A USDA Christmas

It’s hard to think about fall and winter holidays without thinking of food. Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas roasts and cookies, and plenty of latkes and chocolate gelt are on everyone’s minds for the last two months of the year.

On December 4th, the USDA changed the Supplemental Nutritional On December 4th, the USDA approved changes to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Despite receiving thousands of negative comments, they proceeded with the first three proposed changes to the SNAP, all of which are expected to go into effect before the next presidential election.

Starting April 1, 2020, SNAP benefits will be cut for roughly 700,000 individuals, by reducing waivers and introducing new work requirements for able bodied adults without dependents. NPR Stated, “SNAP statutes already limit adults to three months of benefits in a three-year period unless they meet the 20 hours per week [work] requirement, but many states currently waive that requirement in high unemployment areas.” This rule change will make it more difficult to get this waiver. This initial change is expected to ‘save’ over $5 billion over the course of five years. 

The other two proposed rule changes would:

  • Close a “loophole that allows people with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty level — about $50,000 for a family of four — to receive food stamps” and “prevent households with more than $2,250 in assets, or $3,500 for a household with a disabled adult, from receiving food stamps.”
  • Cut close to $4.5 billion “from the program over five years, trimming monthly benefits by as much as $75 for one in five struggling families on nutrition assistance.

If all of these proposed rule changes go into effect, approximately 3.7 million fewer people and 2.1 million fewer households would have received SNAP in an average month (Urban Institute).

According to the USDA website, SNAP provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency. These changes are proposed in order to ‘cut costs and help individuals achieve this idea of self-sufficiency’. However, access to SNAP allows individuals to support themselves and provide nutritious food for their families. Many believe these changes affect not only the individual’s ability to pay for other necessities, but will add stress to local food pantries and other non profits (Lohud, Dec 10, 2019). These changes will lead to an increase of food insecurity, devaluing of life, and challenge the idea that dignity belongs to every human being. “In this case, the result is more hunger and hardship for the members of low-income families who are doing their best to make sure everyone is cared for” (The Atlantic, Dec 10, 2019).

As we gather around Christmas dinner with our families, let us pause for those among us who go without.

Climate Refugees: Rising Waters and Rising Concern

A new report from the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California – Berkeley sheds light on an emerging problem. The new report, “Climate Refugees: The Climate Crisis and Rights Denied,” by Elsadig Elsheikh and Hossein Ayazi, makes a compelling case to the international community for the adoption of a legally-binding convention that protects climate refugees.

In a chapter that I wrote concerning resilience and refugees, I raised similar concerns as those which underlie this report. When referring to those born in another land, definitions and distinctions abound, be they legal definitions, social science terminology, or one’s self-description. At home and abroad, the political and legal framework continues to evolve. Attempts to reform U.S. immigration processes have occasioned increasingly sharp political conflict over the past 20 years. Some politicians capitalize on this polarization. Domestically, racial tension and anti-immigrant sentiment have both grown. Internationally, the member states of the UN finalized a Global Compact on Refugees in 2018, augmenting the 1951 Refugee Convention. None the less, legal vacuums exist. The international standards do not provide for “climate refugees.” While the July 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration recognized climate change as a growing factor, the December 2018 Global Compact on Refugees eschewed the subject, using the term “climate” only twice, and, in one instance, in the context of a “business climate.” The World Bank estimates there will be as many as 143 million climate refugees, with a minimum of 92 million, by 2050. It is a growing crisis for which the world remains woefully unprepared.

This new report from UC – Berkeley profiles 10 countries that are among those most vulnerable under the climate crisis. For instance, Bangladesh, projected to lose 17 percent of its total land to sea level rise by 2050, would see displaced an estimated 20 million people, and the Maldives could lose all 1,200 of its islands to sea level rise. The release date of the report coincided with the U.N.’s annual Human Rights Day observance on December 10th.

The report also details specific vulnerabilities suffered by these refugees in U.S. and international law. The report argues that a new understanding of “persecution,” a longstanding requirement for receiving refugee status, could be broadened to include “petro-persecution.” In that event, a new agreement for climate refugees is made necessary, and such a framework should be undertaken as a revision to the 1951 Refugee Convention, or the establishment of a wholly new international convention.

A Step Towards Tax Transparency

News reports occasionally detail how large corporations, like Amazon and FedEx, manage to avoid paying any federal taxes. Adding to my personal dismay, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) report that, in fact, 60 Fortune 500 companies avoided all federal income tax in 2018, including: Chevron, Delta Airlines, Eli Lilly, General Motors, Gannett, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, Halliburton, IBM, Jetblue Airways, Netflix, Principal Financial, Salesforce.com, US Steel, and Whirlpool. The full list of those that did not pay a dime is available here. We also know of companies that relocate to tax havens or companies that undergo a “corporate inversion” so that the foreign subsidiary becomes the parent company. At the end of the day, one asks: how do we better understand and compare the tax practices of different companies?

At the conclusion of the ICCR Fall conference (November 1), I went to Bloomberg for an event on Tax Transparency organized by AFSCME, the Fact Coalition, Global Financial Integrity, Oxfam America, and the Patriotic Millionaires. Yesterday (December 5), these same organizations announced the launch of a new global standard for tax transparency. The new global standard includes:

  • Reporting within the context of corporate sustainability;
  • Disclosures on tax strategy, governance, and risk management;
  • Public country-by-country reporting of business activities, revenues, profit, and tax;
  • And disclosure of the reasons for difference between corporate income tax accrued and the tax due.

A few of the remarks from the launch event have been shared with me, and I pass them on to you:

Why is tax transparency important?

Like most voluntary disclosures, companies that are doing the right thing disclose because the market rewards this behavior. Companies that are not doing the right thing are less likely to disclose, reflecting the potential for a financial risk and/or reputational risk.  Efforts like the new standard issued by the Global Reporting Initiative aim to allow for apples to apples comparisons.

A well-grounded tax strategy must be sustainable. These tax disclosures are valuable for investors because, for instance, a company with a very low tax rate raises questions about the sustainability of the rate and, consequently, a risk to earnings down the road. For investors, knowing the tax rate paid by a company discloses something about the risk tolerance of management and board. Bad practices have a habit of catching up with companies. A company may be exposed to penalties, fines, and clawbacks. The leaking of the Panama Papers resulted in recovery of $1.2 billion in taxes and penalties to date.

More importantly, taxes finance important undertakings like roads, schools, and government, things that companies and investors rely upon. A bedrock principle is that one should pay taxes where value is created. The Tax Standard clarifies how much companies contribute in taxes to the countries where they operate and, thereby, allows us to better see the impact of tax avoidance on the ability of a government to fund critical services and to encourage sustainable development. As the late Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice, put it: “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”

We at SGI believe that this new standard is an important step forward and encourage companies to disclose according to this standard.

For more information:

Highest Youth Tobacco Use since 2000, says CDC

This morning, the Center for Disease Control released its latest National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS), and the results can only be described as alarming.

The report concludes:

Findings from NYTS indicate that in 2019, approximately half of high school students (53.3%) and one in four middle school students (24.3%) had ever used a tobacco product. Furthermore, approximately three in 10 high school students (31.2%) and approximately one in eight middle school students (12.5%) had used a tobacco product during the past 30 days

National Youth Tobacco Survey, p. 10

According to reporting by Axios, this is the highest youth tobacco use report since 2000.

Alongside this news, please, remember that the NYTS follows Wednesday’s update (Dec. 4) that identifies 2,291 cases of hospitalized e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI) reported to CDC from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 2 U.S. territories (Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands). Further, another forty-eight deaths have been confirmed in 25 states and the District of Columbia.

Each day that administration debates its course forward amid concerns for public health and election and jobs impact, more young people risk getting hooked on tobacco products. Both of these CDC reports, the weekly update on EVALI and the NYTS, underscore the critical need for public health policy and action at local, state, and federal levels.

Shareholders, too have a critical role to play. Recently, we have written about SGI’s commitment to continue this work that originated decades ago with Fr. Mike Crosby, O.F.M., Cap. For instance, today is the filing deadline for two resolutions at Altria Group, Inc. One resolution concerns greater transparency regarding Altria’s lobbying efforts, and the other calls upon Altria to review corporate adherence to Altria’s principles and policies aimed at discouraging the use of their nicotine delivery products to young people and to report to shareholders. Both of these resolutions deserve broad support from shareholders.

Wake Up and Smell the Hog Waste?

It’s been nearly a month and I’m still thinking about the Food and Water Session panel I attended at ICCR’s Fall Conference. Panelists Kemp Burdette of Cape Fear River Watch, Elsie Harring of North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, and Martha Salomaa of Sipsey Heritage Commision spoke of the impacts associated with meat processing plants on local farms and how investors can affect change in this area. 

There are the same number of pigs as people in North Carolina. A fact surprising on its own, it bears more weight knowing these pigs produce roughly 10 times the amount of waste as the people. In addition to pigs, North Carolina has over 500 million chickens and turkeys producing even more waste. These factory farms or CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation) and their respective waste lagoons and spray fields overwhelmed nearby farms and towns, mostly communities of color, with untreated waste which seeps into rivers, streams, and drinking water causing illness. This waste contains high levels of toxic gases including methane, hydrogen-sulfide and ammonia; nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus; and heavy metals such as copper which seeps into waterways causing harm to the health of rivers and communities nearby. Community complaints often go unheard and regulators rarely take any action to address these adverse environmental and health impacts.

Having listened to this panel, it came as no surprise to me that, according to Ceres’ 2019 Feeding Ourselves Thirsty report, the meat industry is the worst performing sector in managing water risks. This report tracked 40 major food, agriculture, and beverage companies and their management of water risks in operations and productions. While the food sector has improved its water risk management, 27 of the 40 companies tracked scored below 50%. In addition to this, “Of the 13 companies that have yet to assess water risks in their agricultural supply chains, six are in the meat industry.” 

Often, company executives claim ignorance of the impacts of their operations on communities near their plants and CAFOs even after communities voice complaints. Faith-based investor groups like ICCR help bring the community voice to the C-suite to demand remediation. However, the problem will continue to exist without comprehensive legislation and regulation to address these impacts on communities in a holistic way.

SEC’s Proposed New Rules Threaten Shareholder Democracy

Last December, our blog gave an update on efforts by trade associations to restrict shareholder rights .

On Tuesday, November 5, the Securities and Exchange Commission unveiled the exact nature of that threat and voted 3-2 on two separate measures to propose changes to rule 14a-8 that would severely restrict investors’ access to the corporate proxy. The changes would require that:

  • Shareholders own $2,000 worth of company stock for a minimum of three years (up from one) before they can submit a shareholder resolution. They can submit proposals earlier if they own $25,000 for one year and $15,000 for two years. Small shareholders can no longer come together to aggregate their shares to file a resolution.
  • Re-submission vote thresholds were raised from 3%, 6% and 10% for the first three years to 5%, 15% and 25%.
  • Proxy service providers (such as ISS and Glass Lewis) will be required to provide a draft of their proxy advice to companies for comment ahead of issuance. There are several other restrictions on these companies.

These proposed changes are significant threats to our voice as shareholders. They have received significant push-back in the media (Reuters, MarketWatch) and by several investor groups (ICCR, US SIF, CII). “Between the filing threshold increases and the doubling of percentages for resubmissions, it means that smaller investors are going to find it much more difficult to file resolutions,” says Josh Zinner, CEO of ICCR. “It’s a blow against shareholder democracy.”

The 60-day comment period opens once the proposed rule changes are published in the Federal Registrar. Our members are encouraged to sign on to Ceres and ICCR comment letters or, better yet, send in your own comments to the SEC. You should also consider sending letters to your Congressional representatives. Finally, consider submitting op-eds and letters to the editor to your local paper and newsletter stories and blog posts on your websites.

To learn more about the issue and concerns, you read the statements by Commissioner Robert Jackson and Allison Herren. “There is a common theme that unites the two proposals before us today”, said Commissioner Herren. “They both would operate to suppress the exercise of shareholder rights.”

With regards to a second proposed rule change, ISS (Institutional shareholder Services) has filed a lawsuit against the SEC. The final resource is a website, supported by ICCR, that is gathering evidence and sharing reports concerning the shareholder proposal process (Investor Rights Forum).

A lot more to come on these proposals. Please lift your voice in opposition!