Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#680 - Making the Movement Visible, 15-Dec-1999

[Rachel's will publish again January 5.]

The grass-roots environmental movement is largely invisible.
Thousands of groups are working at the local level but they have
no way to learn about each other's existence, and therefore no
easy way to communicate. A journalist looking for a grass-roots
perspective on environmental problems or job safety may not know
who to call. Someone concerned about policy at the state or
federal level may not be able to find anyone who can provide a
community-based perspective on environment-and-health problems.

The RACHEL'S staff has begun a project to identify local groups
working on any aspect of "environment and health," including, of
course, occupational safety and health. We call it, Making the
Movement Visible.

Groups that are working on any aspect of "environment and health"
at the community level are invited to add themselves to our
public database of grass-roots environmental groups on the
world-wide web (www.rachel.org). Naturally, organizations that
service the needs of grass-roots community groups or job-safety
groups are also welcome. To list your group (or some other group
that you admire), just go to the "organizations" section of our
web site (www.rachel.org) and add your group to the list. (Note:
Your listing will not become public immediately, so you may not
see it for a few days. We review all entries, to prevent fake
groups from being added to the list.) No matter where you are
working -- in Iowa, Ixtapa, or Istanbul -- if you have a
community or workplace perspective on health and environment,
please add your group to the database. Let's all do ourselves a
big favor and Make the Movement Visible! Check yourself in at
www.rachel.org.

MONEY RULES

Here we begin our traditional year-end review of significant
events and trends.

One of the most important trends of the last half of the
twentieth century was the spread of democracy into many countries
that had never enjoyed it before. At the same time, democracy
within the U.S. continued to shrivel as a wealthy elite gained
increasing control. All three branches of government actively
encouraged this shift of power from "the rest of us" to the
wealthy.

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court made it easier for the wealthy
to curry favor with government officials. The court ruled that
substantial gifts to a government official are legal unless the
official performs a "specific official act" in return for the
gift. The matter came before the court because Sun-Diamond
Growers of California gave gifts worth $5900 to Mike Espy when he
was Secretary of Agriculture. Since Espy did not perform any
specific official act on behalf of Sun-Diamond in return for the
gifts, the gifts were legal, the court ruled. The American League
of Lobbyists, expressed relief at the court's ruling. Lobbyists
now know they can shower Congress with gifts without running
afoul of the law.[1] One favorite tactic is to give money to
Congressional staffers, rather than directly to members of
Congress. Another favorite is to pay for lavish vacations for
members of Congress, disguised as "fact-finding trips."

By November, it was clear that the Supreme Court's April ruling
would deepen the level of corruption in Congress. Federal
prosecutors dropped almost all charges against Ann Eppard, former
legislative chief of staff for Congressman Bud Shuster, a
Republican from Pennsylvania. Between 1989 and 1993, while she
was Schuster's chief of staff, Ms. Eppard accepted $230,000 in
gifts from a lobbyist. She was subsequently indicted on seven
counts. In November she pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge
of taking illegal compensation and agreed to pay a fine of $5000.
The other six charges were dropped. Federal prosecutors defended
their plea bargain saying the Supreme Court ruling made it
impossible to expect a conviction. Ms. Eppard now runs her own
lobbying firm, Ann Eppard Associates.[2]

The NEW YORK TIMES reported December 5 that state governor's
offices are now thoroughly soaked in money, just as federal
offices have been for more than a decade. "The 'permanent
campaign' that has become a fixture of races for the presidency
and the Senate has now descended upon the 50 state capitals," the
TIMES reported.[3]

It now routinely costs $10 million or more to run for the office
of governor, so incumbent governors must raise at least $50,000
per week while they are in office. The TIMES commented, "Mr.
Celucci [Governor of Massachusetts] and other incumbents are
following one of the oldest political axioms, the golden rule: he
who has the most gold, rules."

All of this private money in our elections has had a corrosive
effect on our democracy, according to the NEW YORK TIMES. The
distinction between Republicans and Democrats has been erased by
money. "In fact," says the TIMES, "the public sector has
increasingly become the champion of private enterprise.... The
degree to which left and right have unified to become the
champion of corporate priorities was on full display in the
Congressional session that just ended. ...Look at the legislation
business got killed," the TIMES says: there was no increase in
the minimum wage, no new limits on "soft money" in elections, no
ban on agricultural mergers. But Congress exempted corporations
from any liability for Y2K computer failures, and legalized the
merging of banks, insurance companies and stock brokerages.[4] No
doubt about it, money talks.

With the wealthy legally empowered to pour money into government,
one might expect the government to return the favor. Late in 1999
the NEW YORK TIMES reported that "...the Internal Revenue Service
[the nation's tax collection agency] is reducing its efforts to
find cheating by businesses and high-income individuals, and
stepping up investigations into two forms of cheating that are
more likely to involve the working poor than the affluent."[5]

"For wealthy individuals with gross income of $100,000 or more,
fewer than an estimated one in 150 returns will be audited this
year compared to one in 33 in 1992," the TIMES reported. "Please
don't call us tax collectors in the newspaper," one longtime
revenue officer in New York told the TIMES. "We don't collect
taxes anymore. We aren't allowed to."

Instead of collecting taxes, I.R.S. auditors are answering
phones, according to the TIMES: "Highly trained I.R.S. auditors
who are paid up to $77,000 annually to examine corporate tax
returns have been detailed to answer telephones and greet people
at I.R.S. offices, even though their years of specialized work
have left them ill equipped to handle mundane questions from the
public."[5]

Because of Congressional budget reductions, the I.R.S. has had to
prune 82,000 staff positions (a 14% cut) in the last 4 years.
However, the agency's workload has increased during the same
period as Congress has made the tax laws more complex. Because of
1260 changes in the tax laws that Congress approved in 1997 and
1998, the I.R.S. has effectively had its total resources reduced
by 29% during the past 4 years, the NEW YORK TIMES reported.

Despite these resource cuts, the I.R.S. is now conducting an
aggressive campaign to ferret out abuses of the Earned Income Tax
Credit, which allows the working poor to collect up to $323 for a
single person and $3,556 for a family of four.

In 1999, a study by the liberal Center for Budget and Policy
Priorities (CBPP) found that the "welfare reform" law passed by
Congress three years ago has had the effect of making the poor
poorer. The Congressional Committee that wrote the "welfare
reform" law said the conclusions of the CBPP study were valid.[6]

Since 1995 the poorest 20% of families have seen their annual
incomes reduced by $577, falling to $8,047 annually. The
situation was worse for the poorest 10% who lost $814 per year.
Children were hardest hit. In 1995, 88% of poor children were
helped by food stamps. By 1998, only 70% of poor children were
being helped. "There are people at the bottom who are worse off,"
said Ron Haskins, staff director of the Congressional
subcommittee that wrote the "welfare reform" law. "We need to do
something about that," he said in August,[6] but by December,
nothing had been done.

Meanwhile 20% of American households have more debt than assets
-- which is to say, they have a negative net worth. When real
estate is factored out, 40% of American families have more debt
than assets, according to the NEW YORK TIMES. A survey in early
1999 found that half of Americans had life savings of $3000 or
less and another 40% said it would be "a big problem" if they had
to deal with an unexpected bill for $1000,[7] the TIMES reported.
In early 1999, 35 million Americans (13.3%) were living in
poverty.

The number of poor people would be considerably larger if
prisoners were counted. The prison population of the U.S. will
officially reach 2 million about six weeks from now, on February
15th.[8] Two-thirds of prisoners are serving sentences for
non-violent offenses. America's federal "drug czar," General
Barry McCaffrey refers to the U.S. prison system as "America's
internal gulag."[9]

The prison industry in the U.S. has now taken on a life of its
own. We build 50,000 new prison cells each year. Congress has
taken steps to privatize the prison industry. The stock price of
the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest
private jailer, has increased 10-fold since 1994, making prisons
a killer investment. Nearly 60% of all federal prisoners are
guilty of drug-related crimes. Americans do not use more drugs,
on average, than citizens of other countries, and drug use has
not declined for the past 10 years despite the ballooning prison
population.

Worldwide, there are 8 million people in prison, so the U.S.,
with 4% of world population, holds 25% of all the world's
prisoners.[8] For an American born this year, the chance of
spending some part of their life in prison is one in 20; for
black Americans, it is one in 4.[9]

Prisoners are not counted in unemployment statistics, poverty
statistics, or welfare statistics -- so all these measures of
national well-being are improved each time another person goes to
prison. Furthermore, prisoners do not attend "Million Man
Marches" or other political demonstrations. Most importantly,
prisoners cannot vote; persons convicted of felonies lose their
right to vote permanently.

A poll taken in February, 1999, revealed that 47% of Americans
believe that the courts do not treat racial or ethnic minorities
fairly. And a stunning 90% of respondents said they believe
affluent individuals and corporations have an unfair advantage in
court.[10] The fix is in, 90% believe.

Where will these trends lead us in the new millennium? In any
case, We wish our readers a happy New Year.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

=====

[1] Linda Greenhouse, "High Court Voids Theory Used to Press
Independent Counsel's Case Over Gifts to Espy," NEW YORK TIMES
April 28, 1999, pg. unknown. And: "Corrupt Gift-Giving Made
Easier [editorial]," NEW YORK TIMES May 3, 1999, pg. 28.

[2] Larry Wheeler and Carl Weiser, "Ethics experts say it's hard
to nail corruption in Congress," USA TODAY November 22, 1999,
pg. 22A.

[3] John M. Broder, "Governors Join Ranks of Full-Time Campaign
Money-Raisers," NEW YORK TIMES December 5, 1999, pg. 22.

[4] David E. Sanger, "Meet Your Government, Inc.," NEW YORK
TIMES November 28, 1999, pgs. D1, D6.

[5] David Cay Johnston, "Reducing Audits on the Wealthy, I.R.S.
Turns Eye on Working Poor," NEW YORK TIMES December 15, 1999,
pg. A1.

[6] Associated Press, "Study Says Welfare Changes Made the
Poorest Worse Off," NEW YORK TIMES August 23, 1999, pg. A12.

[7] Peter Applebome, "Where Money's a Mantra Greed's a New
Creed," NEW YORK TIMES February 28, 1999, Week in Review
Section, pg. 5.

[8] Anthony Lewis, "Punishing the Country," NEW YORK TIMES
December 21, 1999, pg. A31.

[9] Timothy Egan, "Less Crime, More Criminals," NEW YORK TIMES
March 7, 1999, pgs. D1, D16.

[10] Linda Greenhouse, "47% in Poll View Legal System as
Unfair to Poor and Minorities," NEW YORK TIMES February 24,
1999, pg. A12.

Descriptor terms: money in politics; corruption; Congress; racism;
judiciary;