Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

RAM, Coal and Massive Hypocrisy

The Pikesville RAM clinic in 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

The Pikesville RAM clinic in 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

By Peter Galuszka

Sure it’s a photo op but more power to him.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is freshly arrived from the cocktail and canape circuit in Europe on a trade mission and is quickly heading out to the rugged and impoverished coal country of Wise County.

There, he, Attorney General Mark Herring and Health and Human Resources Secretary William A. Hazel will participate in a free clinic to help the mountain poor get free health care. The political opportunity is simple: Many of the 1,000 or more who will be attending the Remote Area Medical clinic are exactly the kind of people getting screwed over by the General Assembly’s failure to expand Medicaid to 400,000 low income Virginians.

RAM makes its Wise run every summer and people line up often in the wee morning hours to get a free medical and dental checkup. For many, it’s the only health care they get all year unless it’s an emergency. Another problem: Distances are great in the remote mountains and hospitals can be an hour away.

Mind you, this is Coal Country, the supposedly rich area upon which Barack Obama is waging war and harming local people by not going along with coal executives’ demands on environmental disasters such as mountaintop removal, keeping deep mine safety standards light and avoiding carbon dioxide rules.

The big question, of course,  is why if the land is so rich in fossil fuel, are the people so poor and in need of free medical care? It’s been this way for 150 years. And now, coal’s demise got underway in Southwest Virginia in 1991 when employment peaked at about 11,000. It is now at 4,000 or less. It’s getting worse, not better.

In June 2011, by coincidence, I happened along a RAM free clinic in Pikesville, Ky., not that far from Wise when I was researching my book, “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” My photographer Scott Elmquist and I spotted the clinic at a high school. There must have been hundreds of people there –  some of whom told me they had been waiting since 1:30 a.m. It was about 8:30 a.m.

Attending them were 120 medical and dental personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service. They were dressed in U.S. Navy black, grey and blue colored fatigues. The University of Louisville had sent in about 80 dental chairs.

Poverty in Pike County had been running about 27 percent, despite the much-touted riches of coal. Pike is Kentucky’s biggest coal producer.

One man I spoke with said he had a job as a security guard, but he doesn’t qualify for regular Medicaid and can’t afford a commercial plan. In other words, had I interviewed him more recently and had he been a Virginian, he would have been lost through the cracks of Medicaid expansion. Alas, he’s in luck. In 2013, Kentucky opted for a “marketplace” expansion system where federal funds would be used to help lower income buy health plans through private carriers.

Lucky the man isn’t from here. The marketplace plan is exactly the kind that McAuliffe has proposed and exactly the one that stubborn Republicans such as Bill Howell in the General Assembly are throttling. The feds would pick up the bill for expanding Medicaid to 400,000 needy Virginians, at least initially.

Yet another irony. Expanded medical benefits are available just across an invisible border in two states whose coalfield residents somehow never got the great benefits of King Coal.

In Praise of an Unsung Hero

John D. Bassett III

John D. Bassett III

by James A. Bacon

Nearly 40 years ago I moved from the big city to a place had I barely heard of, Martinsville, Va., to embark upon my journalism career as a cub reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. Compared to Washington, D.C., where I had spent most of my time growing up, it seemed a hard-scrabble place. Little did I know, those were the glory days.

Martinsville was reputed to have more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in Virginia. (Those were the days before the rise of Northern Virginia’s high-tech industry sector.) There was poverty, to be sure, but the region had pride. As the headquarters town for three major textile and apparel companies, Martinsville claimed to be the Sweatshirt Capital of the World. In the days before off-shoring, the town dominated the global knitted fabrics sector. Martinsville and nearby communities of Bassett and Stanleytown also comprised one of the largest concentrations of furniture manufacturing in the country. There was a large DuPont plant there as well, and even a high-tech company started by immigrant Julius Hermes, Martin Processing, that manufactured advanced film coatings.

Other than DuPont, all the businesses were locally owned and operated. Martinsville was no branch-plant economy. The town had a strong middle class of middle managers and professionals. And even the poor weren’t destitute. Many workers lived on plots of land in the country, supplementing their factory wages with garden crops and, often, small plots of tobacco. To my recollection, the population was affluent enough to support four country clubs. The local delegate to the General Assembly, A.L. Philpott, was speaker of the House. Martinsville was small but it punched above its weight.

In just a few short decades, however, it all came tumbling down. America embraced globalization and open trade. It was something the nation had to do, and there has been a huge payoff to companies and their employees who could provide the higher value-added services where American was globally competitive. But free trade came at a cost — and the people of Martinsville were among those who paid it. First the DuPont nylon plant closed, for reasons that may or may not have been connected to free trade (I can’t remember). The textile-apparel sector was the next to go. Within a couple of decades after I had left, the entire sector had shut down, shuttering the huge knitting mills, as production moved to Asia. Then the furniture industry met its demise. That process was more protracted, and some of the companies survived. Although most production moved overseas, local companies like Bassett, Stanleytown and Hooker survived as furniture designers, marketers and distributors of Chinese-manufactured goods.

That’s all prelude to the purpose of this post, which is to highlight a new book, “Factory Man,” by Roanoke Times reporter Beth Macy, which received a rave book review in the New York Times. Macy tells the story of John Bassett III, president of Vaughn-Bassett Furniture, who fought the fight to preserve furniture manufacturing in Virginia and North Carolina longer and harder than anyone. As the NY Times recapitulates the story:

[Macy] went looking for mountain families who had spent generations working for the region’s furniture giants, until the whole industry was walloped by cheaper furniture imported from China. She found all that and more in the battling Bassetts, a feudal family of factory owners who controlled a string of these companies and the bank, hospital, school, clinic and housing their workers used.

Questions of how the business can survive weigh heavily on manufacturers’ minds.

The ’80s answer brings JBIII’s attitude into stark contrast with those of his fellow owners. Companies merge; Wall Street takes over; laying off workers and closing plants is seen as smart rather than damaging. And nobody much cares what happens to those workers except for JBIII, who can’t bear thinking of them “in unemployment lines instead of assembly lines.”

After leaving the Martinsville Bulletin, I worked for the Roanoke Times from 1979 to 1984. That was before Macy joined the newspaper. I did not know her, but my hat’s off to her for finding the color and the drama in Bassett’s largely Quixotic quest and for telling a story that truly deserves to be told. John Bassett will never be remembered as one of America’s great innovators, like Steve Jobs, or one of its captains of industry, like Jack Welch. Unlike them, he failed. He could not revitalize American furniture manufacturing; China’s economic advantage of cheap labor was overwhelmingly decisive. But he deserves America’s admiration as a businessman who cared about the people who depended upon him, who chose to follow the hard path rather than the easy one, and who gave it his all.

(Hat tip: Patrick Zilliacus)

Two UMW Daughters of the ’60s

Birmingham By Peter Galuszka

Just a few days ago, Elena Siddall, a Mathews County Republican activist and Tea Party Patriot, posted her account on the Rebellion of being a social worker in New York in the 1960s and the wrong-headedness of Saul Alinsky, a leftist organizer who had had a lot of influence back in the day, among others. I won’t comment on Ms. Siddall’s lively account and conservative point of view. But I do notice one thing: she is a 1963 graduate of what is now the University of Mary Washington, which then was considered the female side of the University of Virginia (campuses being segregated by sex back then).

I have a tie as well to Mary Wash, which is now coed. My daughter graduated from there last year and my cousin-in-law, now living in Tennessee, went there was well before moving on the U.Va. nursing. Our family experience at Mary Wash has been a big positive and I support the school. So, it is with considerable interest that I noticed that the Spring 2014 issue of the University of Mary Washington Magazine had a cover story of a different kind of graduate than Ms. Siddall with some very different views.

So, in the interest of providing some equal time among women who came of age during those years of intense ethical and political awareness, I thought I’d toss in the magazine story to further the debate and show that not every Eagle from Mary Wash thinks like Ms. Siddall (no disrespect intended).

The story has to do with Nan Grogan Orrock, class of ’65, the daughter of an Abingdon forest ranger, who got the civil rights fever when it wasn’t always easy for a young, white woman in Virginia to be an activist. But activist she was, from exhorting her classmates to join protests, to spending summers and other time in the Deep South demonstrating with African-Americans in SNCC, to staring down the real possibility of being beaten or killed and to even today, when she’s been active in the Georgia legislature shaking things up, such as trying to get the Confederate flag off public buildings.

The article, written by Mary Carter Bishop, class of ’67, is intriguing. The writer is a career journalist who was part of a team that won a Pulitzer in 1980 for the Philadelphia Inquirer when that paper was one of the liveliest and best in the nation.

As Bishop writes:Nan Grogan Orrock ’65 is among the South’s most veteran and well-respected advocates of social change. She is one of the longest-serving and most progressive members of the Georgia legislature and has left her mark on every sector of social justice: civil rights, women’s rights, worker rights, gay rights, environmental rights.

“She’s chased after cross-burning Ku Klux Klansmen, cut sugar cane in Cuba, started an alternative newspaper, organized unions, led strikes, been arrested a bunch of times, and still stands on picket lines. At 70, she’s far from done. I had to finally get to know her. The week before Christmas, I flew to Atlanta and sat down with her at the State Capitol.”

Please read both accounts – Ms. Siddall’s and Ms. Bishop’s article – and see ideas through opposite prisms of the 1960s involving two obviously very bright women.

Child Services in the Shadow of Cloward and Piven

Cloward and Piven

Cloward and Piven

by Elena Siddall

In 1963 I graduated from Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, with a BA degree in Pre-Foreign Service and headed for New York City. The degree did not get me a job as translator at the United Nations, so I answered an ad for Social Investigator in the Department of Public Welfare. The only requirement was a college degree in any field, and the majority of applicants came from liberal arts.

The six-week training consisted of reading Charlotte Towle’s “Common Human Needs.” The book had been under fire in 1951 when a statement made by Towle, a psychiatric social worker, was made public: “Social security and public assistance programs are a basic essential for attainment of the socialized state envisaged in a democratic ideology, a way of life which so far has been realized only in slight measure.“ Reading John Bowlby’s Maternal Care and Mental Health also was required. Bowlby was the Director of Tavistock Clinic and a consultant to the World Health Organization. The training was rounded out by learning reams of Child Welfare and Public Assistance policies.

Female trainees were encouraged to go into the Bureau of Child Welfare (BCW), while males directed to Public Assistance (PA). All were issued a black notebook and assigned to any of the five boroughs. I was sent to work in the Bronx.
The Investigators were represented by the Social Services Employees Union, which one joined voluntarily. Among the first actions of the union in 1965 were to have the SI re-classified as “Caseworker” and to negotiate a salary increase from $4,100, to $4,200. The union, which I soon joined, was very active in non “bread and butter” issues, advocating for a “more dignified” treatment of welfare recipients and BCW cases (not all coming from the welfare rolls).

I learned that the city offered scholarships towards a Masters of Social Work degree based on performance after one year of employment and enrolled in Columbia University School of Social Work for night classes. I also was elected to be a representative from the Bronx BCW to the union’s Executive Board. These factors resulted in rather intense exposure to the increasingly vocal demands of social activists engaged in Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” resisting the Vietnam War, and supporting the Civil Rights movement.

I was drawn to the activities with some serious reservation, having myself come to the US in 1949 from five years in displaced-persons camps in Germany. My family had fled the Bolsheviks in 1919 from Petrograd to Latvia and fled the Soviets in 1944 from Latvia. My family was vehemently anti-Communist, and my work in NYC was disapproved of. My father, an engineer and director of a cement factory in Latvia of interest to both the Soviets and the Nazis, brought us to America with $135 in his pocket. He picked apples and worked as a day laborer until he found employment as a draftsman. We never accepted welfare. Economically we were poor. Everybody (three siblings and myself) “made it” through college, to Master’s programs, and to professional lives without “handouts.” And here I was, as my father accused me, “crying about the darling poor.”

At that time, the Columbia School of Social Work was housed in the Andrew Carnegie Mansion at 5th and 91st Streets (now part of the Smithsonian). It was bizarre to work in the decaying, impoverished Bronx by day and then get on the subway to head to a 5th Avenue mansion to hear, in class, how to dismantle “the system.”

About that time, a husband-wife team of professors (sociologists) arrived at Columbia, Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven. Cloward and Piven embraced (Saul) Alinsky Radicalism to advocate for the poor and down-trodden. No, they did not teach night-time classes, but they caused quite a stir when they published a profoundly explicit “strategy” in the progressive/left The Nation magazine in the May 2, 1966 issue. They wrote (in part):

It is our purpose to advance a strategy which affords the basis for a convergence of civil rights organizations, militant anti-poverty groups and the poor. If this strategy were implemented, a political crisis would result that could lead to legislation for a guaranteed annual income and thus an end to poverty….

The strategy is based on the fact that a vast discrepancy exists between the benefits to which the people are entitled under public welfare programs and the sums which they actually receive… This discrepancy is not an accident… if challenged, would precipitate a profound financial and political crisis. The force for that challenge, and the strategy we propose, is a massive drive to recruit the poor onto the welfare rolls.

“The Weight of the Poor” ends with:

If organizations can deliver millions of dollars in cash benefits to the ghetto masses, it seems reasonable to expect that the masses will deliver their loyalties to their benefactors. At least, they have always done so in the past.

The strategy was simple for immediate implementation. The union encouraged Public Assistance caseworkers to issue Special Grants to all recipients for what they were “eligible for.” There was no time for establishing “eligibility” for ”non-recurring” grants for clothing, household equipment and furniture, including washing machines, refrigerators, beds, bedding, tables, chairs, even if you had these. BCW/ Bronx was located in the Melrose Welfare Center, and while we, the caseworkers, were not involved with the issuance of these grants, many of our cases were recipients. The ensuing chaos was frightening as the center-–and all centers were over-run with people demanding their “special grants.” Continue reading

Voluntary Sterilization? Great Idea!

Herald

Jessie Lee Herald

by James A. Bacon

Let us all applaud Ilona White, assistant prosecutor of Shenandoah County. She had the brilliant idea of offering Jessie Lee Herald, a 27-year-old man who had sired seven children by six different women, the option of undergoing a vasectomy in exchange for a five-year reduction in his prison term.

Her motive in offering the deal, she explained, was to prevent him from fathering any more children. “He needs to be able to support the children he already has when he gets out,” she said, according to the Associated Press.

Not surprisingly, the deal evoked hand-wringing from civil libertarians. The deal calls to mind the involuntary sterilizations carried out in Virginia in the early 20th century under the banner of eugenics, said Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor. “This takes on the appearance of social engineering,” said Steve Benjamin, past president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “Sentencing conditions are designed to prevent future criminal behavior,” he added. “Fathering children is not criminal behavior.”

I am not moved in the slightest by those concerns. Garrett’s statement is ridiculous. Benjamin may make a valid point from a narrow legal perspective — fathering children may not be criminal behavior. The problem is… it’s a narrow legal perspective. It misses the larger issue at hand.

I will fully admit my boundless contempt for Herald, a man who has for years engaged in animalistic, indeed sociopathic, behavior with no serious consequence. Fathering seven children by six women — at the age of 27, no less! — is vile and reprehensible. He cannot possibly be a good father if he wanted to, and it is dubious that anyone so consumed with his own desires even cares. Herald cannot support that many children financially, and he cannot possibly find the time to undertake the non-pecuniary duties of fatherhood. By his own admission, his nephew — a man who has worked as a roofer and in a poultry plant — has financially supported “at least some” of his children. I don’t know how many children of his own the nephew has, but he is more of a man than Herald will ever be.

Among his other derelictions, Herald was convicted of child endangerment, hit and run, and driving on a suspended license in a crash in which his three-year-old son suffered minor injuries.

Society has no good solutions for reprobates like Herald. Mothers of the children can sue for child support, but if he has seven children, it’s highly unlikely that he is willing or able to live up to his obligations for all of them. So, what’s to be done? If you throw him in jail, he can’t earn any money or pay any child support at all. But if you let him out of jail, he’s likely to continue his reckless, irresponsible behavior.

That’s why Ilona White’s offer makes so much sense. The dirtbag gets out of jail early, giving him an opportunity to find gainful employment, earn money and meet at least some of his financial obligations to his children. But the vasectomy ensures that he won’t be spawning any more offspring. If anything, the deal wasn’t strict enough — it gives him a year to scrape up the money to pay for the procedure, during which time he can easily father another child or two… or three.

Amazingly, Herald had to wrestle with the decision. “It was not a no-brainer for him,” his attorney said. Apparently, he saw a big downside to denying himself the ability to impregnate more women and foisting the responsibility for raising his offspring onto single mothers, relatives or taxpayers. What a contemptibly selfish man!

The comparison with involuntary sterilization is, of course, totally absurd. First, Herald would undergo voluntary sterilization — just like millions of other American men do when they don’t want to father any more children. Secondly, he does not belong to one of the groups stigmatized by the eugenics movement on the basis of “undesirable” genetic characteristics. He is stigmatized for his reckless, anti-social behavior.

I think White’s solution is an excellent one. We should reject the superficial comparison with involuntary sterilization and eugenics, which were truly atrocious, and deal with the real social problems created by derelicts like Herald. There are dozens more, if not hundreds, of predatory males in Virginia who should be given the same alternative.

Heroin: New Scourge of Suburbs

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Peter Galuszka

Heroin always seemed to be the drug of fast-living artists or the inner city poor.

Not any more, thanks to a shortage of prescription drugs such as oxycodone. Not only is heroin making a comeback in its tradition haunts, it is moving into the affluent suburbs.

That was the case on May 16 when a special unit of Chesterfield County police crept up to a tidy apartment building near Hull Street Road and its huge upscale housing developments of Brandermill and Woodlake.

Police had been acting on a tip they had traced back from a recent heroin overdose. They arrested Sean Kelly Heyward, 43, who lived in the apartment, and Jamal Nathan Gethers, 32, of Plainfield, N.J., and seized drug material and $34,820 in cash.

Corinne Geller, spokesperson for the Virginia State Police, says that heroin-relate drugs have risen 125 percent to 108 from 2012 to 2013. Users tend to be people in their 20s to 50s who have middle to higher incomes and live in the suburbs from Fairfax to Richmond’s Henrico and Chesterfield to Hampton Roads.

“Heroin is not a drug of choice,” Capt. Brad Badgerow of the Chesterfield County police told me in an article I wrote for the Chesterfield Observer. It’s a second choice of sorts – the result of crackdowns on other abuse.

For some years, addicts got hooked on prescription drugs such as oxycodone or acetaminophen which were readily available at pharmacies and traded out from there. Police began cracking down on doctors who over-prescribed such drugs and police and community service organizations launched “take backs” where people could drug off prescription drugs they had at home, no questions asked. The result? Prices for such drugs can be three times what a hit of street heroin costs.

“You have someone who hurts his back and he gets on oxycodone,” says Badgerow. “He’s hooked but it gets too expensive so he moves on to heroin.” In Chesterfield last year, a teacher at an elementary school was arrested when heroin and paraphernalia were found on her car on school property.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe has announced a task force to look into the problem. In the Richmond area, regional police and the Drug Enforcement Agency are planning a conference in a few days.

Upon Closer Inspection, those H.S. Graduation Numbers Don’t Look So Great

inspectorLast week I posted a piece entitled, “High School Graduation Rate, Too Good to Be True,” wherein I wondered if the spectacular gains in the high school graduation rates for Virginia students were too good to be true. I didn’t know — I was just raising a question. 

Reader John Butcher proffers this look at the data:

I would add a couple of points to your piece on graduation rates.

First, the overall 89.2% graduation rate for the 2013 4-year cohort is bogus.  VDOE counts the Modified Standard and Special Diplomas and General Achievement Diplomas to get to that number.  The differences between the diplomas are set out at length here.  In short, the Standard Diploma requires twenty-two standard credits and six “verified” credits (i.e., six passed end of course SOL tests); the Modified Standard Diploma is for students with disabilities and requires only twenty course credits.  The relaxed requirements for the Modified Standard degree are in addition to the accommodations available to students with disabilities who seek a Standard Diploma.  The Special Diploma, also for students with disabilities, requires only completion of the Individual Educational Plan.  The General Achievement Diploma is granted to persons who exit high school without a diploma (think dropouts, mostly) and who earn twenty standard credits and pass the GED.

If we count only the Standard and Advanced degrees, as is required for federal reporting, the 4-year cohort graduation rate in 2013 was 85.5%.  As the UVa blog points out, an 89.2% rate is far from satisfactory; 85.5% is still farther from satisfactory.

That said, the major increases in the rates between 2008 and 2013 are in the black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged populations, just as they are in the bogus numbers.

grad_rates

grad_rates2

 

Second, you ask whether the improvements in the graduation rate are beingachieved by social promotion.  The VCU catalog gives one measure of that:

All VCU students are required to take UNIV 111, 112 and 200. A minimum grade of C is required in UNIV 112 and UNIV 200. Transfer credits are not accepted for these courses after a student is enrolled at the university.

Hold any of the three course descriptions up to a bright light, you’ll see “remedial” written all over.  For instance, UNIV 111:

UNIV 111 Focused Inquiry I (Fall 2014)

Semester course; 3 lecture hours. 3 credits. Utilizes contemporary themes to give students opportunities and practice in writing, critical thinking, oral presentation, collaborative learning, information retrieval and evaluation, and social and civic responsibilities. Incorporates common reading materials and course activities across all sections.

If you think that might describe a real college course, I can introduce you to a recent graduate of Maggie Walker Governor’s School who was forced to endure the predecessors of Univ 111 and 112.  We can infer that things are worse since he left VCU because they now have a third required remedial course.

Tea Party Populism vs. Eric Cantor

teddy roosevelt By Peter Galuszka

Political analysts and the media are still trying to tease out the meaning of soon-to-be-former House Majority leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss last week to an obscure college professor.

Two major themes seem to be emerging. One is what the Tea Party’s role was and what the Tea Party really is. The second is how the Big Media missed the story of winner David Brat’s surprising strength, although a number of local publications did get it, including the Chesterfield Observer, a suburban weekly that I write for (although not about politics) and won a special accolade in this morning’s New York Times.

The Times also had a piece Sunday on its front page noting just how closely tied Cantor is to Corporate America. Aerospace giant Boeing saw its stock plummet just after Cantor was clobbered. Over the years, Cantor has gladly done the bidding of big companies, notably in managed care and finance. His donors provide a ready chart.

He’s backed the continuation of the Export-Import Bank that helps guarantee loans for foreign sales (to Boeing no less) and helped kill a bill that would have increased the capital gains tax made by alpha-seeking and ultra-rich hedge fund managers. Cantor does know about big business because he is a lawyer and has a degree in real estate. His wife, Diana, has worked for such Wall Street behemoths as Goldman Sachs. And, of course, Cantor was hatched and grew up in Richmond’s cliquish business community.

The interesting trend here is how Brat, touching a surprisingly sensitive populist nerve, targeted Cantor’s cozy links to Big Business along with the usual complaint menu about illegal immigrants and government spending. Brat hit Cantor for various corporate bailouts, including TARP, backing Medicare Plan D and two unfunded wars.

Such criticism resonated with his supporters, who are conservatives. But unlike the country club Republicans of yesteryear, these voters might be throwbacks to the Gilded Age during the era of gigantic trusts. I am strolling through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit” which looks at Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft at the turn of the 19th century and it is fascinating reading.

Being a Republican then meant being an upstart and independent-minded troublemaker, not a defender of the status quo and big business interests. The public seemed remarkable well informed and the media was filled with brilliant journalists like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and S.S. McClure who took apart trust-builders such as John D. Rockefeller.

There was a real sense that too much economic power was being concentrated in two few hands and if you look at what’s happening today with the mergers of airlines, cable companies and banks, you get an uneasy sense of déjà vu. The result back then was long-standing legislation like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and bodies like the Federal Trade Commission. The concerns were inequality, lopsided economic clout and the tendency for big companies to abuse their power.

It is in this sphere where the Tea Party types, whomever they are really, might be on to something. I’m all for leniency and compassion on immigration issues but I have to say that some of the anti-Cantor comments might have harkened back to the days of McClure’s Magazine and Tarbell’s extraordinarily detailed dissection of Standard Oil.

Sadly, the journalist profession has been gutted by cost-cutting, which is one reason why the Beltway types missed the Cantor story and scrappy little papers like the Chesterfield Observer got it. If there is growth in the news media, the hot trend is setting up “data-driven” Websites but as the Times notes, these proved inadequate as well in last week’s election because they relied on imperfect data. In other words, garbage in, garbage out, no matter how lively the prose is. What really matters is shoe leather journalism and not numbers crunching.

On-the-ground reporting can capture important clues such as how Cantor misused his Majority Leader bodyguards and Black Suburban SUVs to keep his constituents at bay on the rare occasions he actually sought them out. Otherwise, he seemed to be sequestered at expensive steakhouses. Voters pummeled by the Great Recession got the message.

Add up all of these trends and you might start understanding why Cantor’s defeat was so important. It posits who exactly the Tea Party is and what they actually stand for. It could be the start of a movement as historically significant as the one 125 years ago.

Will Virginia Embrace the Coming Transportation Revolution or Thwart It?

A Lyft car. Idiosyncratic but revolutionary.

A Lyft car. Idiosyncratic but revolutionary.

by James A. Bacon

Has Virginia has given up any pretext of being a market- or innovation-friendly state? The Department of Motor Vehicles has issued cease-and-desist orders to the Uber and Lyft ride-sharing service and slapped the companies with a total of $35,000 in fines. Their offense? Operating order-a-ride-with-a-smart-phone services and giving traditional taxicab companies a good scare.

According to the Washington Post, DMV claims the two companies are operating in violation of state law (although it’s not clear from the article what provision of the law they are breaking). Here’s what a DMV spokesperson had to say:

Virginia DMV supports innovation. … DMV has been charged by the General Assembly to conduct a study of these transportation network companies. We are confident that the solution to transportation network companies operations will come out of the study and we hope that Uber and Lyft will actively participate in the study and be a part of creating the solution. In the meantime, Virginia DMV must fulfill its obligation to highway safety and enforce the law as it is currently written.

Uber and Lyft maintain that they are operating legally, and they will not obey the cease-and-desist order.

Bacon’s bottom line: This dispute is far more important than Virginians realize. It’s way more significant than a dust-up between local taxicab companies and the Silicon Valley up-starts who would compete with them. We are in the early phases of a transportation revolution. Right now, companies like Uber and Lyft are targeting the premium end of the market because that’s where the money is and where they can most rapidly recoup the cost of developing their software apps, administrative systems and algorithms for positioning their vehicles. Once those concepts are refined and proven in the marketplace, we will see them migrate downstream to other market segments. I recently highlighted Bridj, which is providing premium bus service in the Boston area fore highly competitive fares as an example of the next wave of innovation.

The logical culmination of this technology revolution will be the emergence of a wide array of transportation services with different mixes of convenience, price and amenities targeted to different population segments. People will enjoy a far broader array of transportation services than they do now, and it is entirely reasonable to expect new enterprises to begin serving low-income populations in neighborhoods that municipal bus lines do not now serve. This change will be driven by the profit motive — by entrepreneurs filling niches in the marketplace that are now ill-served by taxicabs and municipal bus lines — and will not require government subsidies.

While it may be appropriate to maintain basic minimum regulations — companies and drivers need to carry insurance, for instance — all government has to do is step out of the way. While cities from Chicago to Seattle are throwing up barriers to transportation innovation, Virginia should embrace the trend. DMV should back off while the General Assembly studies the issue. And the McAuliffe administration should make it a core plank of Virginia transportation policy to become the most hospitable state in the country for the likes of Uber, Lyft, Bridj and other heralds of the New Transportation.

High School Graduation Rate, Too Good to Be True?

graduation_rates

Over on the StatChat blog, Hamilton Lombard draws attention to the steady rise in high school graduation rates across Virginia. The percentage of graduating seniors was significantly higher in 2013 than 2008 for all major ethnic groups, most appreciably for blacks and Hispanics. That’s good news, as Lombard says, because a high school diploma opens up opportunities for higher paying jobs. This, along with the plummeting rate of teen pregnancies and drop in youth, bodes well for the employment prospects of lower-income citizens.

It’s less than clear, however, what accounts for the surge in graduation rates. Lombard doesn’t have a definitive answer. He suggests a possible link to the decline in teen pregnancies and youth crime, which allow students to remain in school and stay on track to graduate. Also, he observes, high youth unemployment rates may reduce the appeal of dropping out.

It’s even possible that drop-out prevention programs are working. However, there is one factor that I fear may account for much of the seeming improvement: Schools are engaging in more social promotion. The more the drop-out rate is followed as a measure of school performance, the more administrators have an incentive to push students through the system whether they meet the grade or not. We have seen how school officials increasingly encourage “teaching to the test” to improve standardized test scores. It should not surprise us if they were gaming the system to improve graduation rates as well.

Let me emphasize: I do not know that to be a fact. I hope that my fears are misplaced. But I think it’s something we need to dig into before we congratulate ourselves on the awesome improvement we’re seeing. We do no one any favors by giving students a degree if they have not mastered the body of knowledge required of a graduate — not employers, not students, not society at large.

– JAB