Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

No Easy Route on the Jeff Davis Highway

jeff_davis_highwayby John Szczesny

Kudos to the Richmond Times-Dispatch for putting a human face on Chesterfield County’s plan to revitalize the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor. The RTD’s Pathway to Poverty feature is a sobering look at how poverty and homelessness have made life a daily struggle for so many in the area. It also begs the question of how Chesterfield’s plan will impact the lives of these individuals and families.

The visible signs of blight along the roadway make it easy to overlook how the surrounding area buzzes along as a hive of industrial activity. Not far from the trailer parks and run-down motels exists the most vital cluster of manufacturing employment in the Richmond metro: Dupont, Philip Morris, Kaiser Aluminum and other companies will soon be joined by Chinese-owned Tranlin Paper, which state officials expect to create 2,000 jobs at an average salary of $45,663. There is also the massive Defense Supply Center Richmond (DSCR) complex, scheduled for further expansion by the feds. And just a few miles to the south is the Amazon fulfillment center in Chester which opened in 2012.

County officials deserve their share of credit for these economic development successes. Through incentives and other means they have created an environment conducive to business and job creation.

Yet the industrialization on the edges of Jefferson Davis Highway has not done much to improve conditions for the 11,000 residents in the County’s study area, where 30% of the population lives below the poverty line. Chesterfield officials have gone a long way to offer assistance and resources for corporations in the Bermuda district. It is only fair that they offer a similar helping hand to area residents by connecting them with the employment opportunities in their own neighborhood. Workforce training programs would be a win-win for employers and job-seekers, and would help bridge the skills gaps needed for these positions.

Perhaps the thorniest issue for County planners is what to do about land use. It will be tempting to call for zoning revisions to invigorate the Jeff Davis area with new housing and retail projects. Redeveloping underutilized properties along the corridor would make economic sense, create jobs, and boost county tax coffers. But allowing these changes would probably also lead to the demolition of the motels and trailer parks where some of the poorest residents live, often just one missed rent payment away from homelessness. A redevelopment plan that throws these people out on the street without a suitable housing option is immoral and unacceptable.

Chesterfield has taken a noble first step in developing a plan to reverse the decline of the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor. It is now imperative for county officials to make future decisions with an eye towards improving the lives of area residents as opposed to just the built environment.

John Szczesny is a Chesterfield resident, urban planner, and telecommunications consultant.

More Meaningless Numbers from Virginia Educrats

bogus_numbersby James A. Bacon

In a story that generated front-page headlines, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced yesterday a “significant increase” in the number of Virginia public schools earning accreditation in 2015. The number of fully accredited schools increased by 10 percentage points to 78%.

“Offering every Virginia student a world class education in a public school is at the very foundation of our efforts to build a new Virginia economy,” the governor said. “This year’s strong progress is a reflection of the dedicated work of educators, parents and communities and a clear sign that the reforms we have put into place are working.”

“Getting challenged schools the resources they need to ensure student success is one of the most important steps we can take to improve our Commonwealth’s education system,” said Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton. “Every school that earned full accreditation this year is another school that is better preparing its students for a lifetime of success.”

O Frabjous day! Calooh! Callay! Maybe the educational establishment has finally figured out how to turn around Virginia’s ailing public schools! Maybe there is hope for the future!

Or maybe not. The press release was honest enough to acknowledge the following: “The 2014-2015 school year was the first during which students in grades 3-8 were allowed to retake SOL tests in reading, mathematics, science and history. On average, the performance of students on expedited retakes increased pass rates by about four points on each test.”

In other words, any comparison between 2015 results and 2014 results is likening apples to oranges.

What the press release does not tell us is how many schools this adjustment pushed over the minimum accreditation level. (“Students must achieve adjusted pass rates of at least 75 percent on English reading and writing SOL tests, and of at least 70 percent on assessments in mathematics, science and history.”) Four points on a 1-100 scale is not insignificant. Moreover, that four points is an average. It is possible, indeed probable, that the “expedited retakes” proved to be a bigger factor in improving test scores for poorly performing schools, where more students needed to retake the tests, than for strong performers.

Among the crucial data not included in the press release was the number of schools that would have been accredited had the old policy remained in place. The Virginia Department of Education did not provide the data for citizens to conduct their own analysis or draw their own conclusions.

John Butcher has been illuminating VDOE statistical prestidigitations far longer than I. As he has written on his blog, Cranky’s Blog:

The moving target moves; and having moved,
Moves on:  nor all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to give an honest answer
Nor all thy tears wash away the bureaucrats’ obfuscation.

The manipulation of data is insulting. And who suffers the most from this statistical sleight of hand? Children, disproportionately from poor, African-American households, who are consigned to schools with no effective accountability, that’s who. Just another example of how the bureaucratic, statist status quo works to oppress poor people of color in Virginia. If you think there’s such a thing as “institutional racism” in this country, this is it.

Update: Cranky calculates the impact of other “adjustments” VDOE makes to the data for students with limited English proficiency and for students who have recently transferred into a Virginia public school. On the math tests, the adjustments had the felicitous effect of increasing the number of schools achieving the 70% pass rate from 1,519 to 1,627, or six percentage points.

Shutting Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline


The case of Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an 11-year-old autistic child in Lynchburg schools, started with kicking a trash can and ended with a charge of felonious assault, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

by James A. Bacon

Amid growing national concerns about “mass incarceration,” particularly of African-Americans, a Center for Public Integrity study found in August that Virginia schools refer students to law enforcement agencies at a higher rate than schools in any other state in the country — and three times the national average. The report highlighted the case of an autistic, 11-year-old African-American student in a Lynchburg school, Kayleb Moon-Robinson, who, in a series of incidents that started with kicking a trash can, wound up being charged with disorderly conduct and felony assault on a police officer.

There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that the United States puts too many people into jail and prison, and that there has to be a better way to deal with minor crimes and misdemeanors.  There is less agreement about what that “better way” might be.

Fortunately, the federal system of the U.S. government creates a “laboratory for democracy” that allows lots of experiments at the state and local level. One such experiment for reducing the school-to-prison pipeline will take place in the City of Richmond when schools resume next year after the Christmas break. A new program called LIFE, reports Louis Llovio with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, will divert students into an after-school program designed to “get them the skills needed to make better decisions.”

Richmond police arrested 149 students last year; of those arrests, 59 were for disorderly conduct for such behaviors as not sitting down in class or cussing at a teacher. In the hope of plugging the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” LIFE will be open to students committing minor offenses. Students will attend nine 90-minute sessions covering topics such as conflict resolution, drug and alcohol awareness, gangs and respect for self and others. Parents are expected to attend three of the nine classes.

Diversion programs have a mixed record, according to Llovio’s reporting — some research finds that they lead to increased recidivism. But program organizers continue to tweak them in the hope of improving outcomes, so it’s possible that the Richmond program will enjoy better results. Personally, I’m highly skeptical that 13 to 14 hours in an after-school program can do much to change a student’s behavior by the time he’s reached middle school or high school. But I’m willing to entertain the notion that if participants are chosen based on a teacher’s appraisal of their potential willingness to change, and if parents participate as well, the program might rescue a few kids from jail.

The key is to set goals and metrics by which to measure those goals. If results don’t improve, adjust the program. If they still don’t improve, shut it down.

Bacon’s bottom line. Two things worry me. First, one of the few clear public policy successes of the past two decades has been so-called “broken windows” policing, in which police crack down on seemingly minor offenses like vandalism in order to avert an escalation into major crimes. The thrust of the movement to roll back “mass incarceration” seems to go against the broken-windows philosophy. We need to be vigilant against a retrogression to the widespread public disorder of the 1970s and 1980s.

Second, we must remember the silent victims of school disorder — the majority of students whose education is disrupted by the behavior of a noisy, troublesome minority. The hand-wringing over “mass incarceration” paints criminals as the victims while ignoring the plight of their victims. While it’s true that the jailed and imprisoned population is disproportionately African-American, let us not forget that the vast majority of their victims are African-American. Affluent white Virginians living safely in their leafy suburbs have little to fear from the consequences of social experiments gone awry. Poor African-Americans have the most to lose.

So, let’s try experiments to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline, but let’s monitor them very closely and make sure they accomplish what we expect of them.

Woolly Headed Thinking about Transportation

Woolly headed

Baaah! Baaaaaaah!

by James A. Bacon

Virginia Beach’s ongoing debate over light rail is emblematic of everything that is wrong with Virginia’s system for determining which transportation projects get built. While the Virginia Department of Transportation is implementing a mechanism for ranking road and highway projects, there is no mechanism for ascertaining the proper balance between roads/highways and mass transportation or even to prioritize mass transit projects. Those choices remain as muddied and politicized as ever.

The latest episode in the long-running saga of Virginia Beach light rail, which would extend Norfolk’s existing The Tide rail line to the Virginia Beach resort area, revolved around a bid yesterday by Virginia Beach Councilman John Moss to use $10 million dedicated for light-rail plans to plug a projected $33 million budget hole. City Council rebuffed the measure, but a vocal minority of citizens continue the fight against the rail line. (See the Virginian-Pilot coverage here.)

Foes oppose a rail line that will require heavy up-front subsidies to build and ongoing subsidies to operate. They make a legitimate point. Rail supporters retort that building and maintaining roads also entail taxpayer subsidies. They, too, make a legitimate point. Ever since Virginia abandoned the user-pays principle of transportation funding in the bipartisan transportation-funding legislation of the McDonnell administration, all forms of transportation are subsidized to a greater or lesser degree. Because everything is subsidized, it is exceedingly difficult to determine whether any project is economically justifiable. Anyone can make any claim without any effective way to test it.

In an ideal world, Virginia Beach’s mass transit project would pay for itself through (a) fare revenues, (b) ancillary revenues such as advertising, and (c) revenues from special tax districts surrounding rail stations to capture some of the increased real-estate value created by the rail service. A transit authority would issue bonds to be repaid from those revenue sources, and bond buyers would exercise an independent, non-political judgment as to whether they were likely to earn a competitive, risk-adjusted return on their investment.

But it’s not an ideal world. Mass transit advocates argue rightly that rail competes against subsidized roads. No longer does Virginia pay for its roads mainly through the gas tax. But, rather than hold road funding to a higher and stricter standard, Virginia carves out a percentage of transportation allocations for mass transit. Funds are spread around to appease regional constituencies and ideological enthusiasms.

To see where fuzzy logic of transit funding leads us, read this op-ed by Nelson Reveley, a co-coordinator for the Richmond Clergy Committee for Rapid Transit. Reveley invokes social justice, the environment, public safety and economic development in support of a “comprehensive transportation system for the sake of all our citizens” in the Richmond region. Writes Reveley, a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Virginia:

This isn’t about any singular neighborhood. It’s about all our neighborhoods, as we appreciate and celebrate our intimate interrelation as one metro ecology of education and commerce, employment and leisure, justice and mercy, beauty and creativity, vulnerability and mutuality.

My stomach heaves in rebellion against such treacly sentimentality. Nowhere in his op-ed does Reveley wonder how much this majestic mass transit system might cost. Obviously, the concept of “alternate opportunity cost” is not taught in the UVa religious program, for nowhere does Reveley wonder what could be accomplished by expending the same sum in other ways. Nor does he much care who will pay for this vision of his, although we can be certain it will not be the people who ride the buses or otherwise benefit from the transit lines through the higher property values he insists will occur or workforce benefits accruing from the young talent he suggests will be attracted to the region.

Further, nowhere does Reveley acknowledge the emergence of an alternative, private sector-driven model as epitomized by companies like Uber, Lyft and Bridj, which, given sufficient time and dismantling of regulatory barriers, could provide a shared-ridership transportation alternative far more robust and comprehensive than a public system.

The prevalence of blinkered, woolly headed thinking in the Old Dominion is just staggering. It goes a long way towards explaining our stagnation and relative decline among the 50 states.

How the War on Poverty Went Awry


Edward C. Banfield

by James A. Bacon

In 1968, nearly five decades ago, Edward C. Banfield wrote a brilliant analysis of urban problems in America: “The Unheavenly City.” Today, his contributions have been all but forgotten. But they are worth resurrecting because of their prescience. While optimists proclaimed that the expansive programs of the Great Society would conquer poverty, Banfield believed the opposite. “Unless lower-class persons display an unprecedented amount of upward mobility,” he predicted, “the lower-class population of the city may grow, perhaps rather rapidly.”

Despite the expenditure of trillions of dollars on the social safety net, urban renewal and anti-poverty programs, poverty is as deeply entrenched and endemic as it was when the Great Society was put into place. Liberals and progressives say the reason is that American society simply hasn’t spent enough money. Just fund pre-K, raise the minimum wage or address the food desert, and we’ll get there. But disciples of Banfield know otherwise, for those programs fundamentally misdiagnose the problem of poverty in America.

Banfield viewed the poverty through the prism of future orientation. He divided society into four classes — upper, middle, working and poor — based upon the ability of people to envision the future, defer present gratification for future reward, and control their impulses. Those who worked for the future would be upwardly mobile; those who lived present-oriented lives would be downwardly mobile. Present-oriented people would tend to collect in the lower economic classes, earning less money. More important than their material poverty, these peoples’ lives would be marked by violence, crime, alcohol and drug addiction, child abuse and all manner of other social pathologies.

The American welfare state has done a reasonable job at ameliorating material conditions of poverty. As Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, Heritage Foundation scholars drawing upon Census Bureau data, America’s poor have access to material possessions once considered luxuries: 80% have air conditioning, 92% own a microwave, nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite TV, and half have a personal computer; 82% of poor parents reported never being hungry due to a lack of money for food; the average poor American has more living space than the typical non-poor person in Sweden, France or the United Kingdom.

What makes the lives of American poor people miserable is not material deprivation but dysfunctional behavior. As Banfield wrote, “A slum is not simply a district of low-quality housing; rather it is one in which the style of life is squalid and vicious.”

The lower-class individual lives from moment to moment. If he has any awareness of a future, it is of something fixed, fated, beyond his control: things happen to him. He does not make them happen. Impulse governs his behavior, either because he cannot discipline himself to sacrifice a present for a future satisfaction or because he has no sense of the future. He is therefore radically improvident: whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless. His bodily needs (especially for sex) and his taste for “action” take precedence over everything else — and certainly over any work routine. He works only as he must to stay alive, and drifts from one unskilled job to another, taking no interest in the work. …

In his relations with others, he is suspicious and hostile, aggressive yet dependent. He is unable to maintain a stable relationship with a mate; commonly he does not marry. He feels no attachment to community, neighbors, or friends (he has companions, not friends), resents all authority (for example, that of policemen, social workers, teachers, landlords, employers), and is apt to think that he has been “railroaded” and to want to “get even.” He is a nonparticipant: he belongs to no voluntary organizations, has no political interests, and does not vote unless paid to do so.

The lower-class household is usually female-based. The woman who heads it is likely to have a succession of mates who contribute intermittently to its support but take little or no part in rearing the children. … The stress on “action,” risk-taking, conquest, fighting and “smartness” makes lower-class life extraordinarily violent. … In its emphasis on “action” and its utter instability, lower-class culture seems to be more attractive to men than to women.

Banfield goes on to make various predictions that that idealists and social engineers plausibly could deny at the time but seem indubitably true after five decades of failed social policy: Continue reading

Addressing the Racial Divide in School Performance

lynchburg_city_schoolsby James A. Bacon

Race is a bigger indicator of success than economic status in Lynchburg city schools, asserted Jay McClain, assistant superintendent for instruction, at a school board retreat yesterday. Even when controlling for economic disadvantage, white students show pass rates about 20 points higher than black students, he said, as reported by the Lynchburg News & Advance.

“This is really, really important information. People have often tried to use … poverty as a proxy for race, like saying the reason why there are racial differences is because of poverty, and therefore ignoring the importance of race,” school board member Regina Dolan-Sewell said. “And you’ve got the numbers right here saying … poverty matters, but race matters separate from poverty.”

“It’s not just poverty. Poverty’s huge, but this is so clear that it’s not just poverty, that…we are systemically funneling our children of color in a different direction,” said board member Jenny Poore. “You’re not guilty because you acknowledge it. … But if you don’t pay attention when you see a chart like this, then yeah, you are guilty.”

Sadly, Lynchburg is not an outlier. With a handful of minor exceptions, the phenomenon applies across the state. No one likes these statistics. All Virginians want to live in a society that gives every kid, regardless of background, a fair shot at succeeding in life. Broadly speaking, the questions are: What do we make of the racial disparity? And what do we do about it? Of the two questions, the first is the more important. Until we have an accurate diagnosis of why racial differences in school performance persist, we cannot hope to devise appropriate prescriptions.

No one disputes that performance on the Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rate at Virginia schools is heavily influenced by the socio-economic status of the families the students come from. Students from affluent backgrounds (as measured by their enrollment in free meals programs) tend to perform significantly better than their disadvantaged peers. Disadvantaged students, whose lives are in flux due to dysfunctional family situations, have an up-hill struggle for obvious reasons. But socio-economic status explains only half (in every rough terms) of the variability.

What other factors might create the racial disparity in educational performance? That’s where it gets tricky. The discussion quickly polarizes around liberal and conservative ideological views; partisan narratives trump rational debate. I will try to be as objective as I can. Here are some commonly touted explanations explaining the difference in performance between blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians:

  • Culture matters. Asian students consistently out-perform all other ethnic/racial groups, even when adjusted for socio-economic status, suggesting that something about Asian culture (the “tiger mom” phenomenon, perhaps) is the differentiating factor. Likewise, it can be argued, African-Americans have unique cultural attributes arising from a history of slavery, segregation, lingering discrimination in the post-segregation era, disproportionate exposure to the corrosive effects of the welfare state, disproportionate family breakdown, an assertion of black cultural identity, embrace of a culture of victimization, and concomitant rejection of “white” norms such as the emphasis on academic achievement.
  • Institutional racism. While overt racism has largely gone underground, residual racism and “white privilege” persist in America’s institutional structures and subtle cultural stereotypes. Differences in academic performance can be attributed to such factors, say, as the fact that African-American students are disproportionately likely to be punished for school infractions, or the fact that black youth are disproportionately likely to be arrested for victimless crimes such as drug possession. Negative stereotypes may influence even well-meaning teachers to treat African-American students differently from their white and Asian peers.
  • Better schools. A variant of the institutional racism explanation, this theory says that predominantly white schools have better principals and more seasoned teachers than predominantly African-American schools. The better teachers and administrators gravitate toward schools with students who pose fewer disciplinary problems, with the result that students of those schools benefit from superior instruction. Because those school populations are disproportionately white and Asian, those groups benefit from this trend.

The evidence is pretty persuasive that inspired teachers and administrators can make a difference. Insofar as the racial/ethnic gap in school performance can be attributed to school-related factors, improving the quality of instruction at black-majority schools is an appropriate focus of public policy. The question is how do we keep the better teachers and administrators in schools — particularly middle schools and high schools — where students are frequently disruptive, sometimes violent and often less receptive to learning? Do we pay teachers more? Do we open up the profession to less-credentialed teachers to apply? Do we weed out poor teachers more aggressively? Do we create better teaching conditions by enforcing stricter discipline and/or addressing the emotional needs of disruptive students? There are lots of theories, but nobody knows the answer. The optimum mix of policies is unlikely to come from a top-down solution devised by the educratic elite. It’s likely to bubble from the bottom-up as the result of widespread experimentation. Continue reading

Highland View: a Poor School that Works

Highland View Principal Pam Smith dispenses a hug.

Highland View Principal Pam Smith dispenses a hug.

by James A. Bacon

Highland View Elementary School educates children from one of the poorest districts in Bristol, a city where the poverty rate is nearly twice the state average. Poor families, mostly white, grapple with the same kinds of issues commonly associated with inner-city black families in Virginia’s urban crescent: broken families, high unemployment, alcohol and drug addiction, disorganized lives, abuse, neglect, hunger and a lack of interest in academic achievement.

Yet somehow, Highland View accomplished something that 556 other schools with large at-risk student bodies did not. Reports Jim Nolan with the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “For the first time since 2011, it earned full accreditation from the state Department of Education. More than 70 percent of its students passed the Standards of Learning exams in math, science and history, and 75 percent cleared the benchmark in English.”

How did Highland View achieve full accreditation despite a 11% cut in per-pupil spending over 10 years?

Much of the credit goes to Principal Pam Smith, who recognizes that it takes more than textbooks and teaching to help poor children. “The school is their counselor, their doctor, their nutritionist, their mother,”she said. “We’re their family.” As Nolan tells the story, Smith knows the story behind every child, whether he or she is homeless and couch surfing (sleeping on couches in different homes), is hearing disabled, is being raised by a grandparent or has a father with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Credit goes, too, to the Bristol community, which has rallied behind the school. Home Depot has given Kindergarten cubbies. O’Reilly Auto Parts chipped in $800 to fund snacks for the after-school program. The local Kiwanis Club provides free vision screening and has contributed 100 pairs of shoes. Churches donate “snack packs” for kids to take home on weekends. Families contribute second-hand clothing so the school can maintain an inventory for when children appear at school in hopeless dirty, ragged or inappropriate clothing. A not-for-profit group, Communities in Schools, works closely with the Highland View to help families obtain counseling, housing, clothing, food, school supplies and transportation from local government agencies and not-for-profits.

By providing essential needs that parents have failed to provide their children, Highland View gives its pupils a fighting chance to earn an education and become productive citizens rather than fall into the quicksand of inter-generational poverty.

Bacon’s bottom line: Highland View is a success story. It is an example to be emulated. However, the nature of poverty in America today is such that, despite the existence of food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, the earned income tax credit, Medicaid, nutritional programs for women with infants and young children, school lunch programs, housing assistance, child welfare services, and substance abuse & mental health programs, not to mention a host of private, not-for-profit enterprises filling gaps in the social safety net, the number of dysfunctional families appears to be increasing.

The problem is not simply that families are poor and have fallen on hard times, a predicament which some manage to work their way out of. The problem is that an increasing number of families are hopelessly irresponsible and disorganized. They lack the skills to function in contemporary society. They perform so badly as parents that society increasingly has to step in and fill their role. If children suffer from dysfunctional families in elementary school, does anything change when the children move onto middle school? How often are the gains achieved at Highland View lost in later years?

As a society, we are morally compelled to try to rescue these poor children. But I have to ask, do our good intentions aggravate the problems they are meant to solve? Do we make it easier for lousy parents to be even lousier parents? There has always been poverty in America. But I fear we are unintentionally creating a generation of poor people more lacking in basic life skills than at any time in American history.

Maximizing the ROI on Investments in Human Capital

heckmanby James A. Bacon

There is a sterile quality to the debate over universal childhood education. Liberals cite studies that say that it makes sense to invest in pre-school for poor children on the grounds that it increases the odds that kids will perform better academically, thus less likely to drop out of school, more likely to get a job, and less likely to get incarcerated, saving society billions of dollars in the long run. Noting that pre-school can’t overcome the affects of dysfunctional families and lousy schools, skeptics (usually conservatives) say the positive effects fade within a few years and question whether creating another massive entitlement program will do any good.

As a society, we’re desperate to find something that helps poor children overcome the debilitating consequences not only of material poverty but an upbringing so impoverished that many don’t know their colors, numbers or ABCs by the time they enter kindergarten.

James V. Koch, professor emeritus of Old Dominion University, puts a different spin on the pre-K issue in the “State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2015.” He sides with those who believe that high-quality early childhood education has a large positive benefit but proposes a funding source for pre-K that makes the idea more palatable to conservatives.

Drawing upon the work of Nobel Laureate James Heckman, Koch argues that social investment in human capital accomplishes more in a child’s early, formative development than later in life when his or her cognitive abilities have been largely set. As seen in the conceptual graph above, investing in enriching a child’s development at ages 0-3 yields a higher return than in preschool, which in turn provides a higher return than school, which in turns pays back more than job training.

Koch cites the famous Perry Preschool Project which began in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the 1960s. A $21,000 per pupil investment (in today’s dollars) yielded cumulative savings of $240,000 by age 40. Whether those results could be replicated is the subject of debate. But an even bigger problem is political. Someone is going to have to pay for universal pre-K. Middle-class parents are not likely to be thrilled about paying more in taxes so poor children can attend programs that cost two to three times what they can afford for their own children.

That political calculus could change if the funding comes from elsewhere. Writes Koch: “There is now a strong argument for shifting resources away from later-in-life job training programs and re-directing them to early childhood programs.” But that creates a political problem of its own, he concedes: Benefits from early-childhood programs take years to become manifest; the pain of training cutbacks is immediate.

Koch advances another novel argument: Early childhood education is good economic development.

One must compare these salutary results with the much less impressive outcomes that are generated by conventional businesses subsidies (usually tax incentives) that government units at all levels habitually utilize in hopes of improving their economic situations. … In general, tax incentives yield low returns for cities and counties that rely upon them, and typically yield negative returns for regions and states.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m skeptical of the whole ball of wax — early childhood intervention, government-administered job training programs, business subsidies, tax incentives, you name it. But if government has got to “do something” to reverse the pathologies and dysfunctions created by previous efforts to “do something,” then voluntary universal pre-K arguably would make a better long-run investment than jinky tax breaks and duplicative and ineffectual job training programs. Make universal pre-K spending neutral by cutting less effective programs, and I just might buy into it.

How Inflated Are Hospital Charity Care Numbers?

Inflated numbers?

Inflated numbers?

Bart Hinkle, an editorial writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, has long crusaded against “baroque and opaque” pricing in the hospital industry, a fundamental flaw in the health care system that makes it difficult for patients to exercise consumer choice.

Now Hinkle is taking aim at the accounting conventions by which hospitals calculate how much charity care they provide. In a Sunday column, he notes that there is no common standard for determining a number. When hospitals report how much they cover in uncompensated care for indigent patients, Peter Boswell, who oversees hospital licensing in Virginia, told Hinkle, “Nobody is checking behind them. We take their word for it.”

And as William Hazel, Virginia’s Secretary of Health and Human Resources said, how hospitals arrive at charity care figures is “mystical to me.”

Some hospitals tally up the cost they incur in treating indigent patients, writes Hinkle. Others report “gross revenue foregone,” a number that reflects not how much a procedure cost but how much the hospital would have charged — an inflated number before insurance discounts. In other words, it’s a fictitious figure.

Why does this matter? Because Virginia hospitals cite the large burden of uncompensated care as reason for expanding the Medicaid system in Virginia under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Before the act, the federal government provided a partial offset — some $163 million in 2015 — to Virginia hospitals that treated a disproportionate number of charity cases. The feds are cutting back that payment now on the assumption that state health insurance exchanges and expanded Medicaid coverage would provide coverage for formerly indigent patients. Virginia has a health insurance exchange, but not the expanded Medicaid.

Bacon’s bottom line: With the exception of a few rural hospitals, Virginia hospitals are highly profitable — adn that includes the not-for-profits. Before we can take industry claims seriously about the debilitating impact of charity care, we should have some faith in their numbers. At a minimum citizens should demand (a) a common definition that applies to all hospitals, (b) a number that reflects actual costs, not inflated gross revenues, and (c) a transparent reporting of those numbers. Only then we can start to have an intelligent discussion.


Why Released Felons Fail

stacked_odds2by Sarah Scarbrough

Society chastises criminals, felons, addicts and others getting out of jail. The average citizen today thinks this population consists of bad guys. Why should people care about repeat offenders? They deserve to be locked up and the key thrown away. But in the next breath, people decry generational cycles of criminality and the high rates of recidivism.

Have you ever thought the two might go hand in hand?

It isn’t easy to escape the cycle. Let me present three situations that will make you think in a different vein – and, if not, at least give you food for thought. The stories below are true; some names have been changed to protect their identity.

Meet Scott. He’s a 39-year-old African American male. Scott met a girl that he really fell for. He was over 18; she was just shy of 18 years old. The girl’s mom didn’t like Scott, not one bit. She threatened him if they didn’t break up. Scott cared too much for the girl to leave her, so the mom filed charges against him for having sex with her underage daughter. At this point, in 1998, Scott was put behind bars. Criminality began with narcotics and related charges over the next 18 years.

Scott just finished serving 24 months for a hit and run. While he was locked up this time he did everything he could to rehabilitate himself. He worked extremely hard, and seven days a week. Many people recognized his work and he received constant commendations. As Scott neared release, however, he had nowhere to go. He literally was going to be homeless after release. He did not have one single person to call for help, not even someone to pick him up after he was released. He had four t-shirts and three boxers to his name – that is it. No socks, shoes, or pants. No money either, not a penny.

Scott seemed destined to live on the street corner somewhere, maybe under a bridge if it was raining. Fortunately, he was such a hard worker and had reached out for help to so many jail staff while incarcerated that donations came in like crazy. (The picture above shows the donations.) He received two bus tickets as well. But he was had nowhere to live. Not only did he not have money to fund a place, but he was a sex offender, making it close to impossible to find his own place. Because he was going to be on state supervision, he was set up to stay in a local hotel. Between the donations, including some non-perishable food items, and the hotel, we thought he would do OK. Little did we know the continued obstacles he would face.

Scott had no refrigerator or microwave in his hotel room, thus preparing food was tough. He did not have any money – literally not a dime. How was he supposed to eat? Open a a can of green beans and eat straight out of the can. Or eat protein bars for all three meals? He could not eat the mac ‘n cheese because he couldn’t heat the noodles. There were roaches covering his hotel room – on the first morning at the hotel he killed over 50 roaches (not an exaggeration). He needed to get a state ID to get food stamps. Well, the ID costs $15. He then needed a document from the Virginia State Police to get the ID. That cost $30. With no money, how could he get these items? Without these items he couldn’t get food stamps. Without the food stamps, he could not to eat. Without an ID he couldn’t get a job either. Wow, talk about setting someone up for failure. No wonder some many people have trouble breaking the cycle.

Fortunately, someone he networked with while in jail took Scott under his wing. His friend paid for the ID and the state police document, bought him McDonalds for lunch on the day of release, and bought him Wendy’s for lunch the next day. Wow, thank goodness he found this person. But not everyone in Scott’s position finds someone to help. If he hadn’t had this person helping him, it would have been next to impossible to escape the cycle. Sadly, the person who took Scott under his wing stated to me via text, “He seems depressed. He’s been institutionalized. He’s on his own, with nobody and he’s lonely. To top it off, HE KNOWS HE HAD IT BETTER IN JAIL.”

Wow, he had it better in jail. But it makes sense. Three meals, heat, and a roof over his head with no roaches, all of his basic needs were taken care of. Despite these obstacles, Scott began working on his forklift certificate after release, got a job interview in two days seven days after release, and landed another job interview later in the week. This is awesome. But how hard will it be for Scott to succeed considering everything is working against him? Continue reading