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Monitor Daily Podcast

June 21, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

Meet Becky, our friend and elephant conservationist from Kunming

Becky Shu Chen could not be more engaged. Her issue – the wild elephants of China – had become international news as a herd roamed toward her native city, Kunming, in southern Yunnan province. Why they were migrating far from home was a matter of conjecture, but Ms. Chen was on it. 

“We’ve seen elephants expanding their range for decades now, as their populations increase, and they search for more food for the growing herd,” she told The Washington Post.

Ms. Chen is a consultant for the Zoological Society of London, and an expert on elephant-human interactions. She was also my houseguest in 2019 during a monthlong fellowship at Defenders of Wildlife here in Washington.

“Becky,” as she calls herself in the West, brought an infectious love of wildlife conservation to an already-animal-friendly household. She gave us a crocheted pangolin her mom had made. And there was a side bonus: She liked to cook. 

Becky also opened our eyes to the strides being made the world over with endangered species. As the Future Crunch newsletter reports, populations of Saiga antelope in Kazakhstan, the Polish wolf, the griffon vultures of Bulgaria, and the Florida panther are all growing. 

“It’s always the same story with these endangered species recoveries: decades of unseen, thankless work from scientists, conservationists and activists,” Future Crunch observed

Coverage of the Chinese elephants notes that their continued roaming isn’t without cost. By the end of May, they had caused more than $1 million in crop damage. But Becky sees an upside, too, to their world-famous trek.

“The elephants are helping to raise the issues around coexistence,” she says via Facebook messenger. Here’s her blog post on that. 

And, Becky adds, they have great timing. The United Nations Biodiversity Conference will take place in October – in Kunming, China.

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Taxes and the rich: America’s history of favoritism and crackdowns

Are the rich taxed too lightly? It’s a question that has recurred for more than a century. Leaked tax records of billionaires may be swinging the pendulum again.

Linda

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It’s a question that has convulsed America periodically over the past century: How much should America’s wealthy pay in taxes? The rate has been as high as 90% and as low as 28%. Then there are perfectly legal procedures that allow billionaires to re-characterize their income so they pay less tax and sometimes none at all. This month, the investigative website ProPublica revealed just how much America’s richest billionaires paid in income tax compared with the gains in their wealth. From 2014 to 2018, Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, paid only 1%; Warren Buffett, the famous investor, paid 0.1%.

Those rates are fictitious, conservatives counter, since Americans don’t pay taxes on their wealth, only income. Would the nation really want to discourage with heavy taxes the entrepreneurs who generate jobs – and far more tax revenue than taxes on wealthy individuals could ever produce? On the other hand, is the tax system fair if it enables billionaires to grow their wealth faster than everyone else’s? 

When the press revealed in 1933 that millionaire J.P. Morgan had not paid taxes the previous two years, it was followed by Senate hearings and the New Deal, which sent tax rates to new highs. This month’s revelations will stir the pot anew.

Taxes and the rich: America’s history of favoritism and crackdowns

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AP/File
J. Pierpont Morgan (center) is shown with sons Junius Morgan (left) and Henry Sturgis Morgan at Harvard University's commencement ceremony on June 22, 1939. In 1933, The New York Times revealed that millionaire J. Pierpont Morgan Jr. paid no income tax in the previous two years.

Journalism, like history, doesn’t repeat itself, but it can rhyme – loudly.

In 1933, The New York Times revealed that millionaire J. Pierpont Morgan Jr. paid no income tax in the previous two years. 

Eighty-eight years later – this month – the investigative news website ProPublica revealed that billionaire Jeff Bezos paid no income tax in 2007 and 2011.

The similarities are striking. Both men were among the richest Americans at a time of high inequality. (Mr. Bezos is now the world’s richest person.) Both appeared to use legal means to cut their taxes, feeding perceptions the system was rigged in favor of the rich. Both exposés appeared months after the inaugurations of Democratic presidents pledging to boost government spending after sharp economic downturns and to tax the rich to pay for it. 

In 1933, the revelations about Mr. Morgan were followed by Senate hearings, widespread public indignation, and the New Deal, which sent tax rates for the rich soaring. In 2021, the revelations were followed by … well … we don’t know yet.

John Locher/AP
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos speaks at the Amazon re:MARS convention in Las Vegas June 6, 2019. By some tallies the world's richest person, Mr. Bezos paid no U.S. income tax in 2007 and 2011, according to leaked IRS records published by the website ProPublica.

Partly, that’s because the explosive revelations are so new and ProPublica promises more. On Wednesday, it revealed that multimillionaire Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the leading candidate for Manhattan district attorney, paid no federal income tax in three of the last eight years. If Ms. Weinstein wins the election, she would take over one of the key investigations into the taxes of former President Donald Trump, another person of wealth.

It’s also important to note that for all the similarities, the United States economy is in a much different place today than it was in 1933. Then, it was mired in the fourth year of a depression that had some questioning the future of capitalism. Today, it is recovering smartly from a pandemic-induced recession that lasted only months. Then, the federal government was far smaller and had a long record of generally balancing its budget – at least in peacetime – compared with today’s much larger bureaucracy and chronic and growing deficits. Then, only the rich paid federal income tax. Now, everybody’s subject to it. 

SOURCE: Tax Policy Center
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Laurent Belsie and Jacob Turcotte/Staff

The tax revelations come at a time when income inequality is an issue of high concern for some Americans. And while the tax system didn’t cause that inequality, it’s an open question how much it’s doing to readjust the balance. The challenge runs far deeper than a debate over what rate high-income Americans should pay, and it’s hardly limited to Mr. Bezos. Last week’s blockbuster report showed that Elon Musk, Michael Bloomberg, Carl Icahn, and George Soros also paid no income tax at least once in the past 15 years.

Is the system fair if some of the richest men on earth sometimes don’t pay taxes? Is it equitable if they pay a lower rate than the middle class?

According to ProPublica, the answer is clear: “Taken together, [the data] demolishes the cornerstone myth of the American tax system: that everyone pays their fair share and the richest Americans pay the most.”

Take Mr. Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX. Between 2014 and 2018, he paid a total $455 million on declared income of $1.52 billion – or about 30%. But considering that Mr. Musk’s wealth grew an estimated $13.9 billion during that time, his “true tax rate” is only 3.3%, according to ProPublica. The median American household, earning about $70,000 a year, pays an average 14% federal tax rate.

Michele Tantussi/Reuters/File
SpaceX founder and Tesla CEO Elon Musk looks on as he visits the construction site of Tesla's gigafactory in Gruenheide, near Berlin, May 17, 2021. According to leaked IRS records reported by ProPublica, Mr. Musk was among several billionaires who paid paid no income tax at least once in the past 15 years.

Mr. Bloomberg, publishing billionaire and onetime Democratic presidential candidate, paid even less: a “true tax rate” of 1.3% during that period. Mr. Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, 1%. Warren Buffett, investor extraordinaire who once said his secretary paid a higher rate than he did, 0.1%.

Not so fast, conservatives counter. ProPublica’s “true tax rate” is fictitious. The United States doesn’t tax wealth, only income. “The stolen IRS data provide the story with voyeur appeal, but it turns out to be a bait-and-switch,” complain former Senate Banking Committee chairman Phil Gramm and Mike Solon, a partner of U.S. Policy Metrics, in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. “ProPublica laments that taxpayers are acting ‘perfectly legally’ in not paying a federal wealth tax, which doesn’t exist.” (It’s a crime to disclose someone’s tax returns. Authorities are looking for the person who gave the data to ProPublica, which says it doesn’t know the identity of its source.)

While most Americans support the idea of taxing the rich, it’s not a top-ranked issue for many, according to Gallup, the polling organization. Just 1% of Americans say the rich-poor gap is the nation’s biggest problem and in some ways they like having a rich class, perhaps as something to aspire to for themselves.

A lot also depends on how one counts income. Officially, the top 400 income earners in the nation pay about 23% of their income in federal income tax, according to the latest IRS data.

But that doesn’t tell the full story, either, write economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman in their 2019 book “The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Avoid Taxes and How to Make them Pay.” That’s because billionaires are unlike most Americans. Instead of making most of their money from wages or salaries, which are taxed, they make it from the growth in their capital holdings, which are not taxed.

In short, the ProPublica “true tax rate” may not be measuring what is legally owed, but it does provide a gauge for assessing the system’s fairness, Dr. Saez and Dr. Zucman argue.

Consider Mark Zuckerberg, who owns 20% of Facebook, which makes him the world’s fifth-richest individual. The company made $20 billion in profits in 2018, which means he made $4 billion in a year. And the company didn’t pay any dividends on its stock, so there was nothing to tax unless Mr. Zuckerberg had sold stock.

Andrew Harnik/AP/File
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington Oct. 23, 2019. Facebook made $20 billion in profits in 2018, which means Mr. Zuckerberg (as owner of 20% of the firm) made $4 billion in a year. Yet the company didn’t pay any dividends on its stock, so there was nothing to tax unless Mr. Zuckerberg had sold stock.

He does pay tax in the sense that Facebook pays a corporate tax. But “the corporate tax has almost disappeared,” write Dr. Saez and Dr. Zucman. First, in 2018 the Trump administration, in perhaps its signature achievement, pushed through tax cuts that reduced the corporate rate from 35% to 21%. Second, like many corporations, Facebook has shifted profits to a tax haven (the Cayman Islands in its case) where it pays little or no corporate tax.

Even if Facebook did pay dividends, Mr. Zuckerberg would benefit from another break that the tax code has offered share owners since 2003: a rate of no more than 20% – lower than the top rate for wages and salaries. That break helps all investors a little when they make a few hundred or thousand dollars on their stocks. It helps wealthy people a lot when their dividends run into the millions.

Finally, the Trump tax cuts also introduced a discount on business income, so that a high-income person’s highest rate was 29.6% if the money came from their business as opposed to 37% if it came in the form of wages.

The Trump tax cuts represent one swing of a long-running pendulum. Much of 20th-century tax history seems to be an ongoing search for the right rate to tax wealthy people.   

Instituted in 1913 as a 1% levy on the rich – with a 6% surcharge for the uber-rich who were pulling in $500,000 or more – the top tax rate has bounced around considerably (see chart). During World War II, the top rate hit a whopping 90%, even as the federal government extended the income tax to the middle class.

After the war, the idea of a broad tax on income stuck, but the practice of taxing $9 of every $10 of rich people’s income gradually lost favor with both Republican and Democratic presidents pushing through cuts to the top rate. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan and congressional Democrats reached a bipartisan deal where the top rate was lowered to 28% in exchange for closing many of the loopholes the rich had been using to avoid paying tax.

That was a high point of bipartisanship that could have led to more reform, says W. Elliott Brownlee, professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “That was the moment that we lost... . There was a possibility that we would have a significant consensus of support to moving the tax system back in a more progressive direction.”

Instead, succeeding administrations went their own way, becoming increasingly ideological about tax cuts and increases. Democratic presidents undid what Republican presidents did and vice versa. 

So far, President Joe Biden seems poised to continue that trend, promising to return the top rate for individuals from 37% to 39.6% and undoing Mr. Trump’s corporate tax rate cut by bringing the rate back to 28%. However, he has also signaled he might keep the current 21% rate if it will build GOP support for his infrastructure spending plans. 

Serious discussion of tax reform involving a wealth tax (which conservatives see as harming growth) or a European-style value-added tax (which scares liberals because of its potential to hit the poor more than the rich) are on hold. But Mr. Biden is proposing a boost in the tax rate on capital gains, and is seeking, in effect, a tax on large inherited fortunes. 

Conservative economists see reasons to favor capital income in the tax code, because it incentivizes entrepreneurs to create new products and companies, creating jobs and economic activity that generate tax revenues in their own right. 

Would the nation really want through heavy taxes to discourage a young Bill Gates from starting Microsoft or a young Elon Musk from creating Tesla and SpaceX? The economic growth and jobs created by these companies have generated far more tax revenue than even the most onerous taxation on those two individuals would ever produce.

Then again, some researchers question whether extra job growth follows tax cuts for the wealthy. And, they ask, should billionaires who don’t create dynamic new companies get the same tax breaks as those who do? Also, should the tax system enable their wealth to grow faster, on average, than everyone else’s? 

These questions, coupled with the political clout of money, leave America with a tax debate that may not be resolved anytime soon.

SOURCE: Tax Policy Center
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Laurent Belsie and Jacob Turcotte/Staff

A deeper look

Employers have funds, workers need degrees. Why are dollars going unused?

While U.S. employers often tout benefits that promise to subsidize a college education, most workers can’t tap them. Listening to students – and tailoring options accordingly – could change that.

Linda
Courtesy of MacLaff Inc.
Naomi Vasquez and Morgan James, employees with MacLaff Inc., which owns and operates a group of McDonald’s restaurants in southern Louisiana, pose with associate degree diplomas awarded to them after completing a company-sponsored college program.

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Charletta Thomas is exceptional for many reasons, but for this one in particular: She’s a working American whose employer paid for her college.

Ms. Thomas, who supervises worker training for a chain of 44 McDonald’s restaurants in southern Louisiana, earned her bachelor’s degree in 2019 and is now on her way to an MBA. 

Companies in the United States increasingly demand college degrees of their workers, yet few have actually paid for those degrees – even though they set aside billions of dollars each year to do so. Some employers, like the one Ms. Thomas works for, are finding ways to make tuition benefit programs work. The pandemic has brought additional insights about how best to help employees. But with many Americans unable to access these benefits, lingering hurdles need to be addressed, labor and education experts say, before progress can be made and disparities resolved.

Ms. Thomas says the public education system in Louisiana hasn’t served her colleagues well and sees it as her task – and her company’s – to compensate for that inadequacy. “These individuals may have come from dysfunction, may have come from a school with dysfunction, and they may have lost hope,” she says. “We build them up.” 

Employers have funds, workers need degrees. Why are dollars going unused?

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College had always been a goal for Charletta Thomas.

Ms. Thomas didn’t doubt she was smart enough. Her barriers were external – tuition and time. She’d married not long after graduating from high school in 1981, had three children soon after that, and then had gone to work for McDonald’s to make ends meet after her marriage ended.

She started as a bookkeeper, and currently supervises training for a chain of 44 McDonald’s restaurants in southern Louisiana. But after 27 years at a company with education benefits – benefits Ms. Thomas pitches to other employees – she still hadn’t taken advantage of them herself.

“I always wanted to go to college, but, like I say, life happened,” she says. “It had always been a life purpose to get that done.”

It was peer pressure that made the difference. Her colleague Hillary Dixon, a kitchen supervisor then studying for her Master of Business Administration degree on McDonald’s’ dime, wanted to know why Ms. Thomas wasn’t in college.

“I was preaching and talking about the program, but I was not in the program,” Ms. Thomas says, laughing over the phone. She earned her bachelor’s degree in July 2019 through an online program; she is now on her way to an MBA.

Ms. Thomas is exceptional for many reasons, but for this one in particular: She’s a working American whose employer paid for her college.

Companies in the United States increasingly demand college degrees of their workers, yet few have actually paid for those degrees – even though they set aside billions of dollars each year to do so. Some employers, like the one Ms. Thomas works for, are finding ways to make tuition benefit programs work. And the pandemic has brought additional insights about how best to help employees. But with many Americans unable to access these benefits, lingering hurdles need to be addressed, labor and education experts say, before progress can be made and disparities resolved.

Most employer-based education benefit programs are a recruiting tool that may have less to do with delivering education and more to do with “the optics around having a large, relatively underpaid frontline workforce,” says Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education & Labor at the think tank New America. “It’s a way to show that you’re doing something for them, other than raising wages.”

Usage rates for these benefits are “extremely low” at companies that rely on low-wage workers, Ms. McCarthy says. For her, that lack of engagement raises a foundational question: “Is this really what these employees want?”

Lots of money, little use

Funding cuts to public colleges have pushed costs onto students even as Americans’ real wages have been basically stagnant since the 1970s. Despite recent talk of debt relief and free college, little government help has been forthcoming, especially for working adults.

Without government investment, it might be impossible to line up the tuition help, career counseling, and subsidies needed to sustain a robust adult education program in the U.S., says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “In the United States, lifelong learning is a line in a speech; it’s not a line in the budget,” he says. “Adult education and training is not us.”

With the government mostly out of the picture, employers set aside billions each year for tuition benefits programs, supposedly with the hope of building the skilled workforce they need. 

But nearly half that money sits unspent, according to research conducted by The Graduate! Network, a consultancy that surveys employers and employees about education programs. Surveys show many of the benefits don’t match working adults’ interests or meet their needs, and – crucially in a country where most adults live paycheck to paycheck – most offer only to reimburse student workers for college expenses they’ve already incurred.

While people over age 25 make up a quarter of all American college students and a slim majority of part-time students, only a tiny fraction of those 3.5 million students are using employer-provided education benefits. Estimates of how many eligible workers use those supports vary, ranging from roughly 1% to 10%, and participation has always skewed toward white-collar workers.

Boosters for employer-based college benefits note their value in recruiting and retaining employees. They’re also put forward as a powerful tool in correcting disparities that deny nearly half of Black Americans, half of Native Americans, and most Latinos a shot at postsecondary education. This is especially true since any amount of higher education makes people far more likely to live a healthy life, earn a family-sustaining wage, and shape their communities by volunteering or engaging politically.

Reimburse or assist?

Pinpointing what employees want and need is complicated, and events of the past year have added more layers. 

Adult workers often can’t balance education with their family commitments. Without access to affordable child care, for instance, it is very difficult for most working parents to consider spending time on education. And many employer-sponsored programs require workers to front costs they can’t cover or direct them toward educational tracks that don’t credibly promise a pay bump.

Programs built with adult learners’ needs in mind have seen enrollment spike, even during the pandemic. Indeed, the pandemic may have shown that the previous low participation rates in employer-funded education had more to do with lack of time than with lack of desire.

Some large employers, like JetBlue, kept educational programs rolling even as their industries imploded. Idled workers enrolled in JetBlue Scholars, a streamlined bachelor’s and master’s degree program that includes credit for on-the-job training. In Las Vegas, casino workers flooded the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, an employer-subsidized vocational school, after the Strip shut down. The forced expansion of remote learning jump-started new efforts at online higher education, viewed as a good fit for older students.

Julio Cortez/AP/File
A Walmart employee scans items while conducting an exercise during a Walmart Academy class session at the store in North Bergen, New Jersey, on Nov. 9, 2017. In 2018 Walmart, working with benefits management firm Guild Education, started offering employees a new perk: affordable access to a college degree.

Historically, though, larger employers have typically spent only about half of what they’ve set aside for tuition reimbursement, according to Dan Ash at The Graduate! Network.

And many employees have no access to such benefits. Only about 35% of customer-facing retail workers report being offered educational support at all, Dr. Ash says. Often those come as promises that tuition payments will be reimbursed at the end of a semester or course, a nonstarter for many working adults.

“If I don’t have $600, you can offer me $1 million in reimbursement and I still can’t go to school,” says Dr. Ash, an experimental psychologist who helped found Kentucky’s Metropolitan College, a workforce development institution partnered with shipping service UPS. 

Despite the shortcomings, reimbursement programs remain common, says Matthew Daniel of Guild Education, a benefits management firm working with employers, like Walmart, to vitalize their educational offerings. Mr. Daniel, a human resources researcher with Guild, describes the current programs as having “millions upon millions” of unused dollars, which has led Guild to recommend that its clients drop reimbursement and shift to tuition assistance, which relieves working students of most out-of-pocket costs.

Partnering with colleges

In January, the University of Virginia launched an adult education program, UVA Edge, offering a year’s instruction for $300, when combined with employer benefits. The yearlong, six-course program nets students about a semester and a half’s worth of transferable undergraduate credits.

The expansion came at a moment when an unprecedented number of Americans were thinking about their futures, says Alex Hernandez, dean of UVA’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. In the U.S., 1 in 3 workers had lost or changed jobs between February and late October 2020. Many of those were among the 116 million American adults with a high school diploma but no college degree. 

“After the initial shock, people really started thinking about their futures and their careers and opportunity,” Mr. Hernandez says. “People really thought about, ‘How am I setting myself up to thrive?’”

UVA Edge is small, little more than a pilot, with 40 students. But its launch also marks a recognition that universities must expand their reach.

“As a public university, success is not who we keep out of our classrooms,” Mr. Hernandez says. “Success is what we do with people once they’re in our classrooms.”

Changes like those recently made by UVA are needed to broaden who gets the chance to use employer-funded benefits, says Haley Glover of the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based group advocating for greater access to postsecondary education. (Lumina Foundation is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report, which the Monitor partnered with for this article.)

Until recently, educational benefits have largely been reserved for middle and upper management, Ms. Glover says. Whether the newer programs are reaching communities of color or the frontline, low-wage workers at whom they are aimed isn’t at all clear, she says.

“It’s those folks who need to be helped the most, and it’s also where the most opportunity for change lies,” she adds.

Employers doing education right are paying for tuition upfront and offering guidance to would-be student workers while curating the list of colleges with which they partner, Ms. Glover says. They offer paths ending with anything from an associate degree to a master’s, as well as professionally useful certifications. Their programs recognize on-the-job training with credit and can be short or, for students unable to take a heavy course load, long and flexible.

Concerns persist about the value and quality of the offerings geared toward working learners. For example, the parent company of Colorado Technical University, the McDonald’s partner institution that Ms. Dixon attended and Ms. Thomas currently attends, recently canceled $494 million in student debt in a settlement with regulators, who contend the company’s vocational programs lacked proper accreditation. 

But not everyone feels that critiques of quality are valid. Ms. McCarthy and others examining the criticism often find it rooted in an elitist view of higher education. Traditional bachelor’s degrees – or any degrees – are often overvalued, Ms. McCarthy says. Apprenticeships and skills-based training often better serve workers looking for economic security and respect.

Any push toward skills-oriented education runs into a political minefield that Congress has yet to clear, says Mr. Carnevale at Georgetown. Part of the concern, he says, is a return to educational “tracking” that saw Black, Latino, and low-income students shunted into vocational programs that effectively denied them a chance at college. He agrees that tracking remains a problem but argues that a few months of training can also be exactly what a jobless worker needs to gain some economic security. He thinks the degrees-versus-training divide is also geographic.

“If you go South and West, there is a lot more support for training,” he says. “The closer you get to Harvard, the less support you get for training.”

In Louisiana, a way forward

No bright line has been drawn between college degrees and training in south Louisiana’s Acadiana region, where leaders aim to get 55% of adults in the nine-parish region around Lafayette a degree or professional certification by 2025.

The goal is extraordinarily ambitious – Louisiana ranks 48th in the nation when it comes to attainment of an associate degree or higher. In Acadiana, roughly 1 in 4 residents holds a degree, according to a recent report by One Acadiana, a business organization leading the educational initiative. But the need is also pressing; the time when a high school graduate could draw a good living out of the Gulf of Mexico’s oil fields is passing fast.

In Acadiana, a model for renewal through education has been set, perhaps unexpectedly, by McDonald’s. Specifically, MacLaff Inc., the franchisee based in Lafayette that employs Ms. Thomas and Ms. Dixon, has gone all in.

While the education benefits from McDonald’s had long been widely advertised, they weren’t consequential. The $700 in tuition assistance for crew members didn’t go very far. 

That changed in 2018, when McDonald’s deepened and broadened the benefit, adding free counseling for employees and their families, high school and English instruction, and higher benefits of up to $2,500 a year for crew and $3,000 for managers. Now, the McDonald’s program offers a national model for companies hoping to spend more of the dollars they’ve set aside for employee education benefits.

Chris Krampe, co-owner of MacLaff, says the franchisee’s leaders promote the McDonald’s benefits constantly and celebrate graduates, bringing them onstage at quarterly leadership meetings. The franchisee’s outreach to area community colleges netted workers an additional $500 a semester in financial help.

“It makes a difference,” Mr. Krampe says. “It gets down to that level of money that’ll keep somebody from going to college.”

Through the McDonald’s education benefits program, MacLaff provided over $250,000 in 2020 alone and helped put 106 of its 3,300 employees in college.

Most MacLaff workers arrive at orientation with minimal education, Ms. Thomas says. She describes one crew member, a woman about her age, who had never been taught to read; Ms. Thomas guided her to a high school equivalency program, provided for free through the company. She says the public education system in the state hasn’t served her colleagues well and sees it as her task – and her company’s – to compensate for that inadequacy.

“These individuals may have come from dysfunction, may have come from a school with dysfunction, and they may have lost hope,” she says. “We build them up.”

She describes herself as a “walking billboard” for higher education and takes pride in pushing her colleagues to bet on themselves.

At the end of new employee orientation, she tells people, “If I can do it at age 58, there’s no reason why anyone in this room can’t do the same or better.”

This story about education benefits was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove an incorrectly described statistic.

The Explainer

How the Stonewall Uprising changed the course of LGBTQ activism

The Stonewall Inn is more than a landmark for the LGBTQ community – it’s a symbol of resistance. Here’s a look at the meaning and myths behind the famous uprising.

Linda

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The Stonewall Inn has a legacy that looms larger than its building. When New York City police raided the popular gay bar in the early hours of June 28, 1969, the crowd of patrons fought back, sparking riots that continued on and off over six days. 

Relying heavily on oral histories, the story of the Stonewall Uprising involves some lore. Witnesses say the street resistance emerged haphazardly, and who “threw the first brick” is disputed, along with who actually showed up. But who did what doesn’t really matter, says Michael Bronski, author of “A Queer History of the United States.” What matters is its ultimate political effect.

Though the gay rights movement predates 1969, the Stonewall Uprising catalyzed the modern LGBTQ rights movement. On the one-year anniversary of the uprising, activists organized what is considered the city’s first Pride march, and Stonewall remains a place of performance, activism, and memorialization today. 

“We were out there in public,” says Martha Shelley, a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, about the period following the uprising. “We weren’t pleading for acceptance, which is what the old gay groups had done ... but demanding our rights.”

How the Stonewall Uprising changed the course of LGBTQ activism

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Bryan R Smith/Reuters/File
People gather at the Stonewall Inn on June 15, 2020, following the Supreme Court decision to uphold LGBTQ workplace rights. The historic bar has remained a place of protest and celebration.

Lounging on a bench one steamy June afternoon, Simone McKay sparkles. Glitter-gold eyelids flash as she talks, her curls bubble-gum pink. For fellow members of the LGBTQ community, her perch in Christopher Park is hallowed ground – along with a New York City icon across the street called the Stonewall Inn.

Marked in neon-red lettering, the site witnessed an uprising more than 50 years ago that helped revolutionize the LGBTQ rights movement.

“The legacy of Stonewall means to me, basically, freedom,” says Miss Simone, as she’s known, dressed for a park performance.  “Freedom from oppression, discrimination.”

Why is Stonewall famous?

Raids on gay bars were routine in the late 1960s, but when police raided the Stonewall Inn during the early hours of June 28, 1969, the crowd fought back. Riots continued on and off over a span of six days, writes historian David Carter in “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution.”

Relying heavily on oral histories, the story of the Stonewall Uprising involves some lore. Witnesses say the street resistance emerged haphazardly – not sparked by Judy Garland’s recent death, a myth mentioned in a homophobic news column at the time. Who “threw the first brick” is also disputed, along with who actually showed up.

“My feeling is that who did what doesn’t matter,” says Michael Bronski, author of “A Queer History of the United States.” “What matters is the ultimate political effect of it.”

How did it influence LGBTQ activism?

Though the gay rights movement predates 1969, the Stonewall Uprising catalyzed the modern LGBTQ rights movement. It inspired the creation of the radical Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which sought solidarity with other groups like the Black Panther Party and women’s liberation activists. 

“We were out there in public. We weren’t pleading for acceptance, which is what the old gay groups had done ... but demanding our rights,” says GLF founding member Martha Shelley. On June 28, 1970 – the one-year anniversary of the uprising – activists organized what is considered the city’s first Pride march. The New York Times reported it stretched 15 blocks.

Members of the LGBTQ community still see Stonewall as a site of protest and progress.

“I guess to anybody that’s queer, it symbolizes ... the moment we started to fight back,” says Lenin Compres, a web developer, on Christopher Street this month.

There’s been a push in recent years to honor transgender and nonwhite pioneers from the Stonewall era, such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. Though their precise roles in the uprising are contested, the two were involved in GLF and founded an initiative to support and shelter LGBTQ street youth, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.

For years, the transgender community “kept being told we were hijacking the movement,” says Marisa Richmond, professor of history along with women’s and gender studies at Middle Tennessee State University. “How can we hijack a movement we helped start?”

How is Stonewall still important today?

The West Village watering hole gained National Historic Landmark status and remains a site of performance, activism, and memorialization. Hundreds of people gathered there in June 2016 to honor victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting. In June 2020, a crowd feted the Supreme Court ruling that banned job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The venue kicked off this year’s Pride month with a virtual concert to benefit LGBTQ centers across the country. 

Fifty years after the raid-turned-rebellion, the New York Police Department apologized. But controversy continues. 

This spring, NYC Pride banned law enforcement exhibitors from Pride events until 2025, noting their presence can be “threatening, and at times dangerous, to those in our community who are most often targeted with excessive force and/or without reason.” Police officers who identify as LGBTQ can participate in events as individuals, out of uniform. The Gay Officers Action League said it was “disheartened” by the news.

Film

It’s no ‘Nemo,’ but Pixar’s ‘Luca’ will leave you smiling from gill to gill

As the heat soars in much of the United States, a new Pixar movie offers respite. Coming-of-age story “Luca” isn’t quite on par with aquatic sibling “Finding Nemo,” says the Monitor’s chief culture writer. But, he says, it brings summer vacation to your living room. 

Linda
Disney/AP
Pixar's "Luca" is a coming-of-age tale featuring friends Alberto (left), voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer, and Luca, voiced by Jacob Tremblay.

It’s no ‘Nemo,’ but Pixar’s ‘Luca’ will leave you smiling from gill to gill

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Pixar’s latest release, “Luca,” is a fish-out-of-water story. Literally. 

The titular character (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is a young sea monster so immersed in his watery environment that he isn’t even aware of the existence of dry land. By day, Luca is an underwater shepherd who uses his crook to herd a school of fish grazing on a patch of seagrass. (If you think that’s odd, wait until you hear the aquatic livestock “baa” like sheep.) At night, he returns to the grotto he shares with his mother, Daniela (Maya Rudolph), and father, Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan).

Luca’s worldview changes when he meets another young sea monster, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who mostly lives on land. Luca dares not set foot on shore because, well, he doesn’t have feet. But once he overcomes his fear of following his new friend onto a beach, he discovers that sea monsters instantaneously take on a human form when they are exposed to air. The young amphibian delights in exploring his new environment – the Italian Riviera circa 1953.

Upon finding out Luca’s interest in the human world, Daniela threatens to banish her son to live in the ocean depths with his uncle Ugo (hilariously voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen). So Luca flees back to land to join Alberto. The duo hide out in the nearby seaside fishing village of Portorosso and try to blend in with the locals.

“Luca” is a coming-of-age story about trying to fit in, overcoming one’s fears, and expanding one’s outlook. The family movie – available to all Disney+ subscribers on June 18 – invites inevitable comparisons to other fish tales such as “Finding Nemo” and “The Little Mermaid.” But if the theme of adolescents struggling with identity seems about as fresh as yesterday’s catch, the colorful animation spruces it up like a spritz of lemon and a sprinkle of herbs. The pastel hues of the village buildings and translucent Mediterranean – not to mention the cones full of gelato – look so enticing that “Luca” may spur tourism to Italy. 

Much of the story is about how Luca and Alberto struggle to adapt to the strange social mores of the fishing village. The two immigrants soon get preyed upon by the town bully Ercole (Saverio Raimondo). Fortunately, they’re also befriended by a kindred spirit, Giulia (Emma Berman), herself an outsider. The trio name themselves The Underdogs. But neither Luca nor Alberto dares reveal his true identity to Giulia, so they have to avoid any contact with water. That means treading carefully on the cobblestones around the fountain in the town square.

Disney/AP
Alberto (right) and Luca navigate being on both land and sea in "Luca."

“Luca” revels in the wonder of childhood discovery. When Giulia shows Luca the night sky through a telescope, finding out about the existence of stars and planets expands his horizons beyond anything he imagined as a sea-dweller. It even sparks a desire within him to go to school to study astronomy.

Director Enrico Casarosa portrays the children’s imagination with a series of musical montages and dream sequences. Yet, for all the energy and joy of those scenes, they often feel like an attempt to pad a story that’s at times as thin as angel hair pasta. With the exception of last year’s “Soul,” Pixar’s recent movies have been missing the sophistication that characterized the studio’s golden years. Its classics grappled with existential questions at various stages of life. Kids have enjoyed those stories at one level even as adults appreciated the sophisticated ideas on a different plane. 

The most intriguing aspect of “Luca” is that it makes a Montessorian argument for empowering children to explore in order to develop their individuality. The counter-argument to giving kids free range is embodied by Daniela, who warns, “The world is a very dangerous place, Luca.” Indeed, it is. Turns out that some of the fishermen of Portorosso believe sea monsters exist and want to hunt them.

“Luca” stays close to the surface instead of diving deep into an exploration of how much freedom to give children. Arriving at a time when there’s a robust debate over how best to raise kids in the 21st century, it’s a missed opportunity. 

“Luca” is nonetheless a pleasurable movie experience. A summer vacation in one’s living room, it will leave you smiling from gill to gill.

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A message to Moscow from Armenians

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In Russia, democracy has declined while corruption has climbed under President Vladimir Putin. That fact weighs heavily in many former states of the Soviet empire where Moscow still holds sway. The latest example was Sunday’s election in Armenia. The country’s most pro-democratic, anti-corruption party, Civil Contract, handily won over opponents that wanted closer ties with Russia.

The party’s big win was not predicted. Its leader, Nikol Pashinyan, was humiliated last year as prime minister in a war he lost with neighboring Azerbaijan over disputed territory. Yet his party won because of reforms in bringing greater transparency and accountability to government. The victory shows that most Armenians see democracy as a better defense of their small country of 3 million than a reliance on Russian security. In addition, they attribute their military’s loss in the war to a deep legacy of corruption.

The 2018 democracy revolution has set down roots in Armenia and may help it one day escape Russian influence. Voters put a value on clean, open governance. They don’t see that in their giant neighbor to the north.

A message to Moscow from Armenians

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AP
A woman casts her ballot in Yerevan, Armenia, June 20.

In Russia, democracy has declined while corruption has climbed under President Vladimir Putin. That fact weighs heavily in many former states of the Soviet empire where Moscow still holds sway. The latest example was Sunday’s election in Armenia. The country’s most pro-democratic, anti-corruption party, Civil Contract, handily won over opponents that wanted closer ties with Russia.

The party’s big win was not predicted. Its leader, Nikol Pashinyan, was humiliated last year as prime minister in a war he lost with neighboring Azerbaijan over disputed territory. In April, he was forced to call an election and then become a caretaker leader. Russia had helped end the war, which allowed it to increase its military presence in the region. Its mediating role in the 44-day war was appreciated by many Armenians, leading to speculation that Mr. Pashinyan’s party would lose.

Yet his party won because of reforms in bringing greater transparency and accountability to government. The victory shows that most Armenians see democracy as a better defense of their small country of 3 million than a reliance on Russian security. In addition, they attribute their military’s loss in the war to a deep legacy of corruption.

All three former rulers since Armenia became independent in 1991 participated in the election. Yet memories are strong of former regimes that diminished democracy and supported Russian-style oligarchs. Just three years ago, a popular uprising led by Mr. Pashinyan, a former journalist, forced the ouster of one such corrupt regime and brought about the country’s first free and fair elections.

Before this election, both France and the United States seemed to support him, which may have convinced many voters not to lean toward those politicians favoring closer integration with Russia.

The June 20 parliamentary elections saw a record number of parties running. The 2018 democracy revolution has set down roots in Armenia and may help it one day escape Russian influence. Voters put a value on clean, open governance. They don’t see that in their giant neighbor to the north.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Strengthening family ties

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Sometimes the responsibility of helping a loved one with a problem can feel oppressive. But a spiritual view of everyone’s roots as children of God brings inspiration that rejuvenates, strengthens our connections with others, and opens the door to solutions.

Strengthening family ties

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

When we moved to a house with an overgrown garden, I started randomly tearing at some tree ivy. My husband called over, “Just go straight to the base of the roots and cut it there.”

His useful gardening advice spoke to me in another way later that afternoon when I was overcome by fatigue. For weeks I’d listened to a family member pouring out personal problems. Each conversation ended, “What do you think I should do?” While I was happy to support this loved one, it also felt mentally exhausting.

I thought back to that idea of roots. One definition of “roots” is an emotional attachment, or family ties. The concept of family ties is deeply embedded in human thought, and as wonderful as such ties often are, sometimes we can feel a little strangled by their hold. That’s how I’d been feeling lately.

A human sense of ourselves piles up evidence that we’re material creatures, playing our various parts as son, daughter, mother, father, grandparent, friend. But there’s another view of family ties I’ve found most helpful. It’s a spiritual view.

In the record of creation found in the first chapter of Genesis in the Bible, God made man – a term that refers to everyone, male and female – in His own image and likeness. God is our divine Parent. The fatherhood and motherhood of God is indicated in the spiritual interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer found in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science. It begins:

“Our Father which art in heaven,
“Our Father-Mother God, all-harmonious” (p. 16).

In a garden, ivy climbs by clinging. It weaves its way through a tree’s branches, stifling natural growth. Similarly, if we take another’s problems as our personal burden, we may find we aren’t able to help the very one we would bless. But when we take a mental step back to see others as God’s spiritual offspring, always cared for by God, divine Love, we’re more receptive to the inspiration that rejuvenates and brings solutions.

As efficiently as the ivy came off that tree once I refocused my efforts, this realization brought freedom from suffering. My relative found the support needed, and our heavenly Parent, God, united us in mutual love and respect. Our family was strengthened, not weakened, and so was I.

With divine Love as our guide, productive new growth always takes place.

Adapted from the June 2, 2021, Christian Science Daily Lift podcast.

Viewfinder

Voting in Ethiopia begins

Mulugeta Ayene/AP
Ethiopians line up in the early morning to cast their votes in the general election in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's hometown of Beshasha, in the Oromia region of Ethiopia on June 21, 2021. Ethiopia began voting Monday in the greatest electoral test yet for Mr. Abiy. War and logistical issues mean that ballots won't be cast in more than 100 of the 547 constituencies, some of which are scheduled to vote later this year.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us. Please come back tomorrow, when we look at how the pandemic has led governments to reevaluate their child welfare systems.

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