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Stateside: Small Consolations

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

Small Consolations

Back in August 2005, when my personal credit crunch hit in the form of impending layoff from a research project that was running out of money, I wrote a piece for a local citizen journalism website about small things I was doing to prepare for it.

At the time, the other contributors to Bayosphere and readers posting comments, were in the midst of an argument about whether such a thing as a bubble really existed in the local housing market. Well, now they know. (Bayosphere was short-lived and its content locked away from public view by its creator, but I also posted what I wrote here, if you’re in need of some quirky tips.)

Nowadays, while the network news and punditry and experts and finance ministers and politicians have been relentlessly focused on the global financial markets and the sub-prime lending crisis ever since Alan Greenspan’s fateful appearance on This Week with George Stephanopoulos a month ago, us folks living in the real “eke-onomy” are watching for changes in our immediate neighborhoods that will have an impact.

::East Oakland::
One of my 2005 suggestions was shopping at a grocery store or supermarket that allowed you to load money onto a debit card that could only be used for shopping at that store. That way, your food money was locked up where you couldn’t get at it to fritter away on something else.

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Nowadays, I live too far away from the store that had that option, but my visit to the local supermarket this morning turned up a surprise in the form of Lucky Bucks.

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Giving customers a discount on a future purchase in order to get them to return to a retail store isn’t something new, but this is the first time I’ve seen it offered at a store selling a basic necessity like food. Of course, it’s not much good if you can’t afford to spend the eligibility amount of $50 when you return, but it’s an interesting development. (It may not be anything new; it’s just the first time I’ve seen it.)

Perhaps if Congress passes another stimulus package, they would consider sending out pre-loaded Food Debit Cards—redeemable anywhere food is sold--instead of tax rebate checks. Rebate checks typically end up paying off credit card debt, which is useless as a means of stimulating the economy. Freeing up money previously needed for such a basic necessity to be spent on other items might have the desired effect more quickly.

Yes, I know. It’s a daft idea. Besides the cost of implementing it, there’d be the risk of cards being stolen, and of food prices rising just because that sector of the economy was guaranteed a huge amount of money. But, why should it be the financial sector that is always getting the money injections? Price distortions happen there too as a result of government guarantees.

And it’s people working in low-paid supermarket jobs who are among the hardest hit by economic downturns. Saving their jobs—perhaps even creating more by giving the food sector a bit of economic stability as we get through this—will keep money in circulation, where it belongs.

::Central Oakland::
Another thing I noticed this week—just because my bus home from work had to detour around a traffic accident—was this big sign outside a bank on Broadway in Oakland:

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The sign may well have been there for a while, but to a casual observer like me it seemed fresh as the latest daily pronouncement about the economy. On closer investigation, it turns out that the Community Bank of the Bay, which opened in 1996, was the first California bank chartered under a federal program to promote banking in underserved communities, mostly low- and moderate-income.

Of the six bank charter classes listed by the FDIC, CBB is a commercial (as opposed to a savings) bank with a state charter and supervised by the FDIC, and not a member of the Federal Reserve. Back in 2002, it was sharply reprimanded by state and federal regulators for its sloppy lending practices but has since benefited from new management and new loan products such as CD investments that are then used to lend to local green businesses.

Two of the items listed in the FDIC’s 2002 cease and desist order to CBB were: "Operating with management whose policies and practices are detrimental to the bank and jeopardize the safety of its deposits," and "Operating with a board of directors which has failed to provide adequate supervision."

Ummm... aren’t those the same things that caused the big investment banks to melt down? Where were the C&D orders for them? Sure, some banks might be too big to fail but that doesn’t mean they’re too big to get a clip around the ears when they’re behaving badly. Some tough love from the federal government a couple of years ago might have worked wonders, as it did for the Community Bank of the Bay.

::West Oakland::
I don’t have any financial interests in Lucky Supermarkets or the Community Bank of the Bay, but I have followed with great interest an organization called People’s Grocery. Its mission is food justice for the people of West Oakland, a community of about 30,000 people which has no grocery stores but 53 liquor stores.

People’s Grocery’s GRUB Box program provides high quality fresh organic produce at low prices. It was recently certified as an organic producer—it operates local community gardens and a farm in nearby Sunol—and now can also accept food stamps as payment. People from outside West Oakland can also sponsor a GRUB Boxes for the local residents.

A documentary about this little organization that could is currently in competition at the Festival of Environmental and Green Short Films, so if you want to learn more go here and click through to the Documentary category to find (and maybe even vote for!) the one called People’s Grocery. Or simply watch it right here:

There can be no better argument for local vs. global than the current global financial situation, so it’s good to see actual solutions being implemented.



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