Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

Fracking Our Pristine Mountain Forests

GW forestBy Peter Galuszka

Is nothing sacred? Of all groups, the U.S. Forest Service should protect the lands it controls, but today it introduced a plan that would allow limited hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the 1.1 million-acre George Washington National Forest which straddles Virginia and West Virginia.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had opposed lifting the ban, although he supports other proposed gas projects in the state, such as the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would stretch from the fracked gaslands of Northern West Virginia over the mountains and southeastward to Southside and Hampton Roads and North Carolina.

Forest lands help supply drinking water to 4 million people including those in Richmond and Washington. Some of the forest land has so-called “Karst” topography made up of rock formation that can be dissolved. In those conditions, any leakage of methane, or the toxic, powerful chemicals used in fracking would be more, rather than less, likely to poison drinking water.

The only good news out of the new USFS plan is that before some 995,000 acres could be available for drilling and that amount will now be limited to 177,000 acres.

But what can’t they let it all be? If you head west where the heart of the Marcellus Shale formation has become one of the mega-meccas of fracked gas, you hear of impacts of all types from drilling. These have included fire, explosions, diesel generators roaring 24/7, drinking water effects, bright floodlights and so on. In fact, I am embarking on a drip in about an hour that will end up in frack-land and will report when I get back.

To be sure, natural gas drilling has been going on for decades in the Appalachian Plateau of the western slopes of the Appalachians. Few pipelines crossed eastward over mountains and it was rare to find many drilling rigs in those areas.

But the fracking craze continues unabated and is now a $10 billion industry in the Marcellus Shale formation. One potential new target could be a different formation that starts from Fredericksburg and slips under the Potomac northeast into Maryland. A Texas firm with a letter drop address has been talking about leasing rights for fracking. One assumes that if the leases are in place, they’ll be quickly flipped to an actual drilling company, but you won’t know who. Virginia is only in the very early stages of setting up state rules for fracking.

Environmentalists say natural gas can be an even worse carbon polluter than coal should methane be released. Some others believe that the biggest damage comes not from the actual fracking process with millions of gallons of water and chemicals but from faulty wells.

One can make an argument that gas is good because it has completely reorganized the global pecking order in terms of energy. It means the U.S. need not be beholden to machinations of the Middle East, Central Asia and the likes of Vladimir Putin.

What bothers me is the rush to frack. I remember back in the 1960s in West Virginia when mile after mile of mountain side had been ripped apart by surface miners. It was a cheap way to get at coal. Mystery companies were supposed to reclaim the mine site but rarely did because they’d bankrupt one alphabet soup firm merely to create a new one.

The fracking craze, if not properly regulated, could yield even worse environmental disasters.

Takeaways From the GOP’s Big Win

gillespie warnerBy Peter Galuszka

The night of Tuesday, Nov. 4 was an ugly one for the Democrats and a big win for Republicans. Here are my takeaways from it:

  • U.S. Sen.Mark Warner clings to a tiny lead that seems to grow slightly, still making it uncertain if opponent Ed Gillespie will ask for a recount. The surprisingly tight race is an embarrassment for Warner. It likely takes him out of consideration to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016 although Democrats Tim Kaine and Jim Webb are still possibilities.
  • Ed Gillespie ran a smart campaign and came off as a solid candidate. Of course, we are comparing him against Kenneth Cuccinelli and that’s a very low bar but Gillespie’s projection of being relaxed and confident helped him. Gillespie did very well despite being dissed by the national Republican money machine. Look for him in the gubernatorial race of 2017.
  • Barack Obama takes his lumps — again. The country’s on the mend and things are going fairly well (despite what you may watch on Fox), but Obama is incapable of cashing in on that. His cool, detached style is a big minus and makes him seem careless and incompetent, especially when crisis like ebola come up that are not of his making.
  • The Republican wins on Capitol Hill are more significant than the Tea Party inspired once during the 2010 midterms.But the earlier races brought in a kind of mindless negativity and gridlock by both parties that truly hurt the country. Will that happen again? Or will older, wise heads prevail?
  • Increase in coverage my Obamacare The New York Times

    Increase in coverage by Obamacare
    The New York Times

    You might get some bipartisan action on taxes and the budget, but deadlock remains for Affordable Care and immigration. The fact is that Obamacare is too far along to change much and people actually like it, despite what you hear in the right-wing echo chamber. This chart from the New York Times shows that the ACA has boosted health coverage in some of the poorest parts of the country, such as the Appalachian coal country, the African-American belts of the Deep South; and poor parts of the Southwest like New Mexico and parts of Arizona. This alone is a big success.

  • Immigration. Look for Obama to use executive authority to come up with an immigration plan. It is an emotional, hot button issue that reveals lots of ugly attitudes. But something needs to be done fast. The GOP has no plan, except for George W. Bush who actually pushed a workable solution that was compassionate. That got soaked by the Tea Party, but then Republican Mitt Romney came up with a health care plan for Massachusetts that looks remarkable like Obamacare and was a precursor. If the GOP can get back to those helpful ideals, there may be hope.
  • Warner lots big swaths of voters who had been with him, like Loudoun County and parts of rural Virginia. This is alarming for the Dems and shows they need to project their messages a lot better. Warner’s poor performance in debates didn’t help either.

It is a big win for the GOP, but somehow I don’t feel as bitter as I was in 2010.

Steve Nash’s Important Book

Nash bookBy Peter Galuszka

Stephen Nash, a former journalist who teaches at the University of Richmond, has written an important new book about how climate change could affect Virginia. His detailed reporting is impressive and I think he shatters the arguments of global warming deniers.

Here is a book review I did for Style Weekly:

“Imagine it’s a fall day in 2114. You get ready for a jog down by the James River.

It’s pleasant by the towering palm trees, but you must keep an eye out for alligators and the venomous cottonmouth moccasins as big around as your thigh. It’s best to exercise early because the rest of the day will be typically steamy and windless.

This is what Richmond very well could be like within 100 years if carbon-dioxide emissions stay at the same levels as today. Virginia’s climate could warm up to something like that in northern Florida, according to Stephen Nash, a part-time journalism professor at the University of Richmond in his new book, “Virginia Climate Fever: How Global Warming Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests” (University of Virginia Press).”

To read more, click here.

Attack the Demographic Underpinnings of Poverty

birth_controlby James A. Bacon

There is a case to be made for family planning and access to abortion services as a way to improve the lives of poor women. If you lean liberal in your politics, you’ll probably be comfortable with the arguments advanced by Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell (published yesterday morning in the Times-Dispatch). If you lean to the right politically, you’ll probably find her loftier-than-thou attitude — “America has decided: Sex is for rich people” — and her inaccurate swipes at conservatives — “pundits [refer] to advocates of affordable birth control as ‘sluts’ — to be so off-putting that you’re likely to reject the nuggets of sound reasoning buried in her column. But, then, Rampell isn’t writing to conservatives, she’s writing to liberals.

I’m a libertarian/conservative writing to conservatives, so I shall endeavor to make a case for family planning and abortion services that most conservatives will find palatable. (I know I’ll never convert right-to-life conservatives who oppose abortion under nearly all circumstances, so I won’t even try.)

Between government welfare programs and not-for-profit programs, American society devotes trillions of dollars to ameliorate the condition of the poor. Millions of poor Americans manage to surmount the disadvantageous circumstances of their birth, get an education and rise into the middle class. Yet American society has made very little progress in eradicating poverty over the past 50 years. Why is that? I believe that the root cause is demographic.

As I noted two weeks ago in my column, “The Uphill Climb for Virginia Schools,” low-income women bear 10% to 15% more children than women in higher income categories, and they have their children at younger ages with the result that a 36-year-old woman in a lower-income setting can become a grandmother by the time a college-educated, career-oriented woman becomes a mother. Thus, the progeny of poor women, who are financially and culturally less equipped to form stable, two-parent households conducive to academic learning and the inculcation of values required to be successful in the knowledge economy, tend to be over-represented in the next generation of children. Likewise, the social problems endemic to the American brand of poverty — out-of-wedlock birth, substance abuse, domestic violence, dropping out of school, etc. — are transmitted to the next generation at a higher rate.

There are two ways to deal with this problem. One way is to ramp up education and social welfare spending in the hope that politicians and bureaucrats can figure out how to improve upward social mobility. If more poor people rise into the middle class, we might hope to conquer poverty in four or five generations. The track record of this approach has been none too encouraging, however. And given the parlous condition of government finances these days, the “spend mo’ money” approach is unaffordable.

The other approach is to encourage poor young women to delay childbirth until they can complete at least a high school education, attain stable job prospects and, perhaps, even marry. As Rampell notes, more than half of all pregnancies are unintended — 70% for single women in their 20s. (I would conjecture that the percentage of unintended pregnancies is even higher for single women in their teens.) In other words, pregnancy is not something that most young, unwed mothers seek.

Rampell avers that government spending on family planning offers a huge return on investment. “In 2010, every $1 invested in helping women avoid pregnancies they didn’t want saved $5.68 in Medicaid expenditures.” I would add that the ROI probably would be a lot higher if other forms of welfare support and social services were included.

Investing in family planning, to my mind, is a no brainer. Abortion is a more more complex issue. I oppose late-stage abortion except when the mother’s life is in danger but I see early-term abortion as a less undesirable outcome than bringing an unwanted child into the world. I acknowledge that others will disagree. But I look at the scourge of the American brand of poverty — particularly the pathological form it has taken in the United States with widespread family breakdown, child abuse and child neglect — and I see family planning and abortion services as the only way out.

Why not teach abstinence? Teaching abstinence is fine. The longer teenagers wait before they become sexually active, the better. But let’s not kid ourselves — I actually agree with Rampell on this — we’re fighting against human nature. The number one thing on teenagers’ minds is sex. If we count on abstinence alone, we’re going to lose this battle. Society, preferably through the mechanism of non-profit organizations, needs to provide birth control to poor kids. If evangelical Christians find the idea morally reprehensible, I would invite them (a) to ponder the relative ineffectiveness of the abstinence strategy in environments where no one is practicing it, and (b) redouble their efforts to teach abstinence to their own children.

Most conservatives I know are deeply troubled by the cancerous spread of a severely dysfunctional sub-culture of poverty and the misery it engenders among the children born to it. Would they prefer to pay higher taxes to support the children of poor women who became pregnant by accident, or would they prefer to give those women access to birth control and/or early-stage abortion services so they could avoid having those children in the first place? It’s an easy choice for me, and I suspect is is for many conservatives.

Sticking it to the Chinese

factory manBy Peter Galuszka

This  is a review of “Factory Man,” a book about the Virginia furniture business and dealing with the inequities of Chinese trade by Beth Macy (Little Brown, 451 pages). This was first published in the October 2014 Bulletin of the Overseas Press Club of America in New York of which I am a member.

The hills around Danville Va. are blessed with some of the finest hardwoods around such as oak, hickory and cherry trees. It is those trees, and the people who work with them, that have made for one of the more vicious global trade wars in recent history.

They also represent one of the few trade victories American industry has had, according to Beth Macy, a Roanoke Times reporter who has written a lively and deeply reported book about Vaughan Bassett, a local firm that is now the largest American furniture maker. Boss John D. Bassett (“JBIII”) refused to succumb to an onslaught of cheap Chinese labor and government subsidies that helped shutter 63,300 U.S. factories and five million jobs from 2001 to 2012. By standing up to Beijing, he saved his company and 700 jobs.

Macy’s first book is of value to anyone who covers global trade issues. She punctures the conceit, held by many journalists in the New York-Washington axis, that globalization is a great and inevitable thing. I heard this constantly at BusinessWeek where I worked as an editor and bureau chief in the 1980s and 1990s.

What’s lost in the laud of so-called “free” trade is what happens to the people who lose. Their secure employment turned overnight into a new world of Medicaid, food stamps and family strife.

Big Journalism doesn’t seem to care much. “Even globalization guru Tom Freidman, writing in “The World Is Flat,” briefly acknowledges the agony caused by offshoring.” But she notes that it’s easy for him to say since Friedman, “lives in an 11,400 square foot house with his heiress wife” in Bethesda, Md., a “cushy” Washington suburb five hours by car from the turmoil farther south.

For years, Bassett and its sister factories were part of a network of Southern-style company towns with their own issues, such as paying African-American workers half of what whites got. By the 1970s, U.S. furniture quality and productivity were slipping. A Taiwanese chemist discovered how to make rubber trees useful for furniture after they stopped producing latex, giving rise to an expanded Asian export furniture business.

Chinese industrialists took over. They visited U.S. factories, where, according to Macy, naïve executives handed over their production secrets. In short order, cheap Chinese knockoffs were stealing market share from the Americans. A Chinese executive named He Yun Feng bluntly suggested to JBIII that he shut his plants and hand his business over. Proud JBIII didn’t turn tail. Instead, he shored up his production and cut costs while preserving as many jobs as he could. He also bucked his reluctant industry and challenged the Chinese for dumping and manipulating their currency to give them unfair trade advantages.

“The last thing they wanted to hear was that China may have been breaking the law.” Macy quotes JBIII as saying. That’s the nut of Macy’s excellent book. A tighter edit, especially in the early history of the Basset family, might have helped, but her story is powerful and well told.

OPC member Galuszka lives in the Richmond, Va. area and is author of “Thunder on the Mountain; Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal” St. Martin’s Press, 2012.

Tracking the Forgotten Virtue: Thrift

by James A. Bacon

More interesting data from WalletHub: In a ranking of 150 metropolitan regions by 16 metrics indicating the degree to which local populations adhere to responsible household budgeting practices, Virginians fare better than their peers in any other Southern state — and that’s not just a reflection of the outsized influence of Northern Virginia, which is wealthier, better educated and culturally distinct from the rest of the state.

Charlottesville ranked 11th nationally, followed by Washington at 23th, Roanoke at 25th, Richmond at 45th and Hampton Roads at 56th.

WalletHub’s metrics encompass average credit scores, non-mortgage indebtedness, foreclosure rates, percentage of population paying only the minimum on credit cards, percentage of the population spending more than they make, delinquency rates on loans, and related measures.

Education and income are important measures of economic well being but I would argue that household thrift is just as important. Social scientific surveys of happiness and well being consistently show that, beyond a certain point, additional income brings only increment gains in happiness. The pleasure gained from the acquisition of a flashier car, a bigger house or a newer big-screen TV is fleeting. The anxiety that stems from economic insecurity and the risk of losing one’s possessions is enduring. Households that live within their means and set aside some savings, I would hypothesize, tend to experience greater life satisfaction (or conversely, less anxiety) than households that spend money carelessly on frivolous or passing pleasures — even if they accumulate fewer material possessions.

This perspective is almost entirely lacking in the public policy debate in the United States today. Economic well being is measured almost exclusively by the rate of economic and income growth and, secondarily, the distribution of income. As a consequence, government policy is geared overwhelmingly toward goosing consumer expenditures. Anything that stimulates consumer spending, even if it means saving less and borrowing more, is regarded as beneficial to “the economy.” Thus, we witness today the revival of policies last seen during the real estate mania of the 2000s designed to lower mortgage borrowing standards and encourage more lending to the poor. The fact that these very same policies induced poor people into buying houses they couldn’t afford to pay for, much less keep up, and unleashed a wave of foreclosures that obliterated what little wealth most of these people possessed seems not to deter policy makers in the least. The idea that people of modest means can live perfectly happy lives without racking up debt seems alien to the American political psyche.

An ability to resist the siren call of excessive indebtedness, I would argue, is a major contributor to happiness and life satisfaction. The most responsible budgeters in the nation, by WalletHub’s standards, are clustered in the upper Midwest — in metropolitan regions centered in and around Minnesota and Iowa. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that cultural factors are at work, perhaps related to the Germanic and Scandinavian heritage of the populations. The other large cluster — not quite as thrifty, but more financially responsible than the country as a whole — is the Mid-Atlantic/Northeastern region, of which Virginia is a part. The South and parts of the Southwest are a budgetary disaster zone whose citizens, who are more likely to be poor, have shredded their household budgets. Thrift and frugality were never part of the Southern cultural tradition — either among the Anglo-Saxons or the African-Americans who settled there.

It would be interesting to know how Virginians came to embrace the household budgeting practices of states to the north rather than the south. Are cultural attitudes different here? Has state public policy played a role? Does the school curriculum, which teaches economics and personal finance, make a material contribution?

One last point: While it makes intuitive sense to link personal budgetary responsibility to life satisfaction and happiness, there may, in fact, be little correlation. Compare the map above with the happiness map published previously on Bacon’s Rebellion. The South is one of the happiest regions in the country! Maybe happiness is spending other people’s money.

Brat’s Strange Immigrant-Bashing

BratBy Peter Galuszka

It must have been an interesting scene. Congressional candidate David Brat had been invited to a meeting of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce along with his Democratic rival Jack Trammell to outline his views on immigration and undocumented aliens.

Brat, an obscure economics professor who nailed powerhouse Eric Cantor in a Republican primary for the 7th Congressional District in June, danced around the topic, according to a news account.

It took several attempts to get him off his spiel on just how wonderful free market capitalism is to actually address the issue at hand. Before him were a couple dozen business executives, many of them Hispanic.

They, naturally, were interested in Brat’s views because of his over-the-top Latino-baiting during the primary campaign. One of Brat’s ads trumpeted: “There are 20 million Americans who can’t find a full time job. But Eric Cantor wants to give corporations another 20 million foreign workers to hire instead.”

Finally, Brat claimed, “I have never said I’m against legal immigration.” He later said, “nations that function under the rule of law do well.” Brat also said he wants to “secure” the U.S. border with Mexico. Trammell said he supports the DREAM Act that could provide a path to U.S. citizenship for some of the 11 million undocumented aliens in this country.

Brat’s immigrant-baiting and his “rule of law” smacks of a lot of ugliness in American history. “Know–Nothings” of white Anglo Saxons beat and harassed Catholic immigrants, primarily from Ireland. Chinese were harassed on the West Coast and Japanese-Americans were locked up in concentration camps during World War II. Jewish newcomers were met with restrictive covenants and college quotas.

In Richmond during the 1920s, efforts by Catholic Italian-Americans to build a monument to Christopher Columbus were fought by the Ku Klux Klan, which insisted that any such statue not dirty-up Monument Avenue and its parade of Confederate generals. Columbus had to go elsewhere in the city.

There’s a new twist and judging from Brat’s behavior on Tuesday. He seems uneasy by getting so out front on immigrant-bashing. He’s not the only Republican to take such strident stands. Look at New Hampshire, where Scott P. Brown, a Republican, faces Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, in a closely-watched race for the U.S. Senate.

Groups backing Brown, such as John Bolton, the surly former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, have run anti-Shaheen ads showing throngs of people clambering over a border just before showing Islamic militants beheading James Foley, a journalist and New Hampshire native, according to the New York Times. The ad was pulled after the Foley family complained, the Times says.

A major coincidence is that the Times‘ description of New Hampshire almost matches that of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. Neither seems a hot bed of immigrant strife and threats.

The Granite State has one of the smallest populations of illegal immigrants in the country, the Times says. Of the state’s 1.3 million residents, only 5 percent are foreign-born and 3 percent are Hispanic.

The Virginia district has a population of 757,917 of whom 12.7 percent are foreign born and 4.9 percent are Hispanic. Most of the residents, 74.3 percent are white.

The district runs from the largely white and well-off western Richmond suburbs in Henrico and Chesterfield Counties and scoots northwest across mostly rural farmland to east of Charlottesville and up to Madison. With only 7.6 percent of the people living below the poverty level, it isn’t exactly a barrio of Los Angeles.

It is hard to imagine hordes of brown-skinned people swarming from up Mexico or Central America displacing the managerial executives, small business people and farmers in the Seventh. People that Brat seems to be worried about are employed in other nearby areas, such as the poultry plants of the Shenandoah Valley. But those workers are there because of local labor shortages. One wonders where Brat gets his ideas that illegal immigrants are going to steal true-blue American jobs in his district.

Last June during the primary, there was plenty of news about thousands of young Hispanic children coming across the southern border from Central America. At the time, there were estimates that up to 90,000 such children might come illegally into the U.S. this year. Many are fleeing gang violence in their homelands.

This is apparently what Brat is running against – a bunch of poor, 12-year-old Nicaraguans out to steal jobs and provide cover for Islamic terrorists. Their plight is a serious issue, but it is a humanitarian one. Brat chose to make it an odd classroom lesson in economics. He says the U.S. should not put up “green lights” and “incentivizing children from other countries to come here illegally and at their own peril.”

The news from the border seems to have calmed down since June. Brat may have found that now it is likely he’s going to Washington, playing the Hispanic-baiting card may not work as well on the national scene as it apparently did in his mostly-white district. It could be why he was hemming and hawing so much before the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Illegal immigrant Ayn Rand

Illegal immigrant Ayn Rand

Perhaps other Republican politicians are having the same epiphany. As the New York Times writes: “Republicans have long relied on illegal immigration to rally the conservative base, even if the threat seemed more theoretical than tangible in most of the country. But in several of this year’s midterm Senate campaigns — including Arkansas and Kansas, as well as New Hampshire — Republicans’ stance on immigration is posing difficult questions about what the party wants to be in the longer term.”

There’s another strange contradiction with Brat. He’s a former divinity student interested in probing how unfettered free market capitalism can magically make the right choices for the betterment of mankind.

He draws a lot of his thinking from Ayn Rand, the famous thinker, refugee from the Bolsheviks and backer of her own brand of anti-government capitalism.

It may interest Brat that by today’s standards, Rand would have been an illegal immigrant.

The Uphill Climb for Virginia Schools

by James A. Bacon

Why aren’t we making more progress improving the academic performance of Virginia’s school children? Many reasons have been advanced. Some say that school divisions don’t get enough money or that the money is unfairly distributed between schools. Others say that the public school system is over-regulated, bound by bureaucracy and resistant to innovation. Yet others blame society at large (sliding work ethic, the distraction of electronics) or point to the different emphasis on education among different racial/ethnic groups.

But there is another explanation that gets very little attention. Could the root of the problem be demographic? Could Virginia schools be struggling to raise academic achievement scores because school children increasingly are drawn from the ranks of the poor?

The correlation between poverty and socioeconomic status is well known. The challenges of poverty and economic insecurity — homelessness, frequent moves between school districts, family dysfunction, domestic violence, inadequate nutrition — distract poor children from focusing on school work. There is a cultural overlay as well: Because poor children tend to come from less educated parents, they grow up in households where reading is not emphasized and academic achievement is not stressed.

It is an indisputable demographic fact that poor women bear more children than middle-class and professional-class women. According to “Fertility of American Women: 2008,” published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, the breakdown by income category looks like this:

fertility_by_income

The poorest women, typically unmarried women, have the most children. Not only do they tend to have more children, they tend to have them at younger ages than higher-income women who typically wait until they complete their educations and get married before bearing children. Thus, to cite an extreme example, a poor family in which successive generations of women give birth at age 18 produce two generations of offspring in the same length of time as a more affluent family in which a woman has her first child at 36.

When poor women give birth to more children and they do so at an earlier age, the result is that the student body of school systems is significantly poorer than the population at large. Here is a list of the 10 Virginia school divisions with the largest gaps between general poverty rate and poverty among children under 18 (a proxy for the poverty rate of children in the school system):

largest_poverty_gaps

Source: 2012 U.S. Census Bureau data

The same pattern prevails in every school division in Virginia with the exception of five small localities with large university populations in which the number of “poor” is skewed by the presence of college students. (To see the poverty gap for all Virginia school divisions, click here.)

Even with a fair amount of upward economic mobility — poor people lifting themselves out of the ranks of the poor — the tendency of the poorest women to bear more children at a younger age continues to fill up school houses with their poor progeny, with all the economic and cultural disadvantages they suffer. I subscribe to the idea that many school divisions could be doing a better job with the resources they have — the horror stories I could tell you about the City of Richmond school system! But the problem is bigger than bad schools, bad teachers or inadequate funding.

The question that should concern us all: Will the trend of schools filling up with poor children get better or worse over time?

Bonus question: What does this mean for the ongoing debate on the war on poverty? Does the persistence of widespread poverty in the U.S. represent a failure on the part of U.S. institutions to foster upward economic mobility? Or does it reflect the fact that poor people replenish their ranks faster than people can raise out of poverty?

Virginia Students Achieve SAT Gains

SAT_scores

Table credit: Virginia Department of Education

Some good news about College Board SAT scores in Virginia to balance out the dismal news about Standard of Learning (SOL) pass rates: Public school students eked out gains in average SAT scores in 2014, continuing to outperform their counterparts nationally. Average public school reading scores improved by three points on the 200- to 800-point scale, while math scores gained a point and writing lost a point.

Virginia public school juniors and seniors ranked fourth nationally for the percentage (19.2%) earning a qualifying score (at least 3 out of 5) in one or more exams.

While Asians and whites continue to earn higher SAT scores on average, Virginia’s solid performance comes after years of steady expansion in the number of black, Hispanic and low-income students taking the exam. According to the College Board, 69% of Virginia public school graduates took the SAT in 2014.

SAT_participation

Image credit: College Board 10th Annual Report to the Nation

Also, black and Hispanic students out-performed their peers nationally. Indeed, Virginia Hispanics out-performed Hispanics nationally by a wide margin, possibly reflecting the large concentration of Hispanic students in Northern Virginia, a region of that sets higher educational expectations and has one of the best educated populations of the entire country.

Forty-five percent of Virginia’s 2014 public school SAT takers achieved the College Board’s benchmark for college readiness, according to a Virginia Department of Education press release. The benchmark score of 1550 ( reading, mathematics and writing sections combined) indicates a 65% likelihood of achieving a B-minus grade-point average or higher during the first year of college. Nationwide, 42.6% of SAT takers met the readiness standard.

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia’s population is bifurcating along educational lines. On the one hand, an increasing percentage of high school students are achieving college-ready standards. On the other, a large and intractable percentage are failing to meet basic standards of proficiency. To a large extent, K-12 educational achievement is economic destiny. As the economy increasingly rewards cognitive skills over manual skills, that divide will become more and more pronounced. Scary prospect.

– JAB

Good Ruling on Congressional Redistricting

The 3rd Congressional District

The 3rd Congressional District

 By Peter Galuszka

A panel of federal judges in Richmond has scrambled the carefully laid plans of legislators, most of them Republicans, to pack African-American voters into one congressional district to give the GOP an advantage in some of the  state’s 10 other districts.

The panel of U.S. District Court judges decreed that the General Assembly’s 2012 decision to draw new boundaries in the 3rd Congressional District stretching from Richmond east to several Tidewater cities was in error.

The state has until next April to redraw the 3rd District, now represented by U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, a Democrat who is the state’s only African American congressman.

That will undoubtedly impact other districts represented by white Republicans including U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes of the 4th District, U.S. Rep. Scott Ringell of the 2nd District and Robert J. Whitman of the 1st District.

This is indeed an interesting start to what could end up being a messy line of dominoes falling. And it shows just how wrongheaded politicians are when they tinker with voters by race by packing people of color in one district so races in other ones will be decidedly less competitive.

It also raises other questions about ways the GOP is doing its best to minimize the influence of young and non-white voters through the use of voter identification cards and other means.

To get an idea of how nuts the 3rd District is, look at a map. Moving west to east, it goes through eastern Richmond and Henrico County, swoops down the James River peninsula, and hop-scotches parts of the 1st District to include heavily African-American parts of Newport News and Hampton. Then, the District crosses Hampton Roads to include heavily black parts of Norfolk and Portsmouth and then heads west again to take also-black parts of counties on the south shore of the James River.

Scott is Virginia's only African-American Congressman

Scott is Virginia’s only African-American Congressman

This scheme packs African-Americans into one unit while mostly-white parts of Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake and Williamsburg are covered in the 1st, 2nd and 4th Districts, all represented by white Republicans. Mostly-black Petersburg, a city of 32,000, was taken out of the 4th District and put in Scott’s 3rd District, giving white Republican Forbes of the 4th District an advantage.

Democrats such as State Sen. Mamie Locke have long complained about schemes that hop-scotch geography to give white candidates an advantage. They want tighter, more contiguous districts.

One can tell just how serious this is when Del. William Howell, the Republican House Speaker, had nothing to say about the court’s decision. He will have to somehow help navigate drawing up new district plans.

He’s really under the gun. He can’t just set up a road block as he did with Medicaid expansion and tell Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe where to stick it. If Howell shuns a bipartisan effort, then McAuliffe would likely veto whatever he and his colleagues come up with. Then it would go back to the judges to decide.

It is in Virginia’s interest to make sure all of its districts and not just ones for Congress are shaped to allow for more competitive races. Very few elections for state positions are contested. This, in turn, ruins bipartisan consensus and makes the primaries, usually for Republicans, more consequential than the races themselves. The results are either legislative gridlock or laws that have little to do with the wishes of many voters.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is what Mother Jones magazine has identified as a large-scale, national effort, mostly by Republicans, to make it harder for minorities and young people to vote. They tend to vote Democratic and helped Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008 and in 2012.

Since 2012, 22 states have passed new voting restriction laws that shorten voting hours or require a government-issued identification card or proof of citizenship. North Carolina has perhaps the worst of such measures. There are shorter hours and no more same-day registration to vote. It even gives the nod to “poll watchers” who can stand around outside polling places and hassle voters about their eligibility to vote. I guess that means if you look black or Hispanic or youthful, you get rousted by vigilantes. The odd part is that states, including Virginia, went for more restriction when there wasn’t much evidence of voter fraud.

To be sure, Virginia’s redistricting efforts were begun by federal initiatives such as the Voting Rights Act which gave Bobby Scott an opportunity to win as an African-American in the early 1990s. The Voting Rights Act was meant to ensure that minorities were represented but that concept has been cynically morphed into a Frankenstein that keeps minorities “packed” in a district or districts so whites maintain their hold on most of the other districts in a state.

The court’s decision is most welcome. Let’s hope it grows into a movement to return democratic competition and ends undemocratic restrictions like demanding extra and unnecessary pieces of identification for qualified voters.