You might be wondering who the heck is Joe Sanberg? Let me tell you.
Like so many in our generation, my mom raised me by herself in Orange County, California, and like so many in our generation, my father bullied our family and really destroyed my mother’s life. And I learned about resistance from my mother. She always tried to turn me and my brother away from the darkness of my father and towards the light of helping others. She always taught us to think about what we could do to help a classmate or a neighbor. I remember times growing up that we wouldn’t be able to leave the house or even answer the door because there were menacing debt collectors with guns outside trying to pursue the debts that my father had bullied onto my mother’s shoulders. I remember the yelling–it was scary as a young person, but my mom always faced that darkness with light. She’s my inspiration for being a progressive.
What I saw during those young years I think of today as we face the darkness of a lot of bullies in our politics and in our economy. Unfortunately, my father’s bullying didn’t stop and, ultimately, we lost our childhood home to a foreclosure, like so many others in our generation. Only through a lot of government financial aid was I able to make my way to Harvard, where I was a social activist focused on doing good. But, the need to support my mom forced me to start my career as an analyst on Wall St. and I didn’t know what to expect. What I saw firsthand was what we all saw from some degree of distance. That an entire industry came to bully an entire country. That all of us were just variables in a spreadsheet in Wall St.’s inhumane quest for profit.
I left Wall St. to move back to California to work on building businesses that actually solve problems instead of create them. One of the biggest problems that we have to solve in the private sector is that our banks bully most of us. Most of us have a relationship with our bank where the worse you do, the better your bank does. And, even worse, your bank uses your money to violate your values, like funding fossil fuel, funding the construction of institutionalized racism and private prisons, and funding gun companies. Banks shouldn’t screw you, they should serve you. That’s why I started an online financial company called Aspiration.com to show that banks can actually be progressive and do right by you.
The model of Aspiration is ‘pay what’s fair.’ The only revenue that Aspiration.com earns is from the voluntary fees you choose to pay. You can pay nothing and be treated just the same. What’s more, Aspiration doesn’t use your money to invest in fossil fuel, institutionalized racism and private prisons, and gun companies. But, one progressive company can only do so much. And the biggest problems and the biggest bullies we face require political action.
I think the biggest problem we face is this: 3 of 4 Americans couldn’t handle a $700 surprise expense. 3 of 4 Americans are a broken wrist away, a few blown tires, a busted pipe, away from financial crisis. I want you to pause for a second and remember the times when you couldn’t pay a bill. Do you remember that pit you felt in your stomach? You remember that paralyzing sense of anxiety? Those feelings are what 3 of 4 Americans feel every month, every week, every hour of every day. This feeling, this economic uncertainty, is robbing people of their economic freedom. In fact, if there’s one thing that unites America it is this–it’s this common experience of financial uncertainty. Of always living on the edge of one health crisis away from financial ruin.
This stress is the ultimate bully that’s robbing us of our economy and our democracy and here’s the problem: this is the worst in the place you’d least expect it. In my home state of California, that many of you perceive as the front of the resistance, a state where Democrats control every constitutional office, where we control a supermajority in our legislature, we leave a supermajority of Californians living paycheck to paycheck. Which is why two and half years ago, I lobbied California to launch an Earned Income Tax Credit.
The Earned Income Tax Credit is a heat-seeking missile right at the biggest economic problem that we Californians, and all Americans, face, which is that so many of us are working two, three jobs and we still can’t afford our basic needs. The Earned Income Tax Credit literally gives you cash back for working. When California launched its Earned Income Tax Credit, though, they didn’t put up any money for outreach.
That’s why I started an organization called CalEITC4Me to make sure that every Californian working and eligible for the EITC would know about it, get free tax prep, and claim it. And as a result of our work over the last two years, almost 1 million low-income Californians have claimed nearly $2 billion of state and federal Earned Income Tax Credits and they use those tax credits to pay for the basics like food, transportation, rent, healthcare, and education–the things we should all have if we’re working hard.
But, there was a bug in our Earned Income Tax Credit. It didn’t count freelancing income. Freelancing income is the kind of income you earn when you keep house, garden, or drive for a ride-sharing company. It’s a kind of income that represents literally all the net income growth in California over the last 15 years. It’s income that is legal. It is allowable. It’s disproportionately earned by women and people of color, yet for some reason in California, we said that kind of income was less than.
You might think the story ends there, with the way things have gone for our movement in the last 6-12 months. But, no. We organized in communities, and drove a grassroots advocacy campaign this spring where we equipped 70,000 low-income Californians to advocate to their own state reps and state senators and demand that we fix this injustice in the Earned Income Tax Credit and make it count freelancing income. And we won. We won big! We tripled the EITC. As a result of work, next year 1.7 million families in California will earn the Earned Income Tax Credit, up from just 600,000 families this year.
The lesson from our win in California is this: the future is the product of the choices and the leadership that we have now. So we have to ask ourselves, what kind of future do we want?
I envision a future where everyone who works, and everyone who wants to work but can’t, can afford their basic needs and live with full financial security and human dignity. I’m told it’s a fairytale. I’m told that forces outside of our control are going to determine the future. That’s a lie.
The future will be determined by our choices. And we’re in this mess because of bad choices and weak leadership. And the biggest, worst policy choice we have made is allowing monopolies to control our economy. The reason we need remedies like the Earned Income Tax Credit to begin with is because we have allowed our economy to become controlled by fewer and fewer powerful companies and interests that control more and more of our lives, and ultimately, our government.
You know the names of these monopolies.
They’re the monopolies that determine which books we read. Which ideas make it to our nightstand. They’re the monopolies that kick their passengers off of their airplanes. They’re the monopolies that open millions of illegal bank accounts without asking their customers for permission.
The result? A monopoly economy and a democracy hanging on for dear life. Most of us have the freedom to vote, but how many of us have real economic freedom? The monopolies have robbed us of the freedom to choose where we work, where we live, whether we organize, what we make. And so, what’s next?
Justice Brandeis once said, “We have a choice. We may choose democracy, or we may choose wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. But we can’t have both.” I can’t choose for you. You need to look inside, right now. You need to look to the person next to you and you need to ask, “Are we finally going to win against the monopoly bullies who are stealing our freedom and our democracy?” “Are we finally going to be the lobbyists for the people who have none?”
The Californians who demanded and won a tripling of the Earned Income Tax Credit should be your siren that we can win again. And let the monopoly bullies hear: we are coming to reclaim our democracy!