Article 43


Saturday, June 30, 2012

Taxation Without Representation

Obamacare - And It’s 20 New Taxes - Is Now The Law


By WhatTheFukIsWrongWithYouPeople
June 30, 2012

It’s Constitutional Bitches

Did Obama just win the Fukin Superbowl ? Obama just won the political mutherfukin superbowl. yesterdays Supreme court vote means that he single handedly whooped the ass of every so called constitutional expert the republicans had to offer.  Okay okay maybe that isnt exactly what happened but it is exactly what I and millions of Americans feel like as we bask in the glory of the healthcare overhaul supreme court decision.

We all know Barack the rock Obama is supposed to be a constitutional expert, yet we watched as most of the country turned tail and ran from his legislation.  Most of the affordable care act fans ( myself included) had already perfected a rebuttal for the second the purchased supreme court justices ruled against him.  Instead It was upheld ! Damn this man is smart !

Do you know what that means ?  That means a black man reformed healthcare.  A black man reformed healthcare ? Yes I know҅. (He is half white, but the cracker jacks sure as hell arent claiming him as one of them so., until they realize the truth) A black man reformed Healthcare !

One would think, one would hope, one would pray that this minority american who managed to pass the largest piece of country changing legislation, possibly in the history of the United States, would have the ear of every single American on the planet.  Yeah right҅ but donŒt worry about it.  ill fill you in real quick.

first let me just say this plans not perfect Barack isn’t perfect your not perfect i’m not perfect, the plans got some deficiencies and problems, and a shit load of $taxes$ . Changes will need to be made along the way. so Lets just for a second look at some of the changes we get to benefit from now.

There are those that are easiest to digest, which we are all aware of by now:

The individual mandate: Everybody has to have insurance by 2014 and if you can afford it you must pay for it, If you can’t afford it.  There are remedies for that too.

It creates a “high-risk pool” for people with pre-existing conditions: Helps the “unhealthy” get insured albeit for a slightly higher expense, but better that than being LEFT TO DIE.

Kids can continue to be covered by their parents health insurance until they’re 26: stay healthy while you look for a job to pay that massive student loan debt, maybe even inturn a bit, learn your trait better, whatever you choose, just know your health wont be the issue( or excuse) for settling.

No more “pre-existing” conditions for kids under the age of 19: No punishment for being born with an illness or issue . ( damn isn’t that just humane)

Here are a few of my favorite changes not so many Americans are aware of:

It allows the Food and Drug Administration to approve more generic drugs: no more paying a billion dollars for a 25 cent product that could save your life

It increases the rebates on drugs people get through Medicare: Again - the drugs will cost less:

It establishes a non-profit group to study different kinds of treatments to see what works better and is the best use of money: No more useless, costly, expensive tests

A credit program is made: will make it easier for business to invest in new ways to treat illness. ( levels the playing field for competition)

Fast food disclosures: No more secret ingredients, now we can actually choose to eat healthy if we want to.  I don’t know about you but if its got pink slime or green slime or blue or purple slime in it - I want to know

It creates a new 10% tax on indoor tanning booths: you can still cook your skin, you just need to pay for the health risks yourself ( hehehe ) okay okay maybe this sets a bit of a socialistic presidence, but cmon isnt that stuff cancerous or something ? Besides you can’t hate on the President’s tan and then try to be like him.

No more lifetime visitation limits: Visit the hospital early and often, find out whats killing you before it know..kills you, and in the process set the emergency room free.

Now for those of you who are worried about us turning all these buyers over to the crooked healthcare companies There are a few orders in line for them as well:

No More jacking up prices just because they feel like it

No more kicking paying customers to the curb if they get sick

They must install new ways to stop fraud

They have to extend medicare to smaller hospitals

Medicare patients with chronic illnesses will be better monitored

Costs for companies that handle benefits for the elderly will be reduced

and my favorite:

customers have to be notified what their money is being spent on:  (No more general administrative feed) they have to be more specific and they have to put 80% of what we spend into actual healthcare (right now most of what we pay doesn’t actually go to treating us, this will fix that)

And As of August:

Health plans will include preventative care:  we can be proactive not reactive

Now look its way more complicated than how I layed it out and I left a bunch of the future growth info out. I simplified it so the haters can see itŅs really not that difficult a pill to swallow. Now I know the selfish will hate the parts involving covering the poor whether they have children or not, redefining the word poor, and making sure doctors get paid according to quality of care, not volume but what can I say, somethings are just right or in The Presidents words:

“I didn’t do this for politics I did this because its the right thing to do.”

The idea here is that competition breeds excellency. If we create more buyers we should have more options, more options should mean more doctors and should mean more healthcare providers. In turn that should mean more employed Americans. It should force insurance companies to become more competitive which should drive down costs. ( kinda sounds just like the principal of Capitalism that Republicans just looooove ) This legislation will still need work, it will still need time and attention and many, many changes.  At the end of the day you have to ask yourself, is this better than what we had before President Obama stepped up ?  I say Hell Muther Fukin Yeah, leaps and bounds better.

Truth is I’m all for pharmaceutical companies PROFITING, i say the more successful Americans the better but they can survive as billionaires instead of trillionaires if it means more people get to LIVE !

Click HERE for more on the ACA.



In Obama’s Victory, a Loss for Congress

NY Times
June 27, 2012

With the landmark Supreme Court ruling on Thursday, conservatives and libertarians lost their legal battle to overturn the Obama administration’s signature health care legislation. But they may have won a bigger war.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. ruled that the health care legislation passed constitutional muster, but only under Congress’s broad power to tax. He rejected the widely held expansive view of the commerce clause of the United States Constitution, ruling that it doesn’t give Congress the power to make people buy health insurance or, for that matter, healthy green vegetables like broccoli.

"Under the governments theory, Congress could address the diet problem by ordering everyone to buy vegetables,” the chief justice wrote. “That is not the country the framers of our Constitution envisioned.”

Libertarians declared victory.  “We finally won a three-decades-long battle over the commerce clause,” John Eastman, a conservative constitutional scholar and a professor at Chapman University, told me hours after the courts decision.

This might seem a paradox, given that the court upheld the legislation. But the decision may ultimately prove a Pyrrhic victory for supporters of expansive Congressional power. The opinion reads like a hymn to the ideal of limited government. And by embracing the broccoli argument, it sharply limits the commerce clause - until now the source of ever-expanding legislative power since Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in 1824 that Congressional power to regulate commerce “may be exercised to its utmost extent.”

Despite Justice Marshall’s sweeping language, much of the expansion of Congressional power under the commerce clause came over a century later, in a series of court challenges to New Deal legislation. Invoking the commerce clause, the court upheld the Fair Labor Standards Act, even though it regulated companies whose business was entirely local, and it upheld the regulation of milk prices even for dairies that never sold their products across state lines. In what Chief Justice Roberts cited this week as “perhaps the most far-reaching example of commerce clause authority over intrastate activity,” the court in 1942 upheld restricting a farmer’s right to grow wheat for his own consumption. These cases have long rankled many conservative jurists.

In these and even more recent extensions of commerce clause authority, including Congress’s ability to ban home grown marijuana, the court focused on what constitutes interstate commerce. In the health care case, all the justices acknowledged that health care is a huge industry that cuts across state lines, and easily passed that test. But the conservative justices, joined by the chief justice, focused on “activity” as a factor limiting the commerce clause, ruling that commerce requires some activity, and not buying health insurance is “inactivity.” As Justice Roberts put it, the wheat farmer “was at least actively engaged in the production of wheat, and the government could regulate that activity because of its effect on commerce. The governments theory here would effectively override that limitation, by establishing that individuals may be regulated under the commerce clause whenever enough of them are not doing something the government would have them do.” This, the court ruled, was unconstitutional.

“The commerce clause is not a general license to regulate an individual from cradle to grave,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. Libertarians and conservatives have been seeking such a declaration since the New Deal.

The four dissenting justices agreed with Chief Justice Roberts’s limits on the commerce clause, giving the interpretation a 5-to-4 majority as well as the weight of precedent. And the four liberal justices who concurred in the result vehemently disagreed with the reasoning. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent much of her 61-page concurring opinion rebutting the broccoli argument, which she referred to as “the broccoli horrible.”

“When contemplated in its extreme, almost any power looks dangerous,” she wrote. “The commerce power, hypothetically, would enable Congress to prohibit the purchase and home production of all meat, fish and dairy goods, effectively compelling Americans to eat only vegetables. Yet no one would offer the hypothetical and unreal possibility of a vegetarian state as a credible reason to deny Congress the authority ever to ban the possession and sale of goods.”

She also argued that the line between activity and inactivity may be difficult, if not impossible, to discern. To underscore the point, she quoted Judge Frank Easterbrook, chief judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago and a prominent conservative jurist: “It is possible to restate most actions as corresponding inactions with the same effect.”

The significance of the ruling for the commerce clause wasn’t lost on constitutional scholars from across the political spectrum. “It’s a dark day and the opinion is very dispiriting,” Charles Fried, a Harvard constitutional law professor, told me from Rome, where he was on vacation.

“The limitation of the commerce clause runs counter to 75 years of Supreme Court jurisprudence. It is a complete capitulation to the bogus logic of the broccoli argument and its proponents in the Tea Party.”

Professor Fried, a solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan, is viewed as a conservative and no fan of the heath care law, but nonetheless has consistently argued that the law is constitutional.

While praising the outcome, Professor Fried’s more liberal Harvard colleague Laurence H. Tribe said: “There may be a dark gray lining: it is the court’s 5 to 4 narrowing of the federal commerce power. Ironically, that narrowing might be the longest-lasting doctrinal legacy of the ruling.”

And while deeply disappointed by the outcome in the health care case, the libertarian lawyer David B. Rivkin Jr., a partner in the Washington office of Baker Hostetler, called the court’s interpretation of the commerce clause the ultimate “silver lining.” The opinion, he said, “reaffirms with enormous vigor the fundamental limits to the government’s power. The administration sailed under the flag of the commerce clause and it was decisively rebuked. No one will try to do this type of mandate again.”

Mr. Rivkin argued the case that reached the Supreme Court before Judge Roger Vinson of the Federal District Court in Pensacola, Fla., who embraced the broccoli argument and declared the statute unconstitutional. Portions of Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion addressing the scope of the commerce clause as well as the dissenting opinion - read as though they could have been lifted from Mr. Rivkins many briefs and op-ed articles. “We won on the principle,” Mr. Rivkin said.

Which made it all the more astonishing, especially to the dissenting conservative justices, was that the court nonetheless upheld the statute as a tax. As Chief Justice Roberts explained it, ԓIt makes going without insurance just another thing the government taxes, like buying gasoline or earning income. And if the mandate is in effect just a tax hike on certain taxpayers who do not have health insurance, it may be within Congresss constitutional power to tax.Ҕ

Even here, a libertarian streak runs through the argument. Chief Justice Roberts makes clear that the health care act survived because the taxӔ for not buying health insurance is sufficiently modest that individuals retain the freedom to opt out of the mandate by simply paying it.

As he wrote, Taxes that seek to influence conduct are nothing new,Ӕ and he cited cigarettes as a prominent example. Congress doesnt want Americans to smoke, so it imposes a tax. But the tax is not so high as to make it financially prohibitive for people to smoke; itҒs not, say, $1,000 a pack. That would most likely be deemed a penalty or fine.

The Yale constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar has long argued that the health care act could be upheld as a tax, whether or not the statute actually used the T-word,Ӕ as he put it. Still, he told me that he was troubled by the courts restriction of the commerce clause and the triumph of the broccoli argument.

“There were five votes upholding the commerce clause interpretation, which is unfortunate, he said. ԓThis is very significant. Congress now canԒt accomplish anything it might have enacted under the commerce clause by simply calling it a tax. There are limits to the tax power. It has its own internal limits and logic,Ӕ he said.

Where the line should be drawn in future legislation between a “tax” and a “penalty” is likely to be the subject of intense argument and continuing litigation. “We need not here decide the precise point at which an exaction becomes so punitive that the taxing power does not authorize it,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, all but guaranteeing a flood of new litigation.

Another aspect of the opinion with potentially far-reaching implications is the notion that Congress cant regulate “inactivity” under the commerce clause.

“This opinion reinvigorates a stricter understanding of all the powers of government,” Professor Amar said. “There’s a renewed interest in limits to federal power. The language about inactivity suggests that any laws that purport to order conduct, including existing laws, have the potential to be challenged. This could become a powerful tool to achieve a more limited federal government.” He cited the plethora of environmental regulations that might now be challenged by businesses. So can Congress require Americans to buy broccoli?

Under the commerce clause, the answer is now clearly no.

Could Congress impose a tax on people who fail to buy broccoli, effectively accomplishing the same goal?

Under the logic of the decision, perhaps. But with a commerce clause victory in hand, the newly emboldened libertarians are already shifting their sights to Congres’ss broad taxing and spending powers. “It’s the next dragon we have to slay,” Professor Eastman told me.


Posted by Elvis on 06/30/12 •
Section General Reading
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Friday, June 29, 2012

The Elderly


It was once said that the moral test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.
- Hubert H. Humphrey

Social Care Is The Litmus Test Of A Civilised Society. The Current Crisis Is An Indictment Of Our Apathy & Indifference Towards The Elderly

By Dominique Jackson
Dominique Jachson’s Blog
June 25, 2012

The parallel universe of geriatric care is not somewhere most people visit willingly, nor regularly, if they can help it. Most of us cannot even begin to imagine the burgeoning twilight universe which exists alongside ours. After all, the care system only really hits the headlines when brave whistle blowers expose particularly shocking cases of neglect and abuse.

I am not quite sure why most of us choose to remain so blinkered about the crisis in social care? After all, we are all going to get old one day; thus, someone, somewhere is probably going to have to help look after us and somehow, that care is going to have to be paid for. 

Todays open letter, begging the Prime Minister to open his eyes to the care crisis, is signed by 78 charities and campaign groups, who are all working on the grim, often fraught and woefully under-funded frontline of care provision for the frail, elderly, disabled and otherwise most vulnerable members of society. They know all too well what they are talking about.

Surely, social care is the litmus test of a civilised society? The current crisis, both in funding and provision, is a terrifying indictment of how poorly we value the achievements of the older generation and of how quickly and how conveniently we forget the huge debt we owe them.

I sincerely hope that Mr Cameron takes a few minutes off from his busy day out with Mr Clegg, relaunching the aims of the coalition from a factory in Essex. I hope he takes enough time to read this important letter, to digest what it means and to decide to take some action.

Two years ago, when Messrs Clegg and Cameron stood side by side in the Downing Street Rose Garden, charities and the elderly lobby felt they had some cause for optimism. The coalition soon published a white paper on health care reform which promised a sustainable legal and financial framework for adult social care by the second session of parliament.

Yet today we are frustratingly no further on and the government looks increasingly out of touch with its growing numbers of elderly, and vocal, voters in the wake of the “Granny Tax” debacle.

The Queen’s Speech tomorrow is expected to include a vague nod to the importance of social care reform, but there will be no bill brought forward in this session. Thus, we have no hope of any realistic overhaul in long term elderly care for at least another two years.

This is two years too long for a shocking majority of elderly people and their family members, many of whom work as unpaid carers, and a huge number of whom are currently struggling to fund, or even to find, appropriate and adequate support and care. 

Tens of thousands of elderly pensioners are forced to sell their homes to pay for residential care. Many more thousands of senior citizens who do not have that option are trapped in the postcode lottery of care I wrote about on this forum only last week when I highlighted the plight of 99-year-old war veteran and dementia patient Bill Sandford, unable to move close to his daughter and her family because of a shortfall in local council funding.

The Commission on Funding of Care and Support, chaired by economist Andrew Dilnot, called for a limited liability model of social insurance, in which any individuals liability for the cost of care would be capped at around L35,000, with the state coming in at this threshold.

However, implementing Dilnots proposals has reportedly been held up by rows within the Treasury over how to pay for the reforms. A much delayed White Paper on long term care will finally appear next month but is expected to focus mainly on issues such as improving service quality, safeguarding vulnerable patients and on personal budgets to allow greater freedom of choice. How on earth we are expected to pay for all of this is not expected to be directly addressed at all.

This is particularly bad news for those of our poorest senior citizens. Two thirds of the 400,000 pensioners in the countryҒs care homes are funded by the state and recent cuts to council funding have led inevitably to a drop in levels of staffing, recruitment criteria, provision of training and thus in standards of care.

A report on transforming social care for the poorest elderly people from the Centre for Social Justice think tank is also published today. It argues that the current means-tested system of funding is at breaking point and that the proposed Dilnot reforms ignore the plight of the war time generation who simply do not have any assets to sell.

The CSJ, which was established by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith while he was in opposition, hopes its findings may influence the politicians who are considering their response to Dilnot in cross-party talks ahead of the White Papers appearance in June. 

All this research and all these recommendations are all very well but what we really need now is some joined-up thinking and some immediate action. We need an open and honest debate about the needs of the elderly and we should all, every single one of us, be involved. After all, we will all be elderly one day.

Our population is ageing and ageing fast. Almost 20 per cent, 11.8 million, of us are now over the retirement age. Of these, 1.3 million are already over the age of 85. Our rapidly ageing population means swiftly rising rates of dementia and growing legions of frail and vulnerable seniors, who are, whether they like it or not, dependent on younger generations.

It should not have to fall to a coalition of charities to have to highlight the scale and urgency of the challenge of social care reform but now that they have bravely brought the debate back into the headlines, it is high time for the government to wake up to this demographic time bomb and act.


Posted by Elvis on 06/29/12 •
Section Spiritual Diversions
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Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Sharp, Sudden Decline of America’s Middle Class


They had good, stable jobs - until the recession hit. Now they’re living out of their cars in parking lots.

By Jeff Tietz
Rolling Stone
June 25, 2012

Every night around nine, Janis Adkins falls asleep in the back of her Toyota Sienna van in a church parking lot at the edge of Santa Barbara, California. On the van’s roof is a black Yakima SpaceBooster, full of previous-life belongings like a snorkel and fins and camping gear. Adkins, who is 56 years old, parks the van at the lot’s remotest corner, aligning its side with a row of dense, shading avocado trees. The trees provide privacy, but they are also useful because she can pick their fallen fruit, and she doesn’t always have enough to eat. Despite a continuous, two-year job search, she remains without dependable work. She says she doesn’t need to eat much - if she gets a decent hot meal in the morning, she can get by for the rest of the day on a piece of fruit or bulk-purchased almonds but food stamps supply only a fraction of her nutritional needs, so foraging opportunities are welcome.

Prior to the Great Recession, Adkins owned and ran a successful plant nursery in Moab, Utah. At its peak, it was grossing $300,000 a year. She had never before been unemployed she’d worked for 40 years, through three major recessions. During her first year of unemployment, in 2010, she wrote three or four cover letters a day, five days a week. Now, to keep her mind occupied when she’s not looking for work or doing odd jobs, she volunteers at an animal shelter called the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network. ("I always ask for the most physically hard jobs just to get out my frustration,” she says.) She has permission to pick fruit directly from the branches of the shelter’s orange and avocado trees. Another benefit is that when she scrambles eggs to hand-feed wounded seabirds, she can surreptitiously make a dish for herself.

By the time Adkins goes to bed - early, because she has to get up soon after sunrise, before parishioners or church employees arrive - the four other people who overnight in the lot have usually settled in: a single mother who lives in a van with her two teenage children and keeps assiduously to herself, and a wrathful, mentalliy unstable woman in an old Mercedes sedan whom Adkins avoids. By mutual unspoken agreement, the three women park in the same spots every night, keeping a minimum distance from each other. When you live in your car - in a parking lot, you value any reliable area of enclosing stillness. “You get very territorial,” Adkins says.

Each evening, 150 people in 113 vehicles spend the night in 23 parking lots in Santa Barbara. The lots are part of Safe Parking, a program that offers overnight permits to people living in their vehicles. The nonprofit that runs the program, New Beginnings Counseling Center, requires participants to have a valid driver’s license and current registration and insurance. The number of vehicles per lot ranges from one to 15, and lot hours are generally from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Fraternization among those who sleep in the lots is implicitly discouraged the fainter the program’s presence, the less likely it will provoke complaints from neighboring homes and churches and businesses.

The Safe Parking program is not the product of a benevolent government. Santa Barbara’s mild climate and sheltered beachfront have long attracted the homeless, and the city has sometimes responded with punitive measures. (An appeals court compared one city ordinance forbidding overnight RV parking to anti-Okie laws in the 1930s.) To aid Santa Barbara’s large homeless population, local activists launched the Safe Parking program in 2003. But since the Great Recession began, the number of lots and participants in the program has doubled. By 2009, formerly middle-class people like Janis Adkins had begun turning up - teachers and computer repairmen and yoga instructors seeking refuge in the city’s parking lots. Safe-parking programs in other cities have experienced a similar influx of middle-class exiles, and their numbers are not expected to decrease anytime soon. It can take years for unemployed workers from the middle class to burn through their resources - savings, credit, salable belongings, home equity, loans from family and friends. Some 5.4 million Americans have been without work for at least six months, and an estimated 750,000 of them are completely broke or heading inexorably toward destitution. In California, where unemployment remains at 11 percent, middle-class refugees like Janis Adkins are only the earliest arrivals. “She’s the tip of the iceberg,” says Nancy Kapp, the coordinator of the Safe Parking program. “There are many people out there who haven’t hit bottom yet, but they’re on their way - they’re on their way.”

Kapp, who was herself homeless for a time many years ago, is blunt, indefatigable, raptly empathetic. She works out of a minuscule office in the Salvation Army building in downtown Santa Barbara. On the wall is a map encompassing the program’s parking lots - a vivid graphic of the fall of the middle class. Kapp expects more disoriented, newly impoverished families to request spots in the Safe Parking program this year, and next year, and the year after that.

“When you come to me, you’ve hit rock bottom,” Kapp says. “You’ve already done everything you possibly could to avoid being homeless. You maybe have a teeny bit of savings left. People are crying, they’re saying, ‘I’ve never experienced this before. I’ve never been homeless.’ They don’t want to mix with homeless people. They’re like, ‘I’m not going over to those people’ - sometimes they call them ‘those people.’ So now they’re lost, they’re humiliated, they’re rejected, they’re scared, and they’re very ashamed. I’m worried about the psychological damage it does when you have a place and then, all of a sudden, you’re in your car. You have to be depressed just from the fall itself, from losing everything and not understanding how it could happen.”

One evening last spring, I visit Janis Adkins in her parking lot at the Goleta Community Covenant Church. When I turn into the driveway, the sun has fallen to the horizon. The other residents haven’t arrived yet, and Adkins’ van, at the far corner of the lot, seems almost metaphysically solitary, drawn to the parcel of greenery at the asphalt’s edge.

Because the night is chilly and the van shell seems to draw the cold inward, Adkins has already tucked herself in, reclining against pillows and a rolled sleeping bag at the back corner of the van, beneath blankets and layers of piled-up fleece clothing. For privacy, Adkins has put silver sunshades in the front windshield; a row of clean shirts and blouses suspended on hangers obscures the lot-facing side window. By the light of a little LED bulb in a camping headlamp, she is reading a novel called The Invisible Ones, whose main characters are gypsies.

Adkins has tousled blond-gray hair and the kind of deep, unaffected tan that comes from working outdoors. She grew up in a middle-class family in Santa Barbara, but eventually took off to become a river guide in Utah. Adkins engages you frankly, her manner almost practiced in its evenness: few gesticulations, steady intonation. Across the ceiling of the van she has affixed a silken red-and-gold banner that spells out a Buddhist chant of compassion. She practices yoga and meditation and believes in the Buddhist concept of equanimity; she takes comfort in the parable of the Zen ox herder, who tries and fails, day after day, to break a raging ox. When a friend calls to ask how she’s doing, she often says, “Still riding the ox.”

But the rigors of homelessness the sudden loss of the signifiers of her selfhood - regularly breach the protection of detachment; the trick for her is regaining it quickly. “When negative thoughts come, it’s important to be able to say, ‘It’s just a thought,’” she tells me. “‘Just let it go.’ When I get really down, I try to look at a worse-case scenario, like the pictures of the Haiti earthquake. I go, ‘What could I do to help?’ Things like that drive me forward.” She also reminds herself to be grateful: to Starbucks for free cups of hot water, to the YMCA for her discounted membership, to the Safe Parking program. Gratitude snuffs out self-pity.

Before the financial crash decimated the value of her home and her customer base, Adkins had been contemplating selling her nursery, High Desert Gardens, and going to work for a humanitarian or environmental organization. But the suddenness and violence of the recession took her by surprise. The nursery specialized in drought-tolerant plants and offered more than 100 species of trees. Over the years, she had developed a deep base of horticultural knowledge, and people came from long distances to seek her advice. Business was good enough that she could leave her employees in charge of the nursery and travel for a month or so every summer to escape the harsh Moab heat.

Within two years of the crash, sales had dropped by 50 percent and the value of her land had fallen by more than that. Four banks refused to help her refinance. “Everyone was talking about bailouts,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I’m not asking for a bailout, I’m asking you to work with me.’ They look at you, no expression on their faces, saying, ‘There’s nothing we can do.’” She had to shut the nursery down and sell everything she could to avoid foreclosure: “I was practically giving stuff away just to try to make some money. Started selling everything that wasn’t permanent. I was going to sell the doors, the windows, the gates if I could, but they told me I couldn’t.” She decided not to file for bankruptcy: It would have cost her thousands of dollars and require her to give up her van, which she was determined to keep. When she had nothing left to sell to make her mortgage payments, she was forced to put her home on the market, clearing only $4,000 on the sale.

“I was spinning out of control,” she says. “I was starting to lose my wits. It’s very surreal being at a level of depression where it’s easier to think about suicide and dying than it is to bend over and pick something up you’re stepping over. It was getting bad enough that my friends started looking at me, going, ‘You better get out of here.’ The only functional thing I could figure out was to just go. I thought I would go travel and figure out what I wanted to do next. So some friends packed up my house and we converted my van so I could have as much stuff in there as possible, and I just left.”

However long it takes to lose everything, to get to the point where you’re driving away from your repossessed home, the final unraveling seems eye-blink fast, because there is no way to imagine it. Even if you’ve been unemployed for a year and are months-delinquent on your mortgage, you still won’t have a mental category for your own homelessness; it’s impossible to project yourself into the scenario. The reality, when it occurs and endures, seems to have sprung from nowhere.

Without reflection, Adkins drove to a wildlife refuge she knew about in Arizona. She thought perhaps she could get a volunteer job there, something to keep her busy, but she soon realized that the plan would leave her with no way to make ends meet. “I went to a place by this lake and I just stayed there for 10 days and cried and slept. I was so bad.” Eventually she headed to Santa Barbara. She hoped that old connections might help her find work, but it wasn’t long before she began running out of money.

Sitting in her van, we chat a bit about High Desert Gardens and the gypsy book and her volunteer work at the wildlife shelter. Eventually I ask how she gets by. She says that a cousin in town gives her food and cash when she can, and a woman at the church arranges informal gardening work for her. Various people she knows give her their recycling so she can redeem the cans and bottles, and she borrows money from friends and acquaintances, like the manager of the wildlife shelter. Having maxed out her borrowing capacity, though, she is increasingly unable to pay what she owes to places like the YMCA, where she goes to shower. She wouldn’t be adverse to dumpsterdiving - “I hear there’s good food” but she’s not strong enough to climb the sides.

“I actually tried panhandling a couple months ago,” she says. “I was so broke. I had, like, a dollar. And I didn’t know what else to do, so I went to the library and Googled ‘effective panhandling.’”

“Really?” I ask.

“I wouldn’t make that up,” she says, laughing. “There were a lot of different strategies. One site said do not dress up, dress down. Look sad. Don’t be negative in your signs. Say thank you constantly. Be humble for real, don’t be phony-humble.”

Adkins couldn’t bring herself to look dirty. Then she remembered that after the stock market imploded, guys in business suits had walked through New York’s financial district wearing sandwich boards with their resumes on them. “People read them because it’s so ridiculous, it’s effective,” she says. So she picked a strategic thoroughfare in Santa Barbara, dressed for a job interview, and spent her last money making copies of her rsume - laminating one so that drivers could handle it without getting it dirty. She found a four-foot-tall piece of cardboard at a grocery store and wrote on it:


Then she stood alongside the road and held up the sign. The day was so windy it was hard to hold on to. “I was like, ‘Please hire me,’ and everybody’s flying by, trying to ignore you, but this one guy drives up, looks at my resume, looks at me and goes, ‘Very effective. I’ll take one of those.’ I said, ‘Thank you, I really appreciate that,’ but I never heard from him. And then a homeless guy came up to me and goes, ‘Wow. That ain’t gonna work.’ I didn’t want to talk to him about it. I just wanted to stick my sign out there - I didn’t have any more cardboard. And about halfway into it, I just started crying and I couldn’t stop. I was so embarrassed. It was incredibly humiliating. You know how a lot of women hold their hand over their mouth when they cry? I started doing that, and that’s when I raked in the money. I was sort of scared because there were so many cars that I was boxed in, and I was holding this gigantic sign and I was saying, ‘I’d rather work, I’d rather you take my resume, please help,’ and I’m crying and the dollars just started coming out of the windows.” But finally she cried herself out, and people stopped giving. She made $12 in three hours, all of it drawn by tears.

“And then I went out the next day and didn’t get squat,” she says. “I was trying to figure out, ‘Should I start crying on purpose?’ But how do you cry on purpose?”

Curtis and Concita cates spent the better part of a year sleeping in their Nissan Titan pickup with their 13-year-old son, Canaan, in the parking lot of the Santa Barbara Community Church. The pickup was one of five authorized vehicles in the lot, which is three miles east of the church where Adkins parks. To the north rise the low peaks flanking San Marcos Pass, and an overflow lot across the street offers a view of the outspread city and the ocean beyond it. The Cateses had met Nancy Kapp by chance at the Salvation Army, where they’d gone in search of food. She’d given them a white permit for the front windowof their pickup. When they arrived at the church, they found a Safe Parking porta-potty at the corner of the lot.

The Cateses ended up in the Safe Parking program after losing their jobs almost simultaneously. Curtis installed and repaired fire sprinklers in Phoenix; Concita worked as a pharmacy technician. Their combined income averaged $60,000 a year. Before the Great Recession, they had never been jobless. They lost their home after exhausting their available cash and the money in Curtis’ medical savings account. Their oldest child was in college, and they were able to send their next oldest to live with his aunt. With Canaan, they drove to California to stay with relatives. When they arrived, however, they found that another family, also recently homeless, had already moved in. There were now 11 people, all but one of them unemployed, sharing a single small house.

“A bunch of us slept all piled up in a room,” Curtis recalls.

“Everyone had their own sleeping habits,” Concita says.

“And in the kitchen, you’re trying to figure out, ‘OK, this is my food. Do I share it?’” Curtis says. “It gets down to little things like that. You would buy milk and have it there for the kids and someone else would take it. It got to the point where people would take our cooler and hide it in their room and save it for their own people.”

The situation became unbearable, and the Cateses left without knowing exactly where they were going. “We had some friends, and we’d park in their driveways,” Concita says. “Or the side of the road by their house, in case we had to go to the bathroom.”

When I visit Concita and Curtis, they have just moved into an apartment subsidized by a federal program known as Section 8. The unit is in a stucco apartment building about a block from Highway 101 and the Union Pacific line that parallels it, on a street marked by modest dilapidation: a listing wooden fence broken by tree roots, a few anarchic yards, a beat-up Chevy Aveo mirroring a beat-up Dodge Stratus. The apartment is clean and relatively spacious, but still mostly empty.

Curtis, thickset and goateed, welcomes me at the door dressed in jean shorts and a yellow Arizona State T-shirt. Concita, small and soft-voiced, wears a pink sweatshirt and white sneakers. The living room walls are bare, save for an oversize decorative clock, but it is the one room in the apartment close to being furnished: two couches, two easy chairs, a shaded table lamp on a stand, a coffee table. As I look around, Curtis and Concita tell me where everything came from, seeming a little surprised by how good they’ve become at acquiring things without money.

“That couch, someone was throwing out,” Curtis says, pointing at the one opposite me. “A lady Nancy knows gave us these two chairs and this light.”

“We found that little stand over there - someone was throwing it out,” Concita says. “And I found that mirror in the dumpster I was like, ‘I’ll take that.’”

Curtis points sequentially at items: “Got that from the trash, that from the trash. The TV was given to us by that lady Nancy knew.” The TV has a large screen, but its anachronistic bulk is almost jarring. In their place in Phoenix, they’d had a 50-inch LG flatscreen and a Blu-ray player.

When they first arrived in Santa Barbara, both Curtis and Concita were receiving unemployment benefits, but that was the only income they had, and it didn’t cover expenses. They had three mouths to feed and no kitchen to cook in; gasoline was more than $4 a gallon; they had to make a truck payment; they had cellphone and auto-insurance bills; they had to do laundry. When they went to apply for social services, they learned that their unemployment benefits made them ineligible for additional aid. Curtis, who had worked construction jobs most of his life, started to haunt building sites. Once in a while he would find a few days’ work. “But there’s the rock and the hard spot,” he says. “If you take the job, you lose your unemployment. You have to reapply, and the money doesn’t equal the lost benefits.” He was better off collecting cans.

Nancy Kapp describes the moment when formerly middle-class people like the Cateses are forced to turn to social welfare systems as “the beginning of the demise. These systems don’t just fail people they degrade and humiliate people. They’re not solutions. They’re Band-Aids on wounds that are pusing and bleeding out.”

Government-aid agencies and private charities demand that applicants show a bundle of identifying documents: Social Security card, birth certificate, driver’s license. Many people don’t have all of the required documents; homeless people often have none. The Cateses were lucky - Concita has a good organizational mind and quickly put together a packet of the necessary documents. But at the aid agencies where they applied, they saw many people poor, hungry, sick - denied basic services for lack of paperwork.

The next thing welfare applicants must do is disclose every possession and conceivable source of income they have. “I can’t tell you how many people come to my office and say, ‘I couldn’t get food stamps because my car is worth too much,’” Kapp tells me. “OK, you have a car. But you’ve lost everything - your house, your job, your pride - and all you have left is that car and all of your belongings in it. And they say, ‘You still have too much. Lose it all.’ You have to have nothing, when you already have nothing.”

Janis Adkins hadn’t been back in Santa Barbara long before she needed to apply for government assistance. She had never asked for aid before. At the California Department of Social Services, she filled out the form for emergency food stamps.

“I didn’t wear my best clothes, but I wore a light blouse and jeans, and I guess I was just a little too dressed up,” she recalls. “Because the woman just looked at me and said, ‘Are you in a crisis? Your application says you’re in a crisis.’ I said, ‘I’m living in a van and I don’t have a job. I have a little bit of money, but it’s going to go fast.’ The woman said, ‘You have $500. You’re not in a crisis if you have $500.’ She said anything more than $50 was too much.”

If Adkins had filled her tank with gas, done her laundry, eaten a meal, and paid her car insurance and phone bills, it would have used up half of everything she had. But emergency food stamps, she was told, are not for imminent emergencies; they’re for emergencies already in progress. You can’t get them if you can make it through the next week you have to be down to the last few meals you can afford.

“The money’s for my phone, it’s for gas, it’s for my bills,” Adkins said.

“Why are you in a crisis,” the woman asked, “when you have a phone bill?”

“I need the phone so I can get a job. You can’t look for a job without a phone.”

“Why do you have bills?” the woman asked. “I thought you didn’t have a place to live.”

“I live in my van,” Adkins said. “I have insurance.”

“You have a 2007 van,” the woman said. “I think you need to sell that.”

“Please, I need a break,” Adkins said. “I need some help. I need to take a shower.”

“Why didn’t you have a shower?”

“I live in a van.”

The woman told Adkins to come back when she really needed help.

“I was going into shock,” Adkins recalls. “I’m crying and I’m shaking my head: ‘No, no. I need to talk to somebody else.’ They told me no.” By then Adkins was screaming and begging. “I’m surprised they didn’t call the cops,” she tells me.

When welfare applicants finally prove that they exist, and show their material worth to be nothing, they usually receive far less than they need to live on. That’s what happened to Curtis and Concita Cates. The maximum amount of aid that a single adult is eligible for in Santa Barbara, they learned, is $291 per month ֖ $200 in food stamps, $91 in cash assistance. The waiting time for Section 8 housing, if you have priority status, is six months to a year. If you belong to the vast majority who don’t have priority status if you’re not elderly, disabled or a veteran with dependents ֖ the wait is between four and eight years.

Most of the social-service systems in the United States function not to help people like Curtis and Concita Cates get back to where they were, to a point of productive stability, but simply to keep them from starving or, more often, to merely reduce the chances that they will starve. Millions of middle-class Americans are now receiving unemployment benefits, and many find themselves compelled by the meagerness of the assistance to shun opportunity and forgo productivity in favor of a ceaseless focus on daily survival. The system’s incoherence and contempt for its dependents fluoresce brilliantly in the wake of a historic event like the Great Recession. When floodwaters cover our homes, we expect that FEMA workers with emergency checks and blankets will find us. There is no moral or substantive difference between a hundred-year flood and the near-destruction of the global financial system by speculators immune from consequence. But if you and your spouse both lose your jobs and assets because of an unprecedented economic cataclysm having nothing to do with you, you quickly discover that your society expects you and your children to live malnourished on the streets indefinitely. That kind of truth, says Nancy Kapp, “really screws with people’s heads.”

When Curtis and Concita were living in the parking lot of the Santa Barbara Community Church with Canaan, they used constant forward motion to evade despair. “I just wanted to wake up every morning, see the sunrise and be like, ‘Let’s go!’” Curtis says. Getting on the road was normalizing: using the truck as it was intended to be used, entering into conventional routines. The family would shower at a friend’s or relative’s house before dropping Canaan off at school. In the afternoons, he had sports, followed by activities at the Boys & Girls Club. “Spend as much time as you can in school and playing sports,” his parents urged. “Wear yourself out.”

“My son’s a good pretender,” Curtis says. “He has a knack for finding used clothes at stores and putting things together. All the kids at school thought he had money because he always dressed nice. He never had any gadgets or anything, but he always tried to make himself presentable.”

“But there would be times he would ask for stuff,” Concita is moved to say. “And I’m like, ‘Do you even realize that we’re homeless and living in a car? You want me to go buy you new shoes and clothes?’”

While Canaan was in school, Curtis and Concita would head to the local Employment Development Office to search for jobs online. They applied so diligently that they had to wait for new openings to pop up on job sites. The process was dismally impersonal, and their homelessness cast a pall over the search. Many employers demanded a permanent address ֖ “that was the number-one thing we needed,” Curtis says. In job interviews, they tried to hide the fact they were homeless, which often proved impossible. The interviewers assumed Curtis and Concita could read it on their faces ֖ that there were other causes of their homelessness: mental-health issues, drug addiction, a criminal past.

“You’re trying to tell somebody, ‘Listen, I’m just the person I was,’” Curtis says. “‘I was working, things didn’t end up the way they should have, and now I’m homeless. I’m not a dirtbag, I’m not a drug user.’ But a lot of times people look at you and give you that vibe.” Clothes could also be a problem. Once, sitting in an interview in a dress shirt and dollar tie he’d picked out at a thrift store, Curtis realized he’d forgotten to take the tag off the back of the shirt.

They learned where the free food was. One charity had a weekly farmer’s market, so they would line up for fresh produce. For hot meals, which become tremendously valuable when you’re on the street, they’d go to a charity called Casa Esperanza. I ask whether they generally had enough to eat.

“Not really,” Concita says. “I’m glad my kid did, because he gets free lunches at school, free breakfast. But you don’t have anywhere to warm up your food. You buy crackers. Dinner, we improvised and did what we could. A lot of the charity places, it’s the same stuff over and over. ‘Here’s some dry beans and dry rice.’ We didn’t have anywhere to cook it. Or you would get the same bread; you have the same meal every night, in different forms. For plates and silverware, we’d just use the packaging, or sometimes I’d get it from McDonald’s or Taco Bell.”

The truck payment $424 a month - was always a problem. “Without it, we don’t have shelter, we don’t have transportation, we don’t have a way of getting to job interviews,” Curtis says. When they got their unemployment benefits, much of the money went straight to the truck payment. “My thinking was, as long as I’m throwing them money every freaking week, maybe it’ll keep the repo guy off of us,” he says. “And we dodged that, too we didn’t let anyone know where we were at.”

Curtis asked people if they needed their houses cleaned or lawns mowed. He offered the services of his pickup. He learned to collect cans and bottles and redeem them at recycling centers. One sunny Monday, he was in a park picking cans out of recycling bins. He looked around and noticed several other homeless men doing the same thing. “Yeah, I’m homeless,” he thought.

When the family got back to the church parking lot in the evenings, they didn’t want to talk to anybody. “I just wanted to pull up, drop the seats, go to sleep,” Curtis says. There was an electrical outlet outside the church, and they had a DVD player and an extension cord, so they could watch movies. They didn’t need curtains because “all the breathing steams up the windows.” The truck had an extended cab; Curtis and Concita reclined in the front seats and gave the backseat to Canaan: They wanted to make sure he slept well.

It was odd to be confined in such a small space. “Sometimes it was a little too intimate,” Curtis says. There were times when Concita wanted to give up. “I’m going to take my son and go back home to my brothers and sisters, and you stay here,” she’d tell Curtis. They’d fight, but Curtis would say that they needed to stay together, and ultimately Concita would agree. “I always wanted to be with my family,” she says.

The worst moments came when they felt immobilized, indefinitely tethered to the lot. “That’s when you really feel like you’re going crazy,” he says. “You feel the pressure of everything: ‘I’m not doing anything. I’m not being productive. I’m not making anything happen.’ So any friends we had anywhere, we’d offer to cook and clean for them if we could crash that night. This is how it went every night: ‘Let me call so-and-so.’ ‘Hey, can we crash at your pad?’”

Sometimes, through odd jobs and recycling, they saved enough for a night at a Motel 6.

“That was an ‘ahhh’ moment,” Curtis recalls.

“Just to take a shower and lay in a bed,” adds Concita. “But then you have to carry all your personal stuff.”

“You have to bring all your clothes and everything you have with you,” Curtis says. “You carry your life with you.”

“Every day I’d pack everything up, make sure everything’s secure and then go off and do everything again,” Concita says.

“We were battling depression,” Curtis says.

“I was,” Concita says. “I’d cry all the time for stupid little things. At the time, it probably wasn’t stupid, but I can’t think about it - I’m going to cry now.” She pauses but doesn’t cry.

“It takes a lot of your pride,” Curtis says. “It’s humiliating to be begging for help. I can see how someone can get discouraged and give up, because I felt that way at times, and I’m a motivated person. I have goals in life. I can honestly see how someone that has maybe other issues could just say: ‘I don’t even want to deal with this.’”

Things have eased up a bit since their Section 8 apartment came through. Curtis is still collecting unemployment, but Concita found a part-time job at a grocery store. I ask whether they celebrated when they spent their first night in the new apartment. They look at each other. “I think we just collapsed,” Curtis says.

“We put air in the mattress and just slept,” Concita says. It was a queen-size mattress, and they all slept on it together.

“And for the first two or three weeks, we all still slept in the living room as a family,” Curtis says. “No one wanted to go in their rooms. We were so used to being stuck together that we all stayed together. After a while, we started venturing off.”

“My son, every now and then, he’ll say, ‘Mom, can you lay down with me?’” Concita says. “And I’ll go in his room until he falls asleep.”

For the first month after getting the place, she says, “I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I just wanted to be in this house.”

“She wouldn’t leave,” Curtis says.

I am reminded of something Nancy Kapp told me. “Homelessness gets in your bloodstream,” she said, “and it stays there forever.”

“Self-possession of mind, bro that’s the only way I got through being homeless,” the ex-soldier tells me. We’re sitting in his brand-new Section 8 apartment, which resembles the Cateses’ in its interior spareness and stucco insubstantiality. Until recently, Sean Kennan ֖ he doesn’t want his real name used spent seven months sleeping in a 1971 Winnebago in the parking lot of the First Presbyterian Church. He had his four-year-old son and five-year-old daughter with him. (Out of respect, Kennan tells me, he doesn’t want to discuss the children’s mother.) He has agreed to show me the short-radius circle in which poverty had confined him while he and his kids were living in the Winnebago. He’s wearing a camo field hat and black army fatigues.

“I put this outfit on for you,” he says, “because this was how I rolled when I was in the RV. Combat uniform, black boots. Serious. The seriousness of it. I had three sets of these. I looked at it like I was on duty. I was on duty for my kids.”

Kennan is 34 and quite short, with a long biker beard, a silver fleck of a nose stud and, almost always, a Wildhorse cigarette in one hand. Edgy energy keeps him in motion; he describes himself as “a very overanalytical individual.”

Desperate to get his kids out of a homeless shelter after he lost his job in San Francisco, Kennan heard about the Safe Parking program from a friend. He saved his cash assistance for two and a half months and used the $700 to buy the RV, then waited two weeks until the rest of his welfare money came in to get it registered. “I basically plunged all the funds I had into the vehicle and then coped with just food stamps,” he says. He and the kids named the RV Big Bertha. The First Presbyterian lot, which sits on a hillside in central Santa Barbara, has five spots in the Safe Parking program. Kennan received a spot at the edge of the lot. “When I rolled in that first night, I was so freaked out ֖ never been to this town, don’t know anybody,” he says. “On the street, you run into crazy people everywhere. But there were two cop cars in the parking lot it’s a central location, and they were just sitting there waiting for calls. I was superstoked. You got your Safe Parking sticker on your windshield so they never bother you. It was comforting ֖ very, very comforting.”

After high school, Kennan knocked around the country for a while and then went to work for a relative in Florida as a vintage-boat restorer. September 11th inspired him to enlist in the army. He’d completed basic training and part of jump school when his back gave out, and he received a discharge. After moving to San Francisco with his kids, he struck up a child care arrangement with a friend and got a job in the packaging department at the U.S. Mint. It was a good job, but the Treasury Department was cutting back in the wake of the economic collapse, and Kennan couldn’t get enough hours to get by. Around the same time, his child care arrangement fell apart, making it difficult to look for work, let alone hold down a full-time job.

The RV now sits on the street, in front of his new apartment. We stop to look at it on the way out. Kennan has pulled off its roof and walls and begun reframing it. He wants to both work and to care for his kids, he says, and the only way to do that is to have his own business. He’d like to get back to the kind of vintage-boat restoration he did in Florida.

“In essence, what you see out here has a lot of meanings,” he says. “Because it’s one, a prototype, and two, a backup plan.” When the RV is fully rehabbed, he says, it will serve as a mobile advertisement for his restoration business. “There’s a lot of people around here who have the money for toys,” he says. The backup plan involves the fortification of the RV, survivalist style: waterproofing, solar panels, all-climate functionality. The Winnebago had been in rough shape when he lived in it with his kids, and Kennan had vowed that they would never again have to rely on such dicey shelter.

“Big Bertha has a lot of meaning to my family,” he says. “She took care of us, now we’re taking care of her.”

I ask Kennan if he’ll drive my car so I can take notes. As we pull away from the apartment, he says, “Man, I haven’t driven a car in so long. This is weird, this is really weird. Just being in a car, period. So low. You’re so low.” We take Highway 101 northwest, beginning a tour of the world he and the kids inhabited after leaving the homeless shelter and striking out in Big Bertha. “The shelter was almost like those reality-TV shows where you get dropped into a situation,” he tells me. “I’d never been on welfare before. I had no clue. I’d just heard people talk about it. What do you do? Die, kill yourself, or turn to drugs and I do none of that. I got food stamps and cash aid for the kids. I got an old bike with a kid cart so I could get from point A to point B, because I had no transportation. I had a little cover for the cart in case it was raining.”

We get off the highway and head down a commercial through street called De la Vina. Once he got the RV, he discovered that the roof leaked, so he bought a tarp and bungee cords to cover the holes. He ripped out the foul carpet ("It was so nasty, bro. It freaked me out to where I thought my kids were going to get sick"), and he strapped the bike and the kid cart to the roof.

“But now, what are you gonna do to shower your children?” he asks. “The very first thing was, ‘How do I shower my kids?’” The weather was too cold for a camping shower. When he signed up for the Safe Parking program, Nancy Kapp told him about discounted memberships at the YMCA, and he began showering his kids there.

From De la Vina, we turn in to a strip mall. Kennan pulls into one of the spots where he used to park the RV after he finished shopping at Ralphs Grocery, a nearby supermarket. He often cooked something for the kids here, which sometimes drew complaints from the owners of a Chinese restaurant and a pizza place in the mall.

Getting out of the car, we take a short walk to Mission Creek, which runs under De la Vina and connects the strip mall to Oak Park, where Kennan and the kids would spend the better part of their days after leaving the First Presbyterian lot each morning at dawn. The creek runs clean, between stands of old oaks, with no trash in the bed - a hallmark of Santa Barbara. One of their favorite activities was to walk from Oak Park up the streambed on the way to Ralphs.

“We called it our Journey,” Kennan says. “I’d say, ‘Hey, who wants to get fruit? Who wants to get vegetables?’ We’d go all the way down the creek to Ralphs to get food. The kids loved it.” Along the way, they’d carefully clear clumps of sticks and leaves lodged between rocks in the creek bed. Kennan told the kids they needed to do this so “the water could flow properly.” This became a serious undertaking, and the regularity of the Journey steadied their lives.

Returning to the car, we drive down to Oak Park. At its edge, a road winds through a little wood; we turn onto it and find the parking spot they occupied most mornings, deep in oak shade and just above Mission Creek. Being here leaves Kennan thoughtful; as if to preclude sentiment, he abruptly pulls out, and we drive along the length of the park: a broad, oak-canopied lawn along the creek, a spacious playground, a wading pool for kids, bathrooms. Kennan points to a public tap near the stream.

“This park has everything, bro, everything you could want,” he says with the tenderness, almost wonderment, that people in the Safe Parking program express when talking about any public amenity that affords comfort: clean water, electrical outlets, showers, a safe green space, a good playground.

From Oak Park we turn right onto a road leading back to Highway 101, Kennan excruciatingly conscious of the road’s steep grade. He’d run out of gas a few times trying to make it up the hill the RV’s gas gauge was broken ֖ and had to carefully roll downhill to get as close to the nearest gas station as he could. “The major issue was always gas,” he says. “The RV was really guzzling gas bad to the point of over $300 a month just for the small circle we would do around here.” The First Presbyterian lot was partway up a steep hill, and every night, the ascent burned a ton of gas: “It sucked, bro.” Big Bertha was also bedeviled by electrical issues. O’Reilly Auto Parts offered free battery charging, and Kennan took them up on it every week. “They got kinda tired of it,” he says.

We get off the 101, and after a few turns pull into the YMCA parking lot. Kennan used to park at the very edge of the lot, to minimize conspicuousness. The Y is a big, modern, glassy facility, built around a courtyard. With the familiar note of thankful wonder, Kennan says, “They got so much cool stuff in there, bro. So much cool stuff.”

We head toward the parking lot at First Presbyterian. The basic routine was to leave the church lot at 7 a.m. for Oak Park, where they would play and hike until about 3 p.m. Then they’d drive to the Y for more activities and a shower. Then errands ֖ battery charging, welfare paperwork, grocery shopping and finally back to the church lot.

The First Presbyterian Church, ensconced in a neighborhood of mountain views and landscaped mission-style homes, is a large, red-roofed, cream-sided֭ building with stained-glass insets. The smooth parking lot forms a hilltop plateau dotted by a few islands of fit palms; past it, the hill descends to a little valley of tile roofs and treetops. We park in Kennan’s former spot, at the back of the lot, and get out. The land falls away just past a chain-link fence. A few weathered blue plastic chairs stand next to a Safe Parking porta-potty.

“We used to sit in those chairs at night and look at the stars,” Kennan says. They could hear owls hooting after dark, visible sometimes as shadowy forms in the moonlight. The lot was mostly empty, and Kennan kept to himself. “My kids are my best friends and they consume all my time,” he says. “When I parked, that was it. The blinds were drawn, the sun goes down. ‘Love you, kids, time to go to sleep.’ Seven, 7:30, they were out. I would relax for a few minutes, play card games or something on my cellphone, and then I would go down too.” Each day had been filled with peril.

“It was a complete disconnection from everything that people are technically connected to,” Kennan says. “Under the circumstances that you’re in, if you don’t have the mind frame to understand that every day is beautiful, you can become bogged down and break. It was six and a half months before I really hit my breaking point.” He had applied for Section 8 housing, but nothing had come through. “I was very close to going back to the shelter if the RV broke down,” he says. “It was just a baby step up.”

He’d already headed for the desert, in search of a cheap trailer park, when he decided to call one last time about the Section 8 housing. “Your name is still on the list, sir,” he was told, “but there’s nothing available.” Later that day, though, he got a call an apartment had unexpectedly come open. “I almost started to cry, I’ll be honest with you,” he says.

At first, when the family moved into the apartment, they almost never left. “We hibernated for about a month,” Kennan says. “We’d go to the grocery store, but that was about it. We’d watch movies constantly. We just hung out, ate a lot of fruits and vegetables. I’d make a big salad, and everybody got a fork, and we’d just hang out and watch movies and eat. We got over it eventually.”

Kennan lights a cigarette and tells me an elaborate story he’d made up for his kids while they were in the homeless shelter. The lights there didn’t go out until 9 p.m., and the kids were in the upper bunk, so they couldn’t fall asleep before then. He’d climb up and tell them stories until the lights were turned off. Soon it was just variations on one story, about a guy named Hippie Bob, who lived on a beach in Hawaii and made bonfires and rode sharks. When the kids asked what the shark’s name was, “Jabber Jaws” popped into Kennan’s head. Hippie Bob would ride out to a buoy on Jabber Jaws, put on his scuba gear, which was stored there, and Jabber Jaws would take him down to the land of the Snorks, who gave Hippie Bob all the gold they’d amassed from sunken pirate ships. Hippie Bob didn’t need the gold, but they insisted he take it, so whenever he visited the Snorks, he brought them beautiful rocks and minerals. Before long, Kennan and his kids made up a theme song to go with the story: “Come along with the Snorks!/So happy to be when we’re under the sea...” Now, whenever Kennan begins to talk about Hippie Bob, his kids immediately go silent.

One chilly, rainy morning, I meet Janis Adkins shortly after she’s woken up outside the Santa Barbara Community Church ֖ the church to which Curtis and Concita Cates had been assigned. Adkins had parked in the overflow lot on the sly, as she sometimes does, to enjoy the view of the mountains. Wearing a purple shawl and blue Patagonia fleece vest over a fleece shirt, she was beginning to straighten the back of the van. It had been so cold she’d had to sleep in her clothes, and I express surprise that they are unwrinkled. She laughs. “Fleece doesn’t wrinkle,” she says. It was a valuable trait.

She suggests that I sit in the driver’s seat while she finishes getting ready. “What’s a common denominator for all of us is we can’t use the passenger seat, because it’s so full of stuff,” she says. I climb in. A shoulder bag holding her rsums is slung over the headrest. Scattered across the front seats: a CVS “Interdental Brush and Toothpick,” a bottle of Wellness Formula, a bottle of Wellness Herbal Resistance Liquid, a bright-orange plastic box with a snap lid that reads “Homeopathic Emergency Kit Remedy List” and a nylon pouch full of more supplements and remedies.

She nods at all the homeopathic stuff. “It’s hell getting sick in a car,” she explains. “So I have an arsenal of things to keep me healthy.” The homeopathic emergency kit had been sent by a friend, whom Adkins calls whenever she feels like she’s coming down with something.

She begins to brush her teeth, excusing herself a few times to go spit at the edge of the lot. When I ask about water, she says, “Because I was a river guide, you really get used to brushing your teeth without water - you have enough saliva in your mouth.”

The weather clears momentarily, and a half-rainbow appears over the hills. I ask if she uses a camp stove. “No,” she says. “I’m very afraid of fire paranoid of fire. I’m scared to use it in the van. And outside - there’s no table for it.” Because she doesn’t cook, she relies almost exclusively on three places for a full, hot afternoon meal: Panda Express, In-N-Out Burger and Taco Bell. They’re the only sufficiently cheap places, and to save gas, she goes to whichever is closest.

“I had a cooler, but I needed block ice, and there’s only two places to get it,” she says. “Cube ice is more expensive and doesn’t last long. Block ice lasts two or three times longer, but the gas to drive to get it is expensive. It’s all a balancing act. Everything is done on faith and trust - and that’s not a religious thing. You know that you’re a heartbeat away from the bush. I have to be able to say to myself, ‘OK, you’re on “E,” you have $5 in food stamps, and you have a dollar. You’re OK.’ I have to trust that if I lose 50 pounds I’ll still be OK. Something happened to me when I was a little kid and I started saying, ‘I’ll be OK, I’ll be OK.’ And I’ve said it ever since. It’s constant in my head.”

I get out of the driver’s seat and climb into the back. Adkins gets behind the wheel and we head south, to Whole Foods, which has a breakfast bar that can be exploited. “Having a hot meal early is essential when it’s this cold,” she says. On the way, a sudden anxiety seizes her. “If we see a cop, you lie down,” she says sharply the only time I would hear this tone in her voice. Tickets for seat-belt violations in California start at $142 - the equivalent of about 28 meals.

“Shit, I might have to stop and get some gas,” she says. “The cheapest gas I can find is down the road. I try not to drive anywhere past this area if I don’t have to. Yesterday I had to go downtown, and it took a lot of gas.”

We pull into a gas station. At the moment, regular gasoline is $4.35 a gallon. Adkins gets out her wallet and looks at the few bills in it and then looks at a minicalendar on the center console. She has $23. “Ten dollars in the tank, and $10 for me for cash,” she says. I stand with her while she pumps. “I’m getting a whopping 2.29 gallons. That’s supposed to get me 40 miles. That should last me until Tuesday.” She grins. “I live near where I park.”

As we turn into the Whole Foods lot, she says, “In my mind right now, I know I’m going to use the bathroom to wash myself, wash my face. And I park far away from the store because I hate having people look in my car. I don’t think anyone’s going to steal anything in the Whole Foods lot, but… it’s embarrassing. I’d rather people not know.”

We walk into the illuminated, multihued splendor of Whole Foods, briskly passing everything that stands between us and the breakfast bar. Adkins looks a little more careworn than the other customers, but in her sheepskin boots and Patagonia fleece, she doesn’t look out of the ordinary. She could be the successful nursery owner she once was, stopping for a healthy breakfast on her way to work.

“It’s all by weight, so you get the lightest thing,” Adkins says. “Stuff without water. They have this really nice burrito that’s really light. I get bacon, and it’s less than $4.” For her that’s not cheap, but it’s workable; she can go without another full meal the rest of the day if necessary.

At the register, Adkins pays with a fistful of coins. The cashier patiently counts pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. Adkins asks for a cup of hot water. We stop at the condiments stand, where she gets utensils and puts honey in the water in advance of the tea bag she has in the van.

As we climb in, I realize the van smells faintly of slept-on sheets. Adkins is a clean person - she showers and does laundry regularly - but vehicle dwellers live in spaces too small to easily dissipate quotidian odors.

Driving back up to the church lot would burn gas unnecessarily, but the view there is restorative. “Keeping my spirits up is important,” she says, almost to herself. “And I can also finish the chores in my car, like packing up the trash, without being looked at.”

The lot is empty when we arrive. “Do you want a sea view or a mountain view?” Adkins asks. I choose the mountain view because of the rare snow. She drops a bag of Yogi Vanilla Spice tea into her cup of hot water and eats her breakfast quietly, using the plastic fork she’d picked up at Whole Foods.

As she finishes up, she tells me she’d recently applied for a sales position at REI and had been turned down. She’d gotten to the second round, a group interview, and had gone in thinking it would be ridiculous if she didn’t get the job, given her qualifications. “But I was cocky in the group interview,” she says. “I should have left my ego outside. Ego is good for getting some things done, but not when it leads to arrogance. And I was probably more nervous than I realized.” It must be psychically wrenching, I think, to be at once so impeccably qualified and so helplessly destitute. In any event, more than 200 people had applied for the position.

She pauses, then says, “It’s weird. When people find out I’m homeless, it changes how they feel about me. I get declined for jobs. As soon as they learn I live in a van, I’m a thief.”

Responding to a job listing online, she had spoken with a woman who wanted to exchange pet care for rent on a trailer she owned. But during the interview, the woman asked where she lived, and Adkins could only evade the question for so long.

“What?” the woman responded. “How old are you? And you have no money?” Adkins tried to caution her against judging homeless people, but she knows that as soon as she has to make that kind of appeal, she’s already lost.

Another time, she got an interview for a job as a dog walker. The potential employer was a young woman in her twenties, and Adkins thought she’d be open-minded, so she didn’t hide her situation. The woman’s face changed instantly. Adkins looked at her and took hold of her hand and gave it a squeeze. “It doesn’t change who I am,” she told the woman. “I’m still the same person. I’m honest, I’ve always worked hard and I’ll work hard for you.” But the woman had already withdrawn, and the next day she reposted the ad.

Curtis Cates, looking back on the time he spent living in his pickup, recognized the impossibility of convincing people that he was still “just the person I was.” Sean Kennan recognized that the demands of homelessness create a “complete disconnection” between those living on the streets and the rest of society. Janis Adkins, unable for the moment to see a way out of her homelessness, doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight. She would rather not give up on the possibility of being treated normally. “I try to not have the van factor into anything I do,” she says. “It’s where I live ֖ it’s just smaller.”

The Great Recession cost 8 million Americans their jobs. Three years after the economy technically entered recovery, there are positions available for fewer than one out of every three job seekers. In this labor market, formerly middle-class workers like Curtis and Concita Cates and Janis Adkins and Sean Kennan cannot reliably secure even entry-level full-time work, and many will never again find jobs as lucrative and stable as those they lost. Long-term unemployment tarnishes rsums and erodes basic skills, making it harder for workers to regain high-paying jobs, and the average length of unemployment is currently at a 60-year high. Many formerly middle-class people will never be middle-class again. Self驭identities derived from five or 10 or 40 years of middle-class options and expectations will capsize.

I last see Janis Adkins in the off-leash area of Tucker’s Grove Park, near the lot where she parks her van. She takes her dog, Jojo, here several times a week. Jojo is a shaggy, shambolic border collie, 16 years old and blind and deaf and nearly toothless. Life in the van recently became too hard for him, and a woman Adkins met at the Wildlife Care Network found someone willing to take him in.

The day is mild, and Adkins is wearing the sandals that she’s worn almost exclusively in nice weather for two years. We sit on a bench as Jojo snuffles around gimpily. The off-leash area, an ample lawn perforated by gopher holes, forms part of a meadow that ends in green hillsides, with low mountaintops behind surplus gorgeousness typical of Santa Barbara.

When she returned to the city, Adkins tells me, she went to a plant nursery where she’d worked as a teenager and asked her old boss if he needed help. He said he was letting people go, not hiring them, but she’d gone back three more times; the last time, a few weeks earlier, he’d said, “You still haven’t found a job? Come on,” and gave her two eight-hour shifts a week at $10 an hour. Later, she’d added two more shifts, but the day before, her manager had warned her that unless business picked up, he would have to let her go.

“I wonder whether that was just an out, in case they want to fire me,” Adkins says. She pauses. “I’ve lost a ton of confidence in the last year and a half,” she concedes. “It just takes a wedge out of you.”

The staff at the plant nursery treat her like an entry-level salesperson. Not so long ago, they might have been her employees. “You learn to let go of the concept of identity, of what ‘I’ means,” she says. “That’s a concept people really have trouble with. But it’s been important for me. I’ve let go of my ego - or I’m trying to let go: I could be the dishwasher, I could be the janitor. I’m trying to re-form, trying to allow the job to become me. And I keep referring back to the fact that a lot of people would not allow it. They would hold on to their identity hard.”

Adkins has just gotten her first paycheck from the nursery, but expenses and debts have evaporated it right away. She went to the YMCA to take care of her outstanding balance of $80, but she could only afford to pay it down by $20. The young woman behind the desk balked, indignant. Not long afterward, the manager of the Y called her to talk about the balance. He appreciated her payment, he told Adkins. “Why don’t we just make it a clean slate?” he proposed.

Adkins stops talking. I look over at her. She has her head in her hands; her shoulders are shaking. Finally, she looks up and wipes her eyes.

“I don’t know what happened there,” she says. “I think what got me was the recognition that I’m trying. He saw I was trying. He saw I was a responsible person.” She pauses. “Because,” she says, her voice breaking, “I always have been.”



Posted by Elvis on 06/28/12 •
Section Dying America
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Monday, June 25, 2012

Kiss Wells Fargo Jobs Goodbye


Wells Fargo outsourcing more jobs to India, Philippines

By Mark Calvey
San Francisco Business Times
June 20, 2012

Wells Fargo is alerting employees that it’s sending more jobs overseas.

Specifically, positions in Wells Fargo retirement services in Charlotte are being transferred to the bank’s operations in India and the Philippines, according to a report from Charlotte TV station News 14. (Wells said late Wednesday that retirement services is at the “assessment stage” and no final decisions on outsourcing have been made.)

The overseas sites “offer the opportunity to use Wells Fargo owned and operated offshore capabilities at significantly reduced costs, while at the same time, leveraging our existing technology infrastructure and security standards,” a Wells executive said in an internal memo obtained by the Charlotte TV station.

Bloomberg News reports that jobs moving overseas include those in technology, retirement services and other business lines. Wells did not say how many jobs will be affected or how many will be moved out of the Bay Area, where it employs 26,000 people.

The move is part of the bank’s Project Compass cost-cutting program, which seeks to cut $11 billion in expenses by year-end under the leadership of Chairman and CEO John Stumpf.

“Wells Fargo is thoughtfully pursuing a strategy for where we grow and where we allocate resources over the long term,” said Wells spokesman Ruben Pulido in San Francisco. “Businesses and functional areas are investigating what markets are most economically attractive, with access to the best talent—both domestically and internationally.

“Our customers are international, demand round-the-clock service, and expect faster turn-around for decisions and responses,” Pulido said. “Global teams allow us to do these processes faster, with more flexibility.”

For many years Wells was not a fan of outsourcing jobs to cheaper locales overseas. The bank’s leadership at the time said it was difficult to get people to work together when located on different floors of the same building, much less when working on different sides of the globe.

Oh well, times change.


Posted by Elvis on 06/25/12 •
Section General Reading
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You For Sale

Mapping, and Sharing, the Consumer Genome

By Natasha Singer
NY Times
June 16, 2012

IT knows who you are. It knows where you live. It knows what you do. 

It peers deeper into American life than the F.B.I. or the I.R.S., or those prying digital eyes at Facebook and Google. If you are an American adult, the odds are that it knows things like your age, race, sex, weight, height, marital status, education level, politics, buying habits, household health worries, vacation dreams and on and on.

Right now in Conway, Ark., north of Little Rock, more than 23,000 computer servers are collecting, collating and analyzing consumer data for a company that, unlike Silicon Valleyגs marquee names, rarely makes headlines. Its called the Acxiom Corporation, and itҒs the quiet giant of a multibillion-dollar industry known as database marketing.

Few consumers have ever heard of Acxiom. But analysts say it has amassed the worlds largest commercial database on consumers җ and that it wants to know much, much more. Its servers process more than 50 trillion data transactionsӔ a year. Company executives have said its database contains information about 500 million active consumers worldwide, with about 1,500 data points per person. That includes a majority of adults in the United States.

Such large-scale data mining and analytics based on information available in public records, consumer surveys and the like ח are perfectly legal. Acxioms customers have included big banks like Wells Fargo and HSBC, investment services like E*Trade, automakers like Toyota and Ford, department stores like MacyҒs just about any major company looking for insight into its customers.

For Acxiom, based in Little Rock, the setup is lucrative. It posted profit of $77.26 million in its latest fiscal year, on sales of $1.13 billion.

But such profits carry a cost for consumers. Federal authorities say current laws may not be equipped to handle the rapid expansion of an industry whose players often collect and sell sensitive financial and health information yet are nearly invisible to the public. In essence, itגs as if the ore of our data-driven lives were being mined, refined and sold to the highest bidder, usually without our knowledge by companies that most people rarely even know exist.

Julie Brill, a member of the Federal Trade Commission, says she would like data brokers in general to tell the public about the data they collect, how they collect it, whom they share it with and how it is used. דIf someone is listed as diabetic or pregnant, what is happening with this information? Where is the information going? she asks. ԓWe need to figure out what the rules should be as a society.

Although Acxiom employs a chief privacy officer, Jennifer Barrett Glasgow, she and other executives declined requests to be interviewed for this article, said Ines Rodriguez Gutzmer, director of corporate communications.

In March, however, Ms. Barrett Glasgow endorsed increased industry openness. ԓIts not an unreasonable request to have more transparency among data brokers,Ҕ she said in an interview with The New York Times.  In marketing materials, Acxiom promotes itself as a global thought leader in addressing consumer privacy issues and earning the public trust.Ӕ

But, in interviews, security experts and consumer advocates paint a portrait of a company with practices that privilege corporate clients interests over those of consumers and contradict the companyҒs stance on transparency. Acxioms marketing materials, for example, promote a special security system for clients and associates to encrypt the data they send. Yet cybersecurity experts who examined AcxiomҒs Web site for The Times found basic security lapses on an online form for consumers seeking access to their own profiles. (Acxiom says it has fixed the broken link that caused the problem.)

In a fast-changing digital economy, Acxiom is developing even more advanced techniques to mine and refine data. It has recruited talent from Microsoft, Google, and Myspace and is using a powerful, multiplatform approach to predicting consumer behavior that could raise its standing among investors and clients.

Of course, digital marketers already customize pitches to users, based on their past activities. Just think of cookies,Ӕ bits of computer code placed on browsers to keep track of online activity. But Acxiom, analysts say, is pursuing far more comprehensive techniques in an effort to influence consumer decisions. It is integrating what it knows about our offline, online and even mobile selves, creating in-depth behavior portraits in pixilated detail. Its executives have called this approach a 360-degree viewӔ on consumers.

ThereӒs a lot of players in the digital space trying the same thing, says Mark Zgutowicz, a Piper Jaffray analyst. ԓBut Acxioms advantage is they have a database of offline information that they have been collecting for 40 years and can leverage that expertise in the digital world.Ҕ

Yet some prominent privacy advocates worry that such techniques could lead to a new era of consumer profiling.

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit group in Washington, says: It is Big Brother in Arkansas.Ӕ

SCOTT HUGHES, an up-and-coming small-business owner and Facebook denizen, is Acxioms ideal consumer. Indeed, it created him.

Mr. Hughes is a fictional character who appeared in an Acxiom investor presentation in 2010. A frequent shopper, he was designed to show the power of AcxiomҒs multichannel approach.

In the presentation, he logs on to Facebook and sees that his friend Ella has just become a fan of Bryce Computers, an imaginary electronics retailer and Acxiom client. Ellas update prompts Mr. Hughes to check out BryceҒs fan page and do some digital window-shopping for a fast inkjet printer.

Such browsing seems innocuous hardly data mining. But it cues an Acxiom system designed to recognize consumers, remember their actions, classify their behaviors and influence them with tailored marketing.

When Mr. Hughes follows a link to Bryceגs retail site, for example, the system recognizes him from his Facebook activity and shows him a printer to match his interest. He registers on the site, but doesnt buy the printer right away, so the system tracks him online. Lo and behold, the next morning, while he scans baseball news on, an ad for the printer pops up again.

That evening, he returns to the Bryce site where, the presentation says, ғhe is instantly recognized as having registered. It then offers a sweeter deal: a $10 rebate and free shipping.

ItԒs not a random offer. Acxiom has its own classification system, PersonicX, which assigns consumers to one of 70 detailed socioeconomic clusters and markets to them accordingly. In this situation, it pegs Mr. Hughes as a savvy singleӔ meaning heגs in a cluster of mobile, upper-middle-class people who do their banking online, attend pro sports events, are sensitive to prices and respond to free-shipping offers.

Correctly typecast, Mr. Hughes buys the printer.

But the multichannel system of Acxiom and its online partners is just revving up. Later, it sends him coupons for ink and paper, to be redeemed via his cellphone, and a personalized snail-mail postcard suggesting that he donate his old printer to a nearby school.

Analysts say companies design these sophisticated ecosystems to prompt consumers to volunteer enough personal data ח like their names, e-mail addresses and mobile numbers so that marketers can offer them customized appeals any time, anywhere.

Still, there is a fine line between customization and stalking. While many people welcome the convenience of personalized offers, others may see the surveillance engines behind them as intrusive or even manipulative.

דIf you look at it in cold terms, it seems like they are really out to trick the customer, says Dave Frankland, the research director for customer intelligence at Forrester Research. ԓBut they are actually in the business of helping marketers make sure that the right people are getting offers they are interested in and therefore establish a relationship with the company.

DECADES before the Internet as we know it, a businessman named Charles Ward planted the seeds of Acxiom. It was 1969, and Mr. Ward started a data processing company in Conway called Demographics Inc., in part to help the Democratic Party reach voters. In a time when Madison Avenue was deploying one-size-fits-all national ad campaigns, Demographics and its lone computer used public phone books to compile lists for direct mailing of campaign material.

Today, Acxiom maintains its own database on about 190 million individuals and 126 million households in the United States. Separately, it manages customer databases for or works with 47 of the Fortune 100 companies. It also worked with the government after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, providing information about 11 of the 19 hijackers.

To beef up its digital services, Acxiom recently mounted an aggressive hiring campaign. Last July, it named Scott E. Howe, a former corporate vice president for MicrosoftԒs advertising business group, as C.E.O. Last month, it hired Phil Mui, formerly group product manager for Google Analytics, as its chief product and engineering officer.

In interviews, Mr. Howe has laid out a vision of Acxiom as a new-millennium data refineryӔ rather than a data miner. That description posits Acxiom as a nimble provider of customer analytics services, able to compete with Facebook and Google, rather than as a stealth engine of consumer espionage.

Still, the more that information brokers mine powerful consumer data, the more they become attractive targets for hackers and draw scrutiny from consumer advocates.

This year, Advertising Age ranked Epsilon, another database marketing firm, as the biggest advertising agency in the United States, with Acxiom second. Most people know Epsilon, if they know it at all, because it experienced a major security breach last year, exposing the e-mail addresses of millions of customers of Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, Target, Walgreens and others. In 2003, Acxiom had its own security breaches.

But privacy advocates say they are more troubled by data brokersג ranking systems, which classify some people as high-value prospects, to be offered marketing deals and discounts regularly, while dismissing others as low-value known in industry slang as דwaste.

Exclusion from a vacation offer may not matter much, says Pam Dixon, the executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit group in San Diego, but if marketing algorithms judge certain people as not worthy of receiving promotions for higher education or health services, they could have a serious impact.

ԓOver time, that can really turn into a mountain of pathways not offered, not seen and not known about, Ms. Dixon says.

Until now, database marketers operated largely out of the public eye. Unlike consumer reporting agencies that sell sensitive financial information about people for credit or employment purposes, database marketers arenԒt required by law to show consumers their own reports and allow them to correct errors. That may be about to change. This year, the F.T.C. published a report calling for greater transparency among data brokers and asking Congress to give consumers the right to access information these firms hold about them.

ACXIOMS Consumer Data Products Catalog offers hundreds of details җ called elementsӔ that corporate clients can buy about individuals or households, to augment their own marketing databases. Companies can buy data to pinpoint households that are concerned, say, about allergies, diabetes or דsenior needs. Also for sale is information on sizes of home loans and household incomes.

Clients generally buy this data because they want to hold on to their best customers or find new ones ԗ or both.

A bank that wants to sell its best customers additional services, for example, might buy details about those customers social media, Web and mobile habits to identify more efficient ways to market to them. Or, says Mr. Frankland at Forrester, a sporting goods chain whose best customers are 25- to 34-year-old men living near mountains or beaches could buy a list of a million other people with the same characteristics. The retailer could hire Acxiom, he says, to manage a campaign aimed at that new group, testing how factors like consumersҒ locations or sports preferences affect responses.

But the catalog also offers delicate information that has set off alarm bells among some privacy advocates, who worry about the potential for misuse by third parties that could take aim at vulnerable groups. Such information includes consumers interests җ derived, the catalog says, from actual purchases and self-reported surveysӔ like דChristian families, ԓDieting/Weight Loss, ԓGaming-Casino, ԓMoney Seekers and ԓSmoking/Tobacco. Acxiom also sells data about an individualԒs race, ethnicity and country of origin. Our Race model,Ӕ the catalog says, provides information on the major racial category: Caucasians, Hispanics, African-Americans, or Asians.Ӕ Competing companies sell similar data.

Acxioms data about race or ethnicity is ғused for engaging those communities for marketing purposes, said Ms. Barrett Glasgow, the privacy officer, in an e-mail response to questions.

There may be a legitimate commercial need for some businesses, like ethnic restaurants, to know the race or ethnicity of consumers, says Joel R. Reidenberg, a privacy expert and a professor at the Fordham Law School.

ԓAt the same time, this is ethnic profiling, he says. ԓThe people on this list, they are being sold based on their ethnic stereotypes. There is a very strong citizens right to have a veto over the commodification of their profile.Ҕ

He says the sale of such data is troubling because race coding may be incorrect. And even if a data broker has correct information, a person may not want to be marketed to based on race.

DO you really know your customers?Ӕ Acxiom asks in marketing materials for its shopper recognition system, a program that uses ZIP codes to help retailers confirm consumers identities җ without asking their permission.

Simply asking for name and address information poses many challenges: transcription errors, increased checkout time and, worse yet, losing customers who feel that youӒre invading their privacy, AcxiomԒs fact sheet explains. In its system, a store clerk need only capture the shopperӒs name from a check or third-party credit card at the point of sale and then ask for the shoppers ZIP code or telephone number.Ҕ With that data Acxiom can identify shoppers within a 10 percent margin of error, it says, enabling stores to reward their best customers with special offers. Other companies offer similar services.

This is a direct way of circumventing peopleӒs concerns about privacy, says Mr. Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Ms. Barrett Glasgow of Acxiom says that its program is a ԓstandard practice among retailers, but that the company encourages its clients to report consumers who wish to opt out.

Acxiom has positioned itself as an industry leader in data privacy, but some of its practices seem to undermine that image. It created the position of chief privacy officer in 1991, well ahead of its rivals. It even offers an online request form, promoted as an easy way for consumers to access information Acxiom collects about them.

But the process turned out to be not so user-friendly for a reporter for The Times.

In early May, the reporter decided to request her record from Acxiom, as any consumer might. Before submitting a Social Security number and other personal information, however, she asked for advice from a cybersecurity expert at The Times. The expert examined AcxiomԒs Web site and immediately noticed that the online form did not employ a standard encryption protocol called https ח used by sites like Amazon and American Express. When the expert tested the form, using software that captures data sent over the Web, he could clearly see that the sample Social Security number he had submitted had not been encrypted. At that point, the reporter was advised not to request her file, given the risk that the process might expose her personal information.

Later in May, Ashkan Soltani, an independent security researcher and former technologist in identity protection at the F.T.C., also examined Acxioms site and came to the same conclusion. ғParts of the site for corporate clients are encrypted, he says. ԓBut for consumers, who this information is about and who stand the most to lose from data collection, they dont provide security.Ҕ

Ms. Barrett Glasgow says that the form has always been encrypted with https but that on May 11, its security monitoring system detected a broken redirect linkӔ that allowed unencrypted access. Since then, she says, Acxiom has fixed the link and determined that no unauthorized person had gained access to information sent using the form.

On May 25, the reporter submitted an online request to Acxiom for her file, along with a personal check, sent by Express Mail, for the $5 processing fee. Three weeks later, no response had arrived.

Regulators at the F.T.C. declined to comment on the practices of individual companies. But Jon Leibowitz, the commission chairman, said consumers should have the right to see and correct personal details about them collected and sold by data aggregators.

“After all,” he said, “they are the unseen cyberazzi who collect information on all of us.”


Posted by Elvis on 06/25/12 •
Section Privacy And Rights
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