Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

A New, Improved Ken Cuccinelli?

ken-cuccinelliBy Peter Galuszka

Is one-time conservative firebrand Ken Cuccinelli undergoing a makeover?

The hard line former Virginia attorney general who lost a bitter gubernatorial race to Terry McAuliffe in 2013 is now helping run an oyster farm and sounding warning alarms about a rising police state.

This is remarkable switch from the man who battled a climatologist in court over global warming; tried to prevent children of illegal immigrants born in this country from getting automatic citizenship; schemed to shut down legal abortion clinics; tried to keep legal protection away from state gay employees; and wanted to arm Medicaid investigators with handguns.

Yet on March 31, Cuccinelli was the co-author with Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia of an opinion column in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Their piece pushes bipartisan bills passed by the General Assembly that would limit the use of drones and electronic devices to read and record car license plate numbers called license plate readers or LPRs.

Cuccinelli and Gastanaga say that McAuliffe may amend the bills in ways that would expand police powers instead of protect privacy. “The governor’s proposed amendments to the LPR bills gut privacy protections secured by the legislation,” they write. The governor’s amendments would extend the time police could keep data collected from surveillance devices and let police collect and save crime-related data from drones used during flights that don’t involve law enforcement, they claim.

When not protecting Virginians from Big Brother, Cuccinelli’s been busy oyster farming. He has helped start a farm for the tasty mollusks on the historic Chesapeake Bay island of Tangier. According to an article in The Washington Post, Cuccinelli got involved when he was practicing law in Prince William County after he left office.

He would visit the business and get roped into working at odd jobs. He apparently enjoyed the physical labor and the idea that oysters are entirely self-sustaining and help cleanse bay water.

Environmentalists scoff at the idea, noting that as attorney general, Cuccinelli spent several years investigating Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climatologist who noted that humans were responsible for the generation of more carbon dioxide emissions and that has brought on climate change.

Some have pointed out that if Cuccinelli had had his way, he would have helped quash climate science, generated even more global warming and sped up the inundation of Tangier Island by rising water levels.

It will be interesting to see if Cuccinelli intends to rebrand himself for future political campaigns and how he tries to reinvent himself.

Rising College Costs Hit the Poor the Hardest

by James A. Bacon

In 2009 President Barack Obama set a goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. To reach that goal, more than 65% of individuals between 25 and 34 need to possess a college degree. Things aren’t working out well.

Conclude the authors of a new report, “The Effects of Rising Student Costs in Higher Education,” by Ithaka S+R, a not-for-profit consulting and research service:

Declining state appropriations and increasing reliance on tuition revenue have substantially increased the cost of public education to Virginia students, and the trend has accelerated since the Great Recession that began in 2007. Rising costs have deterred students from remaining in college and completing their degrees, and the lowest-income students have been hit the hardest.

Drawing upon an exceptional richness of data in Virginia, the authors of the Ithaka report used the Old Dominion to illustrate trends that are national in scope. Like Virginia, other states have cut state support for higher education, and colleges and universities have increased tuition and fees aggressively to make up the difference. While higher ed institutions also have bolstered financial aid to lower-income students, that aid has not kept pace with the increase in tuition and fees. The inflation-adjusted net cost — defined as the difference between a student’s estimated cost of attendance and total amount of gift aid — has risen steadily.

net_costs

Source: “The Effects of Rising Student Costs in Higher Education”

Between 1997 and 2007, net costs for the poorest quintile of Virginia students actually fell, while it rose for middle-class and affluent quintiles. But the trend has reversed in the past five years, with net costs increasing more rapidly for the poor. (While the report does not emphasize this, the net cost for lower-income students is less than two-thirds that of the most affluent students, and their net costs have risen less rapidly over the entire 15-year period.)

institutional_groupings

Source: “The Effects of Rising Student Costs in Higher Education”

The Ithaka report distinguishes between what it terms “Lower Dependence on the State” (LDS) institutions and “Higher Dependence on the State” (HDL) institutions. (The institutions deemed less dependent include The University of Virginia, College of William & Mary, George Mason University, Virginia Military Institute, Virginia Military Institute, Virginia Commonwealth University, James Madison University and Virginia Tech.) LDS institutions have more flexibility in their tuition strategies and have been more successful in recruiting out-of-state students willing to pay the full freight. HDS institutions are dominated by in-state students and have fewer resources to provide financial aid. Those institutions find the current environment especially challenging:

Tuition charges may be reaching their market limit at many of these institutions, and further increases could both adversely impact institutional finances and endanger the goals of ensuring quality and broad access for students across the state. HDS institutions, in particular, appear to have reached — or come close to — this limit, as they were unable to increase tuition charges enough to offset the most recent funding cuts and have thereby seen declines in total revenue per student. …

These financial strains may force institutions to choose between sacrificing either access or quality (or some combination of both), particularly for low- and middle-income students.

If the public goal is to educate and graduate as many students as possible from four year students and to reduce gaps between socioeconomic groups, concludes Ithaka, something has to change. Ithaka recommends increasing state support for higher education and targeting those funds to reduce net costs for lower-income students. Also, recognizing the limited ability of state legislatures to increase funding, the authors also urge colleges and universities to “re-engineer their systems to become significantly more efficient … which means that they have to find ways to adjust their own underlying costs.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The Ithaka study has many useful things to say, but I question the underlying premise — that it is feasible for 65% of future generations of Americans to graduate from four-year institutions of higher learning. I would advance the proposition, for purposes of stimulating discussion, that (a) the goal is unachievable given the current state of K-12 education in America today, and (b) it does a dis-service to lower-income students who lose income by attending college instead of working, rack up significant student debt and never end up acquiring the credential — a Bachelor’s Degree — that will improve their opportunities in the job market.

The fact is, Virginia high schools are graduating thousands of students who are ill-prepared for college. Poor students drop out at a disproportionate rates not only because finances are a burden, but because they often find the course work to be beyond their capabilities. Expanding college enrollment without addressing the disparities in education at the K-12 (or even the pre-K) level is setting up poor students for failure and a lifetime of indebtedness. Under the guise of doing good, this policy does great harm.

A Plan to Build the Best Educated Workforce by 2030

A multi ethnic group of graduates in graduation gownsby James A. Bacon

Virginia has one of the better educated workforces among the 50 states. The Old Dominion ranked 4th nationally in 2009 by the percentage of population 25 years or older with an advanced degree, and 6th nationally for the percentage with a Bachelor’s degree. Those statistics reflect the fact that the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., have among the highest levels of educational attainment anywhere in the country. Go outside of Northern Virginia, and it’s a different picture. Ranked by the percentage of workers who have graduated from high school, Virginia tumbled to 30th.

What would it take to set the standard for the United States — to build the best educated workforce in the entire country?

The State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) has been asking that question. Indeed SCHEV has developed a statewide strategic plan with four broad goals to achieve that objective by 2030. This plan has no money behind it at present but it provides a road map for how to become No. 1 in educational attainment should the political and cultural will exist to get there.

Virginia’s public universities will develop their own six-year plans that align with the SCHEV plan, says Peter Blake, SCHEV’s executive director, but they can’t get there by themselves.  At some point, he says, the General Assembly will have to increase its public support to make it a reality. Says he: “It’s the commonwealth’s plan.”

The statewide strategic plan has four broad goals:

Provide affordable access for all. Strategies include expanding outreach to traditionally underserved populations; improving readiness of all students; cultivating affordable post-secondary pathways; and align state appropriation financial aid and tuition and fees so students have access regardless of their ability to pay.

Optimize student success. The plan calls for strengthening curricular options to ensure graduates have competencies necessary for employment and civic engagement; helping students to complete their degrees; and engaging adults and veterans in certificate and degree-completion programs and lifelong learning.

Drive change through innovation and investment. Blake describes these goals as the “creative disruption” part of the plan, in which colleges and universities rigorously evaluate what they’re doing on an ongoing basis. Strategies include cultivating innovations that enrich quality, promote collaboration and improve efficiency; fostering faculty excellence, scholarship and diversity; and enhancing higher ed leadership, governance and accountability.

Advancing economic and cultural prosperity. Strategies include building a future-ready workforce in all regions of the state; catalyzing entrepreneurship and business incubation; promoting research and development; and expanding public service to the community.

The framework (goals and strategies) is in place, says Blake. The next step is to adopt metrics by which to measure progress toward those goals. Draft metrics include the following targets:

  • 1.5 million total undergraduate awards
  • Closing the graduation gap between under-represented populations (URPs) and other populations
  • Address the financial needs of 50% of low- and middle-income students
  • 80% of graduates earn sustainable wages within three years of graduation
  • Double R&D expenditures to $2.84 million

Those are the biggies, says Blake, although SCHEV proposes 12 more “related indicators” such as persistence (the percentage of enrollees who graduate within six years), default rates on student loans, state funding, and completions of high-demand degrees.

Cruz, “Liberty” and Teletubbies

AP CRUZ A USA VA By Peter Galuszka

Where’s the “Liberty” in Liberty University?

The Christian school founded by the controversial televangelist Jerry Falwell required students under threat of a $10 “fine” and other punishments to attend a “convocation” Monday where hard-right U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president.

Thus, Liberty produced a throng of people, some 10,000 strong, to cheer on Cruz who wants to throttle Obamacare, gay marriage, abolish the Internal Revenue Service and blunt immigration reform.

Some students stood up to the school for forcing them to become political props. Some wore T-Shirts proclaiming their support of libertarian Rand Paul while others protested the university’s coercion. “I just think it’s unfair. I wouldn’t say it’s dishonest, but it’s approaching dishonesty,” Titus Folks, a Liberty student, told reporters.

University officials, including Jerry Falwell, the son of the late founder, claim they have the right as a private institution to require students to attend “convocations” when they say so. But it doesn’t give them the power to take away the political rights of individual students not to be human displays  in a big and perhaps false show.

There’s another odd issue here. While Liberty obviously supports hard right Tea Party types, the traditional Republican Party in the state is struggling financially.

Russ Moulton, a GOP activist who helped Dave Brat unseat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary last summer, has emailed party members begging them to come up with $30,000 to help the cash-strapped state party.

GOP party officials downplay the money problem, but it is abundantly clear that the struggles among Virginia Republicans are as stressed out as ever. Brat won in part because he cast himself as a Tea Party favorite painting Cantor as toady for big money interests. The upset drew national attention.

Liberty University has grown from a collection of mobile homes to a successful school, but it always has had the deal with the shadow of its founder. The Rev. Falwell gained notoriety over the years for putting segregationists on his television show and opposing gay rights, going so far as to claim that “Teletubbies,” a cartoon production for young children, covertly backed homosexual role models.

Years ago, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a story showing that the Rev. Falwell took liberties in promoting the school he founded in 1971. Brochures touting the school pictured a downtown Lynchburg bank building with the bank’s logo airbrushed off. This gave the impression that Liberty was thriving with stately miniature skyscrapers for its campus.

Some observers have noted that Liberty might be an appropriate place for the outspoken Cruz to launch his campaign. The setting tends to blunt the fact that he’s the product of an Ivy League education – something that might not go down too well with Tea Party types – and that he was actually born in Canada, although there is no question about his U.S. citizenship and eligibility to run for question.

Hard-line conservatives have questioned the eligibility of Barack Obama to run for U.S. president although he is likewise qualified.

With Cruz in the ring and Liberty cheering him, it will make for an interesting campaign.

Parole Abolition — Did It Work?

parole_boardby Sarah Scarbrough

What does “worked” mean? What does “success” truly mean? If it means having offenders spend the majority of their sentence behind bars and don’t get released early, then, sure, it worked. If it means seeing crime rates drop, then one could argue it worked. But, there are so many other factors associated – really, so many factors that it is close to impossible to give a definitive answer one way or another. So here goes – my attempt to explain many of the associated factors.

Former Governor George Allen’s plan to abolish parole could be seen as a “success” in that it established truth in sentencing through the requirement that felons served 85% of the time they were sentenced. When looking at the Virginia statistics 12 years after (2008), it was found that those convicted of first-degree murder spent 91 percent of their sentence in prison, with the average sentence being 32 years, rather than 12 years with parole.  The sentence of “life in prison,” now truly means “life in prison.”

Since abolishing parole, the violent crime rate in Virginia fell by 23 percent, the murder rate decreased by 30 percent, and forcible rape decreased by 15 percent. When examining the crimes and statistics before 1995, it was found that previous offenders committed the majority of these serious and violent offenses; therefore if a rapist serves 18 years rather than six years, he will not be able to hang out in parking lots waiting for his next victim.

However, the reason for the decline in the crime rates is debatable and hard to pin down. Many believe it is because of the abolition of parole – Virginia releases fewer people than ever before. The idea is that individuals “age-out” of crime when released now because they spend longer behind bars. However, the relatively new phenomenon of re-entry, programs, and treatment also likely is contributing to the decrease. Historically, upon incarceration, offenders were simply warehoused – they were not provided with an opportunity for programming, thus, breeding better criminals during incarceration. However, with today’s strong focus on providing opportunities, offenders are now being equipped with the tools to be successful upon release. They are being provided with tools that directly assist in overcoming the barriers to entry into the community. Furthermore, according to Dr. John Reitzel, with the Department of Criminal Justice at California State University, San Bernardino, “Both violent and property crime started dropping in Virginia a few years before the state abolished parole. And, we must keep in mind that nationally, crime started dropped in 1993 too.”

The examination of recidivism rates also can provide some insight, however, this too is fairly complex. Currently, Virginia has the second lowest recidivism rate in the nation. However, that rate is calculated if an individual gets released from prison and then goes back to prison – this means they are convicted of a crime and sentenced to more than 12 months. So, if someone reoffends and is found guilty but sentenced to 11 months, they are not seen to have recidivated. I believe this truly presents a problem when truly trying to define success. From working in a jail full time, I can tell you the true recidivism rate in Virginia is much higher than this statistic claims.

There are also problems present with the implementation and practice of the abolition of parole. Currently there are more than 37,000 individuals incarcerated in Virginia, of whom about 3,500 were eligible for parole in 2013 because their crimes and imprisonment occurred before the abolition in 1995. The Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants-Virginia, Inc. (Virginia C.U.R.E.) claim that all of these prisoners were sentenced by prosecutors and judges with the assumption that the length of their sentence would be subject to mitigation through the consideration of parole. However, because parole was abolished, the likelihood of receiving it is slim. In 2012, the Parole Board heard 3,156 cases, of which only 116 were granted parole, according to Virginia C.U.R.E. – this is just 3.7 percent of those who were eligible. However, Bill Muse former Chairman of the Parole Board under the McDonnell administration had slightly different views: “The rate during McDonnell administration was about 4%. About 92% of those who were eligible were serving long sentences on extreme cases. The “easy” ones were already released.”

At least 44 percent of the denials were attributed to the “serious nature and circumstances of the crime.” As such, many prisoners were receiving this same response year after year. Moreover, many denials from the Board did not suggest their own comments or guidelines, such as changes in behavior, their motivational levels, development of education, release plans, or employment skills attained while imprisoned.  However, in 2013 legislation was passed and then signed by Governor McDonnell requiring the Parole Board to list specific reasons why an individual was denied so the individual would know what they should or should not be focusing on.

Muse explained: “Every parole case is entirely different and you have to look at them differently. One of the common questions asked is, ‘He got parole and has a similar offense doing the same number of years as my son, so why won’t you let him go?’ But we have to look at them differently – there aren’t two offenses that are exactly the same – one type of murder may occur because of a drug deal gone bad and the other an execution style robbery – even if they have the same sentence, they are still very different. We also have to take into consideration when the crime occurred – a 16- or 17-year-old would be considered differently than someone older because of their age when committed.”

Muse explained how the parole board also examines things the offender was involved with while in prison and if they took advantage of each opportunity they had, such as work, religion, or schooling. Disciplinary issues while incarcerated are also considered – did they cause staff a hard time, did they obey the rules? “If you can’t behave in prison, why would we expect you to behave when you are on the street,” Muse remarked. The Board also looked at factors associated with release – supportive family, housing, under what circumstances will they live (in same neighborhood), will they continue with addiction treatment if needed, among others?  “All of these things are taken into consideration – and more really. All of these factors contribute to why each case is treated individually.

The Board does not personally interview the prisoner or confer with the prisoner’s counselor and only allows one member of the Board to meet with a family member or other representative.  In over 70 percent of other states, however, Board panels carry out inmate interviews. Under the Board procedures currently followed, “some parole eligible inmates are serving longer terms than some non-parole inmates convicted of the same crime and sentenced under the state’s post 1995 sentencing guidelines” Many believe that the Board’s behaviors are inconsistent with the original intention of the General Assembly, through retroactively abolishing parole for prisoners who came in before 1995. Continue reading

Dominion’s Clever Legerdemain

Dominion's Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia's largest air polluter

Dominion’s Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia’s largest air polluter

By Peter Galuszka

You may have read thousands of words on this blog arguing about the proposed federal Clean Power Plan, its impact on Dominion Virginia Power and a new law passed by the 2015 General Assembly that freezes the utility’s base rates and exempts it from rate reviews for five years.

All of this makes some basic and dangerous assumptions about the future of Dominion’s coal-fired generating plants.

It has somehow gotten into the common mindset that the Environmental Protection Agency will automatically force Dominion to close most of its six coal-fired stations.

Is this really so? And, if it is not, doesn’t that make much of this, including Dominion’s arguments for its five-year holiday from rate reviews by the State Corporation Commission, moot?

In June 2014, the EPA unveiled the Clean Power Plan and asked for comments by this upcoming summer. The idea is to have Virginia cut its carbon emissions by 38 percent by 2025. Coal plants are the largest contributors to carbon emissions by 2025.

A few points:

Dominion announced in 2011 that it would phase out its 638-megawatt coal-fired Chesapeake Energy Center that was built between 1950 and 1958.

In 2011, it also announced plans to phase out coal at its three-unit, 1,141 megawatt Yorktown power plant by shutting one coal-fired unit and converting a second one to natural gas. The units at the station were built in 1957, 1958 and 1974.

Mind you, these announcements came about three years before the EPA asked for comments about its new carbon reduction plan. But somehow, a lack of precision in the debate makes it sound as if the new EPA carbon rules are directly responsible for their closure. But how can that be if Dominion announced the closings in 2011 and the EPA rules were made public in June, 2014? Where’s the link between the events?

When the Chesapeake and Yorktown changes were announced, Dominion Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Farrell II, said: “This is the most cost-effective course to meet expected environmental regulations and maintain reliability for our customers.” Now Dominion is raising the specter of huge bills and unreliable grid.

Dominion has other big coal-fired plants. The largest is the 1,600 megawatt Chesterfield Power Station that provides about 12 per cent of Dominion’s power. Four of its six units—built from 1952 to 1969 — burn coal. Two others built in 1990 and 1992 are combined cycle units that use natural gas and distillate oil.

Dominion has upgraded scrubbers at the units, but the Chesterfield station is the single largest air polluter in the state and one of the largest in the nation.

Another big coal-fired plant is Dominion’s 865-megawatt Clover Power Station. It is more recent, having gone online in 1995 and 1996. It is the second largest carbon emitter in the state.

Then there’s the 600 megawatt Virginia City Hybrid plant that burns both coal and biomass in Wise County. It went into service in 2012.

Dominion had a small coal-fired plant at Bremo Bluffs but has converted it to natural gas.

So, if you add it all up, which coal-fired plants are really in jeopardy of closure by the EPA’s new rules? Chesterfield, Clover or Virginia City?

It’s hard to get a straight answer. In a blog post by Jim Bacon today, he quotes Thomas Wohlfarth, a Dominion senior vice president, as saying “It’s not a foregone conclusion that [the four coal-fired power plants] will be shut down. It’s a very real risk, but not a foregone conclusion.” Another problem is that I count three possible coal-fired plants, and don’t know what the fourth one is.

In a story about the Chesterfield power plant, another spokesman from Dominion told the Chesterfield Observer that Dominion “has no timeline no to close power stations” but it might have to consider some closings if the Clean Power Plan goes ahead as currently drafted.

Environmental groups have said that because of Dominion’s already-announced coal-plant shutdowns and conversion, the state is already 80 percent on its way to meet the proposed Clean Power Plan’s carbon cuts. When I asked a State Corporation Commission spokesman about this last fall, I got no answer.

What seems to be happening is that Dominion is raising the specter of closings without providing specific details of what exactly might be closed and why.

Its previously announced coal-plant shutdowns have suddenly and mysteriously been put back on the table and everyone, including Jim Bacon, the General Assembly and the SCC, seems to be buying into it.

Although there have been significant improvements in cutting pollution, coal-fired plants still are said to be responsible for deaths and illnesses, not to mention climate change. This remains unaddressed. Why is it deemed so essential that coal-fired units built 40, 50 or 60 years ago be kept in operation? It’s like insisting on driving a Studebaker because getting rid of it might cost someone his job that actually vanished years ago.

Also unaddressed is why Virginia can’t get into some kind of carbon tax or market-based caps on carbon pollution that have seen success with cutting acid rain and fluorocarbons.

It’s as if the state’s collective brain is somehow blocking the very idea of exploring a carbon tax and automatically defaults to the idea that if the EPA and the Obama Administration get their way, Virginia ratepayers will be stuck with $6 billion in extra bills and an unreliable electricity grid.

Could it be that this is exactly the mental legerdemain that Dominion very cleverly is foisting on us? Could be. Meanwhile, they continue to get exactly the kind of legislation from the General Assembly they want.

Community Policing and Human Settlement Patterns

Former Police Chief Rodney Monroe implemented community policing in Richmond is credited with bringing down the city's sky-high crime rate. Can his approach be replicated in suburban Henrico and Chesterfield?

Former Police Chief Rodney Monroe, who implemented community policing in Richmond, is widely credited with bringing down the city’s sky-high crime rate. Can his approach be replicated in suburban Henrico and Chesterfield?

by James A. Bacon

Community policing is key to the war on crime, agreed top law enforcement officials yesterday at a public forum hosted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Community policing gets police out of their cars so they can patrol neighborhoods on foot, interact with residents and build trust. “I do think the relationship piece … is the critical piece,” said Henrico County Police Chief Doug Middleton.

The reversion from police-by-patrol-car to community policing is credited with much of the downturn in crime in recent years, along with adoption of the “broken windows” theory of crime fighting, which advocates going after smaller crimes, and the use of statistical tools to predict areas where crimes are more likely to occur. In the city of New Haven, Conn., community policing has coincided with a 30% decline in serious crime since 2012, according to a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal today.

Community policing is back in the spotlight since a U.S. Justice Department probe into law enforcement practices in Ferguson, Missouri, where the police killing of a young black man triggered rampant protests. The suburban locality’s community-policing efforts “have dwindled to almost nothing in recent years,” the report said. Police had lost “the little familiarity it had with some African-American neighborhoods.”

This passage in the WSJ article has particular resonance in the Richmond region:

Walking the beat isn’t feasible in spread-out, rural or suburban areas. It is more labor-intensive than assigning officers to police cars that can zip from neighborhood to neighborhood, and officers on foot can’t always respond as quickly to crimes. Budget cuts also have made it harder for some police departments to justify the cost of walking the beat.

Community policing is a fine strategy for the City of Richmond, where urban neighborhoods are reasonably compact. But it’s more problematic in Henrico and Chesterfield County where an increasing number of poor people are living. For two or more decades now, poverty has been leaking across municipal boundaries into old suburban neighborhoods of ’50s- and ’60s-era ranch houses in low-density, cul-de-sac subdivisions that do not lend themselves to walking, biking or community policing.

Cul-de-sac subdivisions worked fine for mostly law-abiding, middle-class people who, if they engaged in criminal activity, it was more likely to be check kiting or embezzling than drug dealing or shoot-outs. As those neighborhoods are increasingly occupied by poor residents experiencing social breakdown and a higher proclivity for crime, Henrico and Chesterfield county police face a real challenge in implementing community policing. While everyone agrees in theory that building strong ties to the community is critical, the experience of Ferguson and other suburban jurisdictions shows that it may be difficult. Let us hope that Richmond-area police are up to the challenge.

The Next Book I’ve Got to Read…

Our KidsRobert Putnam, the Harvard sociologist who wrote “Bowling Alone” and popularized the concept of “social capital,” has written another book that will surely shape the public conversation: “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” To quote from Bradford Wilcox’s review in the Wall Street Journal:

For the well-educated, the phrase “our kids” may well bring to mind conditions of relative affluence, in which children grow up in a family with two married and attentive (even overattentive) parents; attend high-performing schools; and feel themselves embedded in a network of friends and mentors ready to help them navigate life’s challenges. By contrast, “their kids” — the kids of poor and working class parents — face a world in which social capital is in short supply. As Mr. Putman shows powerfully and poignantly– combining reporting with empirical analysis — the disparity results in too many children in nonaffluent circumstances feeling alone, emotionally stunted and unable to summon the will to climb today’s economic ladder into the middle or upper class. …

We learn that the percentage of children living in single-parent homes has been falling in college-educated circles since the mid-1990s even as it has been rising in homes headed by parents with a high-school diploma or less. Mr. Putnam reports that, by the time they start kindergarten, children from professional families hear 19 million more words than children from working-class families. Even the religious gap between the rich and the poor — traditionally rather narrow — is widening. These days, Mr. Putnam laments, “poor families are generally less involved in religious communities than affluent families,” which is unfortunate, he notes, given that churchgoing is associated with better performance in school, less drinking and drug use, and less delinquency. The class divide in institutional access translate into dramatically different chances that children will flourish later in life.

There aren’t many beliefs that liberals and conservatives share, but one of them is the belief that America should be a place where every child has an opportunity to better his or her life. What divides us is how best to achieve that objective. What Putnam’s book apparently does — and I’ll report back when I read it — is emphasize how cultural traits reinforce the impact of economic disparities. Affluent families don’t just have more money, they have more intact family structures, they provide a cognitively richer environment and they have stronger support networks. In a word, they have greater social capital.

That insight illuminates the debate over the nature of inequality in the United States but hardly settles what to do about it. Conservatives still can argue that we need to focus on creating intact family structures. Liberals still can argue that we need to double down on spending for pre-K education. But as I have argued repeatedly on this blog, we need to understand the nature of poverty before we can hope to fashion “solutions” to it. I’m hopeful that “Our Kids” will clarify the challenges we face.

– JAB 

Economic Un-Development

Closed for business. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

Closed for business. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

I was planning to blog today about the sad fate of Tarek Hezam, a New Yorker who moved to the Richmond region and opened a convenience store in the Oak Grove neighborhood of the city in 2013. After neighbors complained that the store became a magnet for trash and crime, the City of Richmond revoked his certificate of zoning compliance, suddenly discovering that, oh, so sorry, they’d overlooked the fact that commercial zoning for the site had expired back in 1975. Between rent, startup costs and lawyer fees, Hezam is out $160,000.

But Bart Hinkle at the Times-Dispatch beat me to to the commentary — and he did a fine job of it, so I’ll just quote liberally from his column.

The city administration talks a good game about economic development, Hinkle writes, and it’s more than happy to work with the big boys on grandiose projects like the Shockoe Bottom ballpark, the Redskins training camp and the Stone Brewery development. But what does it say to small entrepreneurs who aren’t rich and politically connected? “Drop dead.”

Malcontents are worried about trash in the streets. But who is responsible for that? “Five bucks says Hezam doesn’t spend his spare time throwing garbage around the neighborhood,” writes Hinkle. “Nor, for another five bucks, do people drive in from North Side or Westover Hills to toss their empty chip bags and soda cups on the ground. If litter is a problem, then the solution is to tackle littering head-on.”

Some in the community also complained that Hezam was peddling the usual junk food fare found in inner-city convenience stores. Rosa Jones, president of the Oak Grove Civic Association, suggested he should bring a shoe shop “or something we can use.” As Hinkle observes, “Jones hasn’t sunk tens of thousands of her own dollars into the project. Until she does, she has no business telling the person who has invested his own money what to do with it. If she really wants a shoe shop in the neighborhood, then she’s welcome to open one herself — if the city will let her, that is.”

There is a crying need for jobs and investments in inner-city Richmond, but city officials have shut down one small entrepreneur who would create both at no expense or risk to the taxpayer. What kind of signal does that send to others, Hinkle wonders.

Hezam offered to change his retail format to a takeout restaurant serving fried chicken and fish but no alcohol. The planning commission shot him down. He plans to sue the city for relief. “If a judge in their right mind tells me I don’t have a claim,” he said, “then I shouldn’t be in Virginia.

– JAB

Are We Reducing Food Insecurity or Aggravating It?

US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Richmond schools Superintendent Dana T. Bedden, and US Rep. Bobby Scott work in the lunch line at Woodville Elementary on March 9, 2015. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Richmond schools Superintendent Dana T. Bedden, and US Rep. Bobby Scott work in the lunch line at Woodville Elementary on March 9, 2015. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

by James A. Bacon

The federal government has awarded Virginia an $8.8 million grant, to support a program in the City of Richmond and seven localities in Southwest Virginia to fight child hunger. Elaborates the Times-Dispatch:

The children will receive a third meal before leaving school every day, and they will also participate in an off-hours program aimed at making sure they get healthy good when they’re not in school.

In Richmond, where 80% of school children qualify for free or reduced lunch, the program will aid some of the poorest students, stated Superintendent Dana T. Bedden.

Let us grant that child hunger is a real phenomenon and a serious one. No one wants children to go hungry, not even mean, heartless conservatives like myself. But I’ve got a lot of questions, starting with, what the hell is going on?

As I’ve noted before, the United States dispenses billions of dollars of food stamps every month. Every family who needs food stamps gets them. The families of the poor, hungry children targeted by this program get food stamps. Now, I can buy the argument that food stamps are a minimal form of food support and that it’s darn hard to feed a family on food stamps alone. But let’s say you have a mother and three children, who receive benefits based on a family of four who collectively consume 84 meals a week. Now let’s say three of those children are getting free lunches and breakfasts at schools (30 meals a week). Are we saying that the food stamps are such a pittance, and that the free food provided by churches and food pantries are so inadequate, that the mother can’t feed herself and her children for the other 51 meals a week?

This just doesn’t add up. Something is going on that the care giving class does not appreciate or understand.

Are the benefits of food stamps stretched thin, perhaps, because female heads of household are living with boyfriends contribute little to the family pot yet must be fed?

Do poor parents change their behavior based on the rational expectation that, if they don’t feed their children, they know the state or philanthropic organizations will step in?

Is the problem not poverty, per se, but the fact that mothers are strung out on drugs or otherwise so consumed with their own disordered lives that they can’t get it together to prepare meals for their children?

I don’t know the answer. All I know is that the more food we dispense, the worse food insecurity seems to get. And the only solution that anyone can think of is to shovel more money and more free food at the poor. I worry that we are enabling the very behavior that causes child hunger in the first place.