May 09, 2013
LAWT Staff and Wire Report
President Barack Obama nominated veteran Rep. Melvin Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the government regulator that oversees lending giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He also has chosen a former telecommunications lobbyist to head the Federal Communications Commission, the White House said.
Watt, a North Carolina Democrat who has been in Congress for 20 years, would replace Edward DeMarco, an appointee of Republican President George W. Bush, who has been a target of housing advocates, liberal groups and Democratic lawmakers.
Obama also has settled on Tom Wheeler, one of his top campaign fundraisers, to become the country's top telecommunications regulator. The president is expected to name FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn to serve as acting chairwoman.
Senate confirmation is required for both posts.
“I commend President Obama on his nomination of Congressman Melvin 'Mel' Watt as director of the FHFA,” said Attorney General Kamala D. Harris on May 1 after the nomination.
“As Californians work to recover from the mortgage crisis, they need a strong director at FHFA who will be an advocate for homeowners and champion their rights. My number one priority has always been the welfare of Californians, and I am confident that Congressman Watt will advance policies that serve the best interest of working families in California and across the country. I look forward to working with him.”
Watt's nomination comes at a crucial time for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two government-controlled mortgage-finance enterprises. The government rescued the companies at the height of the financial crisis in September 2008 as they teetered near collapse from losses on mortgage loans gone bad.
Taxpayers have spent about $170 billion to rescue the companies. So far, they have repaid $55.2 billion.
Fannie and Freddie together own or guarantee about half of all U.S. mortgages, or nearly 31 million home loans. Those loans are worth more than $5 trillion. Along with other federal agencies, they back roughly 90 percent of new mortgages.
The nomination comes as the housing industry is making a comeback. Home prices are up, foreclosures are down and housing construction is on the rise. Moreover, Fannie Mae had its biggest yearly profit last year, earning $17.2 billion.
Watt, a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, played an influential role in the passage of a financial regulatory overhaul in 2010. That legislation, however, did not address the fate of the major mortgage lenders, an issue likely to come up during Obama’s second term.
His colleague Congresswoman Maxine Waters described Watt as “thoughtful, well informed, principled and fair.”
“I have worked very closely with Representative Watt for almost 20 years,” Waters said in a statement, also released May 1 after the nomination.
“We have served together on the House Financial Services Committee since 1994, where Mel is highly respected by colleagues on both sides of the aisle as a consummate legislator with the vision to see what Congress can do to help make people’s lives better and the determination to move a good bill through the legislative process. Representative Watt is always respectful of opposing viewpoints and can often find common ground when others can find none. He is accepting, open-minded and collaborative – and he gets things done.”
Watt represents the Charlotte area, home base of behemoth Bank of America Corp. He becomes yet another high-profile African-American and the second North Carolinian nominated by Obama in three days to a top government post. On Monday, Obama nominated Anthony Foxx, mayor of Charlotte, to head the Transportation Department.
Watt, who has a consistently liberal voting record, is expected to face Republican opposition to his confirmation and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was among the first to express disappointment.
The White House was already lining up supporters who might hold some sway with GOP senators.
“This gives new meaning to the adage that the fox is guarding the hen house,” Corker, a member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, said in a written statement. “The debate around his nomination will illuminate for all Americans why Fannie and Freddie failed so miserably.”
May 09, 2013
By Maya Rhodan
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Social Security changes proposed by Obama could hurt African Americans more than other groups, a new report by the Center for Global Policy Solutions finds.
In this fiscal year 2014 budget, President Obama proposes switching the way benefit programs such as Social Security and civil service retirement adjust for inflation to the chained consumer price index, or chained CPI.
Chained CPI calculates inflation differently from the consumer price index, the current yardstick. The move would save approximately $230 billion, according to the president’s budget.
“The chained CPI significantly reduces the purchasing power of those who rely on benefits issued by the federal government, and especially disadvantages retirees and the long-term disabled because it fails to take into account the higher costs they shoulder as a result of their increased need for health care services and related products,” the report reads.
The Center for Global Policy Solutions report finds that the changes may cause particular harm to older African Americans; many depend on Social Security for the majority of their retirement income.
Nearly half of African American beneficiaries rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income, compared to 35 percent of all beneficiaries. Two out of five Black retirees over 65 depend on Social Security for their entire income.
The report show that 18 percent of Black adults over 65 had an income below the federal poverty level; without Social Security benefits, 53 percent of older African Americans would be living in poverty according to the AARP.
The changes to COLA will also impact the one in five Black children receiving disability benefits. Black children are twice as likely to receive survivor benefits as well.
“Chained CPI is also a poor policy considering that Social Security does not contribute to our annual deficit, and the trust will run a surplus of more than $2.7 trillion until the 2030s,” Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said in a statement. “I am disappointed then that President Obama would consider burdening those who are most in need of our support.”
The changes proposed by the president did not fare well with the constituents they will affect the most. In April, AARP released a poll that showed that 70 percent of older voters are not in favor of using chained CPI for the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment and 78 percent are opposed to using the adjustment for veteran benefits.
“This cut to Social Security would break the promise to seniors and hurt veterans who’ve sacrificed so much for this great country,” AARP executive vice president Nancy LeaMond said in a statement.
According to AARP, those who rely on Social Security for the majority of their income, which includes 47 percent of African American beneficiaries, would experience an 8 percent cut to their income after 30 years using chained CPI.
According to the report, the coming reductions will result in about $3 lost for every $1,000 in benefits. That amounts to a lot for the African Americans over 65 who receive about $13,000 a year in benefits.
Although President Obama has proposed to protect “the most vulnerable Americans,” including those over 76 and beneficiaries who receive benefits for longer periods of time, Mikki Waid, AARP senior strategic policy advisor, says older African Americans won’t reap the benefits of being protected.
“African Americans don’t live as long, so even though the president has proposed these bump ups, an African American male that has made it to 65 is only expected to live to 81, women to 84,” Waid says. “They aren’t going to benefit from the protections.
Waid adds, “The fact that they decided to exempt some individuals makes you wonder if it’s a more accurate cost of living adjustment. Is it really an accurate inflation measure of older Americans?”
The report finds, it isn’t.
A large portion of retirement income goes toward medical expenses, figures that are not considered in the chained CPI adjustment.
The average 65-year-old couple retiring will need $240,000 to cover future medical costs, according to Fidelity Investments, which tracks retiree health care costs. The median annual income for African Americans on Social Security is $14,400.
The report also finds that African Americans will be the most negatively impacted by the switch to chained-CPI because they have much less wealth that could be used to supplement the reduction in Social Security.
“As a result of racial wealth disparities, African Americans will be negatively affected by implementation of the chained CPI regardless of the non-means tested federal program from which they receive their benefits,” said Maya Rockeymoore, president and CEO of the Center for Global Policy Solutions . “With precious few other assets to help meet expenses, African Americans will experience deeper economic pain as a result of the chained CPI.”
In 2010, Whites had six times the wealth of their African American counterparts, according to a new Urban Institute report. Whites who were age 32-40 in 1983 had an average family wealth of $184,000, a figure that rose to $1.1 million in 2010. Blacks, in comparison, had an average family wealth of $54,000 in 1983, which had only grown to $161,000 in 2010, when both groups were nearing retirement age.
Blacks have historically started off with less wealth than their White counterparts, and on average have not reached equal levels of wealth by retirement. Factors such as low wages, high unemployment, and lesser job opportunities have contributed to Blacks inability to accrue enough wealth to keep such large portions of the community from being solely dependent on Social Security into retirement.
The Great Recession, however, also lead to an increased loss of wealth within the African American community, especially in terms of retirement savings. Blacks, according to the Urban Institute report, lost about 35 percent of their retirement assets during the recession, while White families saw an increase.
A major problem, Waid finds, with chained CPI is that the negative impact to benefits will take affect immediately.
“Chained CPI will effect beneficiaries immediately and it will effect all beneficiaries,” Waid says.
She adds that because of this, unfortunately, there is little one can do to prepare.
“It’ll affect them now,” Waid reiterates. “But really what can you do? If you’re an African American 70-year-old woman, I wish I could tell them something they could do, but I just can’t.”
May 09, 2013
By Charlene Muhammad
LAWT Contributing Writer
The California Public Utilities Commission is launching a series of hearings in search of ways to improve a state program that provides low income families a discount on basic, residential and wireless phone service.
Under the federally created LifeLine program, families receive flat-rate, local land-line telephone service. They may also receive wireless service through the LifeLine cell phone program but not at the same time, advocates caution.
The series of state-wide hearings will be held in eight cities (Fresno, Riverside, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, San Dimas, Rancho Cordova, and Eureka) between 4-7 p.m., May 14-June, 2013. Discussed will be potential changes such as new discount levels, expanding the services eligible for the discount, including wireless Lifeline service, and other non-traditional services.
“We have seen these kinds of proceedings influence the decisions made at the Commission, especially now, where we have four new commissioners at the CPUC,” said Ana Montes, during a tele-briefing with reporters on May 2. Montes is organizing director of the Utility Reform Network, which works on telecom, energy, water and environmental issues in California.
The “California’s LifeLine to the Future Tele-briefing” was hosted by the Center for Media Justice, the Utility Reform Network, and New America Media, a nationwide association of more than 3,000 ethnic media organizations.
Advocates say they intend to address the number of minutes people need to communicate effectively with employers, schools, doctors, social services, or for job interviews. But for now, their primary aim is to let people in need know what opportunities exist through the program and that the hearings are on the way.
Stephen Renderos, a national organizer for the Center for Media Justice, which works to transform media and end racism and poverty, feels the California LifeLine program is an important safety net for communities of color across the state.
“For communities of color and low income communities, the cell phone is not just a means to communicate. It’s also a means to improve their financial situation,” Renderos said.
Nationally, 13.5 million people are enrolled in LifeLine programs, but another 15 million who are eligible (many in California) still aren’t enrolled, perhaps because they just don’t know about it, he noted.
“We believe that everyone has the right to communicate and when policy issues are being decided, we believe that the solutions should reflect and fundamentally change the real life experiences of marginalized communities, meaning communities of color,” Renderos continued.
In addition, advocates noted, rate payers pay for lifeline. It’s not a gift from telecommunications companies, and people have a right to affordable and reliable services, they argued.
According to Minister L.B. Tatum of Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement, a consortium of 20 African American churches in the San Bernardino region, the Inland Empire, San Bernardino County is facing an economic crisis.
He’d like to see CA LifeLine expand so grassroots, community based and faith-based organizations can help their constituents gain access, he said.
“LifeLine is needed because the folks we service are not always afforded opportunities to learn about it, and receive assistance filling out applications. We want to make sure the information about the program is marketed to the least of these,” Minister Tatum noted.
Part of what’s good about the program is the money people save on phone service means they’re able to buy food they otherwise couldn’t afford, advocates noted.
A major challenge, however, is the program requires a permanent address. Some families live in hotels and service providers don’t recognize those addresses, they explained.
Tina Cheung, a community organizer with the Chinatown Community Development Center, helps mono-lingual immigrants adjust to life in America. A recent tragedy underscores the importance of phone service, she said.
One family she assisted lived in a single room occupancy hotel, in very close proximity to their neighbors. Yet, no one knew that an elderly tenant had been deceased in the nearby unit until three weeks has passed. They were able to use their LifeLine phone to call 911 and the owner, according to Cheung.
“Often times those that qualify, whether it’s language barriers or other active barriers ... It is very possible for them to be connected ... Having that reliable phone service is so vital,” Cheung said.
Advocates expect a decision on any proposed changes to the program by the CA Public Utilities Commission within a year of the last scheduled public hearing on August 13.
(More information about the California LifeLine program is available at www.californialifeline.com.)
May 09, 2013
In an effort to meet the goals of the Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) and its broad based community partnership to reduce hunger in Los Angeles County and inspire healthier eating in May, Director Sheryl L. Spiller has reached out to the department’s 13,000 employees, encouraging them to share the important CalFresh food assistance information in their communities with those who need it most.
As they have done for the past two years, the Board of Supervisors enthusiastically proclaimed May, 2013 as “CalFresh Awareness Month” in the County of L.A. The annual effort is a collaboration between DPSS, other County departments, and various community-based organizations to inform low-income families and individuals about the benefits of the CalFresh Program.
“While the local economy continues to improve, there are households across our County still struggling, unaware they may be eligible to CalFresh benefits, or afraid to even inquire,” Spiller stated. “This partnership represents an intense effort to address hunger and the public health issues it presents. CalFresh is a critical federal nutrition benefit that helps eligible households make ends meet and stay healthier.”
For more information on CalFresh Awareness Month, visit www.dpss.lacounty.gov/dpss/calfresh or call the Health and Nutrition Hotline at 1 (866) 613-3777.