall, and 21 percent of African Americans.

It’s difficult to estimate how big of an impact this could have moving forward, but it’s certainly possible that this influx of new voters will sway future elections. And, most importantly, it will allow more than a million people to vote on the policies that affect their lives.

One other bright spot last night was in Colorado: The state passed an amendment barring the use of slavery as punishment for a crime. Other ballot measures were, to put it nicely, kind of a bummer. Six states passed a version of Marsy’s law, which establishes a victims’ bill of rights that has the potential to violate the rights of people accused of crimes and makes it harder for people who are incarcerated to access parole boards and early release. In addition, North Dakota and Ohio both rejected measures that would lessen sentences for drug crimes.

Conservative states are raising their minimum wage.

Voters in Missouri and Arkansas approved increases in the minimum wage, which will together provide a raise to nearly 1 million workers. Missouri’s ballot initiative, which won with more than 62 percent of the vote, will hike its wage to $12 per hour by 2023. Arkansas’, approved by nearly 70 percent of voters, will increase the minimum wage to $11 per hour by 2021. Missouri’s initiative also reverses a minimum wage decrease that the state legislature imposed on St. Louis, which had raised its own minimum wage to $10 in 2017.

This continues a trend of minimum wage action on the state and local level. Though the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour has not been increased since 2007, four states approved wage hikes in 2014, and four more did the same in 2016, while cities including BaltimoreSeattle, and Washington, D.C. have increased their own minimums.

Still, 21 states adhere to the federal minimum wage, the purchasing power of which peaked in the 1960s. We would certainly like to see more movement here, since wages have been stagnant across the country for the last several decades – particularly for low-income workers and black and Hispanic families.

We’ll look at this as a blow to the specious arguments that opponents to trans rights have been making against trans Americans.

Massachusetts will uphold rights for transgender Americans.

In 2016, Massachusetts passed a bill to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in public places, but the law’s opponents managed to get it placed on the ballot this year. Voters upheld the law, which provides protections that don’t exist on a national level, by nearly 70 percent. In most states, it is still legal to discriminate against someone in housing, business, employment, and public accommodations because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Because we’re celebrating, we’ll gloss over how irritated the entire TalkPoverty staff is that it’s possible to put these rights on the ballot. Instead, we’ll look at this as a blow to the specious arguments that opponents to trans rights have been making against trans Americans.

San Francisco is taxing corporations to help people experiencing homelessness.

It was generally a bad night for tax policy on the state and local level, due to several states, including North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona, approving anti-tax ballot measures, and the defeat of an effort to raise corporate taxes and implement a progressive income tax in Colorado in order to spend more money on public schools.

However, San Francisco approved an increase in its corporate tax — which will be levied on about 300 of its biggest businesses — in order to raise money to combat the city’s homelessness epidemic. At least 50 percent of the funding will be dedicated to direct housing in a city where some 7,500 people are experiencing homelessness.

The successful campaign in San Francisco was mirrored in two other Bay Area cities and counters a similar effort in Seattle, where the city council passed and then repealed a “head tax” due to opposition from Amazon and other big corporations.




Working on a Campaign Is Grueling. A New Union Wants to Make It Better.

During the 2018 midterm cycle, which comes to a close today, the Campaign Workers Guild has unionized the political staffers of candidates across the country. It recently organized Break the Majority, the coordinated campaign of the Democratic Party in North Carolina, marking its first victory in the south.

Campaigns are often grueling affairs for staffers. There is a glorification of self-sacrifice for the greater good enforced by a hierarchical structure that is not conducive to addressing workers’ demands. Salaried pay often dips below minimum wage if calculated on an hourly basis. The CWG’s unionization efforts aim to tip the scales back toward workers’ rights.

“For many years campaign workers were treated as little more than volunteers who could be given a mere stipend rather than professionals who deserve fair pay and fair conditions,” said Ihaab Syed, CWG secretary.

The Campaign Workers Guild was publicly launched in February by current and former campaign workers, and currently has 28 bargaining units in 18 states across the country.

North Carolina is a particularly notable victory because it is both a swing state and a “right to work state,” which means workers do not have to pay dues for the benefits they receive from being in a unionized workplace.

Unionization rates in those states are significantly lower than they are elsewhere. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, non-unionized workers make 20 percent less than unionized workers on a weekly basis.

CWG’s first victory was the unionization of the Randy Bryce’s congressional campaign, the union ironworker running to take Speaker Paul Ryan’s House seat in Wisconsin. It has also unionized the state coordinated campaigns in Ohio and Minnesota.

Many of the staffers in North Carolina were familiar with CWG’s organizers from their time on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and reached out to begin their unionization effort. “CWG was very open about the process of a union campaign and broke it down into a timeline,” said Grayson Barnette, a field organizer and a member of CWG’s bargaining team in North Carolina.

All CWG bargaining units have been recognized voluntarily without the need for a formal union election. For Break the Majority, it was only six weeks between the initial unionization meeting and voluntary recognition.

However, most private-sector unions are recognized through the National Labor Relations Board elections process, which makes it more difficult, because those campaigns are often met with significant opposition by employers. Nearly 90 percent of employers force workers to attend anti-union events, while more than half effectively threaten plant closings. 35 percent of election requests are withdrawn prior to a vote even being held.

In addition to compensation increases, workers have won sick, bereavement, and parental leave.

Overall, unfair labor practices are alleged in 46 percent of unionizing campaigns, with the NLRB agreeing that at least one charge had merit in half of those cases.

The unionizing effort in the Tarheel State was sparked by a resolution passed by the North Carolina Democratic Party’s executive council that unionization would be encouraged in the 2020 campaign. In other campaigns, though, there has been some pushback.

“They say ‘This is impossible. This is how campaigns work. I paid my dues in these miserable conditions,’” said Syed.

Contracts won by CWG have resulted in several positive changes. In addition to compensation increases, workers have won sick, bereavement, and parental leave. There are 60 members in the North Carolina unit of CWG who will receive pay and health care through the end of November, as well as a 30-minute paid break for lunch during the campaign.

One of the most significant victories for CWG has been addressing sexual harassment. “As we’ve been seeing in the news, sexual harassment is rampant in our society overall and political workplaces and campaigns are no exception,” said Syed.

CWG contracts have led to training on what can be done to prevent harassment and the rights of workers. Furthermore, there has been an implementation of a process whereby complaints can be submitted and investigated.

“Just a process in place is huge for campaigns that aren’t equipped to handle it otherwise,” said Syed.

A long-term issue CWG seeks to work on is how to make health care available year-round and find ways to continue to make campaign work sustainable. For now, though, the change in conditions is worth savoring.

“It’s more for us about having a voice. It was about bringing our concerns to the table and being heard out,” said Barnette.




First Person

I Spent 13 Years in Jail. Not Being Able to Vote Makes it Feel Like a Life Sentence.

I grew up in Winter Park, Florida, where I was born three days after Election Day in 1970. I mention this because most of my birthdays have been associated with voting.

As a child, I couldn’t wait to turn 18 so I could register to vote and go inside the voting booth. And that’s just what I did. It made me feel like an adult, like an American citizen doing my civic duty. I voted in every election that I could.

But because I was convicted of a felony, I can no longer participate in our democracy. Florida is one of three states – along with Kentucky and Iowa – in which everyone convicted of a felony is permanently barred from voting. Amendment 4, which is on the ballot this Election Day, would restore voting rights to some 1.5 million people just like me.

I grew up in a broken home filled with all types of abuse and despair. I had no mentors, only the golden rule to keep our family business inside the home. I went from a little girl filled with hope who got good grades to a young adult who no longer cared.

I became a product of my environment, and ended up being the getaway driver in a robbery gone wrong.

Afterward, I could only think of the victim and his family and the pain they were going through. In those moments, I asked: If it was me and my family, what would I want? I would want the people involved to pay for what they did, I decided.

So I had my attorney take me to the Orange County jail and surrendered to the unknown. I did the right thing when it mattered the most, even when it was scary and the outcome uncertain.

The judge sentenced me to 15 years. I spent a third of my life paying my debt to society for my crime.

I fortunately survived. When I was given my end of sentence paperwork, I was presented with a form that I was told to sign. It advised me that I couldn’t vote anymore.

We had no ability to challenge policies designed to lock us out, and lock us back up again.

At first, I refused, because the judge had not sentenced me to the removal of my civil rights. But when I was told that I would be kept for the additional two years that were cut off my sentence due to good behavior if I didn’t sign the form, I quickly put my name on it. I wouldn’t understand the weight of that paper until after my release.

I came home with a plan to be the best person that I could. But I couldn’t get a job because of identifiers of my conviction on applications. I couldn’t go back to the college I attended pre-incarceration as an in-state student, because I didn’t have an I.D. that was a year old. My prison identification wasn’t acceptable, according to the board of governors.

When I finally thought I had broken through the invisible ceiling by obtaining my real estate license and selling a home to a cash buyer three months later, the significance of that the paper I signed in prison became clear. I took my commissioned earnings to get an apartment, but was refused; in many places, those with a felony conviction are not protected against this form of discrimination. As a professional in a business where it is our goal to make sales for profit, that was just mind-blowing.

I understood then that these things were allowed to happen to those of us with felony convictions because we could not vote. We had no ability to challenge policies designed to lock us out, and lock us back up again.

This is why the passage of Amendment 4 is so important, not just to those of us in Florida who would be affected, but to those in other states who have been denied their right to vote. It sends a message that we are American citizens, and that even though we made some mistakes along the way, we are forgiven and afforded a clean slate to become someone who contributes to society.

For my birthday this year, I am asking for the most important gift anyone can give me, and that’s to go out and vote yes on Amendment 4.



The High Costs of Trump’s Assault on the Transgender Community

A recent New York Times story revealed that the Department of Health and Human Services is considering the adoption of a radically restrictive definition of gender, viewing it as an immutable trait established at birth on the basis of genitalia. This move could have a profound impact on the 1.4 million transgender people living in the U.S., as well as intersex people, who make up around 1.7 percent of the population.

The HHS proposal would reinterpret Title IX, which bars “sex”-based discrimination in federally-funded education and is applied to a wide range of civil rights issues from campus sexual assault to affirming the rights of trans students. HHS intends to push other government agencies to adopt the same narrow and biologically inaccurate view of gender, according to the Times. The agency’s view is also not shared by the courts, which have ruled repeatedly that “sex” includes gender identity under Title IX and Title VII.

The news about HHS came just days before a report that the Department of Justice believes employers can discriminate against employees on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. Meanwhile, agencies such as the Department of Education and the Department of Justice have chosen to withdraw anti-discrimination guidance that protected transg people, while HHS quietly removed trans discrimination guidance from its website about health care discrimination. Massachusetts voters will decide on Election Day whether they wish to uphold a law banning gender discrimination in public accommodations.

This is an all-out assault on the transgender community in the United States, and it has sinister implications for other vulnerable groups as well. It will hit low-income trans people especially hard, amplifying already existing economic inequalities.

“People with low or no income already struggle to acquire adequate representation to challenge their rights in court,” Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality, said via email. “They could potentially be impacted by just the misinformation spread by this proposal. The proposal doesn’t actually rewrite laws, but it could embolden many employers or doctors or schools to disregard the rights of trans people. Those with resources enough to speak to a lawyer are more likely to know when their rights are being violated, while those who cannot might find themselves without much recourse.”

According to a 2015 report from the Movement Advancement Project and the Center for American Progress, trans people face a “financial penalty,” paying more to access health care and other services, from credit to fair housing, than their cis counterparts. They are more likely to live in poverty, with 15 percent of trans people making less than $10,000 annually in contrast with 4 percent of cis people. These numbers are even more stark for black (34 percent versus 9 percent) and Latinx (28 percent versus 5 percent) trans people.

The community overall experiences an unemployment rate double that of cis people. LGBQT people also rely more on threatened benefits programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

This state of economic precarity has a concrete impact on trans lives. For instance, the National Center for Transgender Equality has found that just 21 percent of trans people have changed over all their identification documents, due to high costs and regressive policies such as refusals to allow trans people to update identification or birth certificates without proof of surgery in some states. The lack of consistent and accurate identification can fuel discrimination, such as refusals to hire people when their identification outs them as transgender, or denial of benefits, with 16 percent of U.S. Transgender Survey respondents reporting benefits issues related to mismatching identification.

Legitimizing transphobia on the institutional level encourages harassment and abuse of trans people.

Financial instability also amplifies widespread housing, employment, education, and health care discrimination against trans people. 23 percent of trans people faced “some form of housing discrimination” in the previous year, according to the U.S. Trans Survey, while 67 percent reported being passed over for hiring, fired, or denied promotions because of their gender identity. One in four experienced problems with their health insurance. Low-income people may not be able to “go somewhere else” to access services, cannot afford alternative housing, and cannot fund litigation in cases of discrimination.

In a landscape without comprehensive and explicit civil rights protections, and with federal agencies not only refusing to enforce existing protections but actively promoting discrimination against the trans community, low-income trans people’s financial disadvantage will become much more glaring. The administration is already not enforcing Affordable Care Act protections barring discrimination on the basis of gender identity, making it challenging to access not only transition services but permitting other forms of health care discrimination; this kind of policy could make this problem even worse. Similarly, barriers to accessing identification could leave more trans people struggling to access benefits they need to thrive, such as subsidized housing, SNAP, and Medicaid.

Just as a flood of bathroom bills in 2015 and 2016 emboldened transphobic people and policymakers, moves like this fuel hatred and contribute to the distribution of misinformation about what it means to be transgender and how trans people interact with society. Legitimizing transphobia on the institutional level encourages harassment and abuse of trans people, which harms vulnerable trans populations such as sex workers, women of color, immigrants, disabled people, youth, and low-income people.

Targeting the trans community could also lay the groundwork for disrupting other civil rights, with the federal government’s pursuit of a “right to discriminate” becoming a blueprint for attacking groups such as those who are homeless on the streets of San Francisco, Native American and fighting for the right to vote in Utah, or lesbians who want to adopt a child.