Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

Are Do-Gooders Making Food Insecurity Worse?


by  James A. Bacon

Food deserts are back in the news here in Richmond with the premier of a documentary, “Living in a Food Desert,” at the Richmond International Film Festival. First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe, who has made food security her signature cause, attended the screening and addressed the audience. More than 300,000 Virginia children are food insecure, she said. “There needs to be a forceful call to action.”

Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams picked up on the remarks in a column today. Mrs. McAuliffe, he wrote, “called it ironic that a state whose $70 billion agriculture industry feeds folks around the world is not reaching its neediest citizens.”

Yes, it is ironic indeed. It is ironic that food insecurity persists despite an expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) to more people than ever in the program’s history. It is ironic that food insecurity exists despite the existence of school lunch and school breakfast programs for disadvantaged children. It is ironic that food insecurity persists despite the efforts of groups like Tricycle Gardens to encourage inner-city Richmond residents to raise their own food. It is ironic that food insecurity persists despite the mobilization of the not-for-profit community through food banks, food pantries and church food drives in an unprecedented giving away of free food and free meals. It is ironic that Richmond’s Feedmore food bank has originated as an institution that provided food for emergency situations into one that fills chronic, ongoing needs. Food insecurity, one Feedmore official told me two years ago for an article I never completed, was becoming “the new normal.”

Everyone quoted by Williams laments the terrible state of affairs. And let me just say, before being condemned as a heartless, evil  conservative, that it is a terrible thing for children to go hungry. But when food insecurity evolves from a sometime thing to a permanent state affairs — and seven years after the Great Recession, it’s getting a little hard to continue blaming the economic downturn — it makes me wonder if we’re doing something wrong.

Here’s my question: How, despite the funneling of unprecedented government and philanthropic dollars to the feeding of the poor, has food insecurity has gotten worse? There are clues in Williams’ column.

A recurrent theme Sunday was that this issue represents an opportunity for folks to take charge of their lives by developing socially conscious economies around food.

It is important for any solution around food deserts to not be paternalistic in the sense that you just come in an drop food off and you’re gone,” Duron Chavis, project director of [Virginia State University’s] Indoor Farm, says in the documentary.

“The key word there is empowerment,” said panelist John Lewis, director of Renew Richmond. “We have the opportunity to empower communities that live in food deserts, especially low-income individuals, to take their food system back.”

Now, couple those comments with this: “As disciples of the Lord, we are commanded to feed the hungry. And we take that commandment seriously,” said the Rev. Dr. Michael A. Sanders of Mount Olive Baptist Church. “We have quickly become one of the largest food pantries in the city of Richmond.”

To what extent does the commandment “to feed the hungry” conflict with the imperative to “empower” the poor? Does society’s impulse to feed the poor result in behaviors that are the opposite of empowering? Why don’t poor people grow their own garden plots? Why don’t they organize community gardens? There are plenty of vacant plots of land in the East End of Richmond, the city’s biggest food desert. There are plenty of groups, like Tricycle Gardens, that are willing to provide the know-how. Why isn’t it happening? Is it possible that the more outsiders take on the obligation to feed Virginia’s poor, from Richmond’s East End to Appalachia, the less they do for themselves?

Are our charitable impulses making worse the very problem we decry? That’s the one question no one seems to be asking.

Big Data and Power to the People

school_gradesby James A. Bacon

In the previous post, John Butcher brought to light some incredibly important data long secreted in the Virginia Department of Education — Student Growth Percentile (SGP) scores. There are two aspects to this story. First, the data will bring unprecedented accountability to Virginia schools and school divisions. Second, it is a cautionary tale of how the educational establishment resists transparency that makes that accountability possible.

Brian Davison, who works in business intelligence and software management, had two children in the Loudoun County public school system when he filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2014 to obtain the score. The Loudoun County school superintendent rejected the request, but Davison won in a lawsuit filed against the Virginia Department of Education in Richmond Circuit Court.

The publication of raw SOL scores never resulted in much accountability. SOL numbers are so heavily influenced by the socio-economic status of students (accounting for about 55% to 60% of the variability between schools) that school administrators could plausibly argue that they aren’t responsible for low scores — the economic disadvantage of their student body is. SGP scores get around that excuse by comparing the progress of students, regardless of socio-economic status. In effect, it measures education value added.

As Butcher’s post clearly shows, some school systems out-perform the norm by wide margins, while others under-perform. An analysis of individual schools probably would show the same thing, as would an analysis of individual teachers.

There are many idiosyncratic reasons why a particular student might lag or surge ahead in his or her performance in a given year, so one has to be extremely careful drawing conclusions from small numbers. That makes the data somewhat problematic for assessing the performance of teachers, especially young teachers who have taught only a year or two. However, after enough years, a teacher should have taught enough students that statistically valid conclusions can be drawn about his or her effectiveness. Another issue: Data should be anonymized in order to protect the privacy of school students.

In very rough numbers, schools teachers, principals and administrators account for roughly 40% to 45% of the variability in student performance. No one expects them to perform miracles, but there is little doubt that they can do better. A critical step is identifying which teachers are consistently doing well and which ones are doing badly in order to incentivize the good ones to stay and the bad ones to leave. Another step is identifying which principals are doing a good job, like Tina McCay at Goochland Elementary School (mentioned here). Finally, voters need data to judge the performance of senior school division administrators and school board members.

I’m doubt the story will end here. There will be endless haggling over how to interpret the numbers — and that’s how it should be. But be not mistaken: This is a game changer. Citizens and parents now have a tool of unprecedented power to cut through the dodging and weaving, the hedging and prevaricating, to hold educators accountable. Now let’s go out and use it!

SGPs: Bringing Accountability to School Systems

by John Butcher

For much too long, the principal measures of educational quality were inputs: budgets, teacher salaries, class sizes, pupil/teacher ratios, and the like.  Grades did not compare from school to school or even class to class. Specialized tests such as the SAT reached only limited numbers of students and, in the SAT case, measured intelligence rather than achievement.

This situation was disrupted in 2002 by the No Child Left Behind Act, which conditioned Title I federal support on statewide testing.  Whatever their other strengths and weaknesses — see, e.g., the Wikipedia discussion — the resulting testing schemes gave us measures of outputs.

The scores, however, were strongly dependent on the economic status of the students being tested.  For example, on Virginia’s 2014 English Reading SOL tests, a 10% increase in the division count of economically disadvantaged students was associated with a 3.4% decrease in the division average pass rate.

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(Click for more legible image.)

The Federales figured this out and, beginning in 2011, required states to develop a growth measure with data for reading/language arts and mathematics in the tested grades. Virginia settled on the Student Growth Percentile, the “SGP.”

Stated briefly, the SGP compares the progress (year-to-year score change) of each student with the other students in the state who had similar prior scores.  That progress then is expressed as a percentile ranking.  Thus, a student with a 60 SGP had a score increase better than 60% of the students with the same “prior achievement.”

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has a page of discussion with further links here.  A 2011 PowerPoint from VDOE’s Director of Research and Strategic Planning has a very clear discussion.

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(Click for more legible image.)

The advantage of the SGP is that it compares students with peers as to achievement.  Thus, students with low SOL’s (and, likely, low family wealth) are compared with students in similar circumstances.  The Virginia reading data demonstrate how this produces data that are largely independent of economic disadvantage.

Note here the weak correlation (11% R2, vs. 57% for the SOL chart above) and the weaker effect of economic disadvantage (14% SGP decrease compared to a 38% decrease in the SOL).

Data elsewhere show an even weaker relationship between SGP and economic disadvantage: Continue reading

Measuring Automobile Dependency

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Rankings among 794 locations.

Fascinating data from Governing magazine comparing auto dependency of various municipalities around the United States: Arlington, Alexandria and the City of Richmond led the pack in Virginia as the least auto-dependent, with Norfolk, Lynchburg and Roanoke close behind.

There are two main variables affecting automobile dependency: income and availability of transportation alternatives.

autos_povertyIncome: Poorer communities, or those with large concentrations of poverty, tend to have more car-less households and fewer cars per family. These households are more likely to car pool or avail themselves of whatever non-car alternatives exist, typically municipal bus systems. As the Governing scatter chart to the left shows, there is a significant correlation between the poverty level and the vehicle-to-household ratio. Note: Governing identified Harrisonburg as an “outlier” having both a high poverty rate and high rate of auto ownership.

Transportation alternatives: Core urban jurisdictions have the best developed transportation alternatives. In Virginia, traditional cities (and Arlington County) tend to be highly walkable and have access to mass transit.

By way of comparison, New York has the lowest rate of auto dependency in the country — o.6 vehicles per household.

– JAB

Why Hide Details of Lethal Injection?

lethal injectionBy Peter Galuszka

It has to be one of the creepiest bills ever considered by the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 1393, sponsored by Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), would drop a veil of secrecy over how Virginia executes prisoners by lethal injection. Its backers, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, are pushing it against a backdrop of global politics and questions of morality.

Virginia is one of 32 states that allow capital punishment. Since 1982, it has so far killed 110 prisoners, either by lethal injection or in the electric chair.

The preferred method is lethal injection. In the process, a doomed prisoner is strapped in a gurney and is given a series of three shots. One is to anesthetize; another is to paralyze; and the third is to stop his or her heart from beating. In some states, one drug may be used. Usually, there are witnesses to the execution, including members of the news media.

But Saslaw wants to start hiding crucial aspects of the gruesome practice. His bill would make information about lethal drugs. Companies that make or compound them would be exempt under the state Freedom of Information Act.

There are persistent national shortages of drugs used in the death process. According to The New Yorker, the sole American manufacturer of sodium thiopental stopped making the key, killer drug in 2011. Death penalty states looked to European manufacturers, but the European Union, which crusades against capital punishment, forbids European drug companies to export it if it will be used in executions.

Harried U.S. prison officials started shopping around to their counterparts in other states as shortages spread to other drugs. The situation seemed dire enough for Virginia to consider dusting off the electric chair, which it also allows for executions.

For a while, Virginia did have a good supply of killer drugs but by 2014,it ran short or drugs went past their expiration dates. A solution is to use pharmacies to compound drugs for executions but it could expose the firms to lawsuits.

So, as is too often typical in Virginia, Saslaw & Company started pushing the rights of private companies over the public’s right to know. His bill has drawn criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Underscoring the horror of the drug drama is what happened last April in Oklahoma during the execution of convicted murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett. He was injected with the three-drug cocktail, but 10 minutes into the process, he revived as stunned onlookers watched. He died after another half an hour.

There is considerable evidence that lethal injection is not a painless way to go. In fact, the issue may be back before the U.S. Supreme Court again about whether injections are an unconstitutional “cruel and unusual” punishment. Another issue is why facts around execution must be made confidential.

There are larger issues about the ethics of capital punishment. Virginia, after all, follows only Texas when it comes to legally-sanctioned killing. Virginia does not have an unusually high crime rate (ranking No. 34 in violent crimes  per 100,000 population according to 2006 U.S. Census statistics). So why is it so intent on keeping capital punishment and hiding it?

 

Best Region for Hispanics — the Mid-Atlantic

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Hispanics now comprise 17% of the United States population. In New Geography, Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox ask where in the country Hispanics are faring the best economically. Based on their analysis of the nation’s 52 largest metropolitan regions, it appears that Hispanics are more likely to prosper in the Mid-Atlantic than anywhere else in the country, particularly in Baltimore, Washington and Hampton Roads, although they’re doing pretty well in Texas and Florida as well.

By contrast Hispanics aren’t faring as well economically in older Northeastern and Midwestern cities. If Spanish is your native tongue, you really don’t want to wind up in Providence, R.I., or Milwaukee, Wisc.

One can’t help but wonder… why are Hispanics prospering in the Mid-Atlantic? Is this part of the country uniquely open and welcoming to Hispanics? Given the controversy over illegal immigration in Northern Virginia, that’s hard to imagine. Is the economy far more dynamic than the rest of the country? Certainly not in the past couple of years.

If I had to guess — and this is only a hypothesis — I would bet that the make-up of the Hispanic population differs. I would guess that a larger percentage of Hispanics who reside in the Mid-Atlantic live here legally. As such, they are more likely to be employed in regular jobs, not in the economic shadows, and they might well have a higher level of education.

– JAB

The Importance of “Selma”

Selma_posterBy Peter Galuszka

“Selma” is one of those fairly rare films that underline a crucial time and place in history while thrusting important issues forward to the present day.

Ably directed by Ava DuVernay, the movie depicts the fight for the Voting Rights Act culminating in the dramatic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. in 1965. It portrays the brutality and racism that kept Alabama’s white power structure firmly in charge and how brave, non-violent and very smart tactics by African-American agitators shook things loose.

Holding it all together is British actor David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Oyelowo’s subtle and vulnerable approach while dealing with infighting among his colleagues and revelations of his marital infidelities contrast with his brilliant skill at oratory. During the two hours or so of the film, Oyelowo’s booming speeches and sermons never bored me. By contrast, the recent “Lincoln,” the Steven Spielberg flick filmed in Richmond, was a bit of a snoozer.

To its credit, “Selma” never gets too clichéd even with the extremely overexposed Oprah Winfrey assuming roles as a film producer and also as an actress portraying a middle-aged nursing home working who gets beaten up several times protesting white officials who kept her from registering to vote.

“Selma” has been controversial because nit-picking critics claim the film misrepresents the role President Lyndon B. Johnson played in getting the Voting Rights Act passed. The film shows him as reluctant and the Selma event was staged to push him to move proposed legislation to Congress. A series of LBJ biographies by highly-regarded historian Robert A. Caro show the opposite – that Johnson, a Southern white from Texas — was very much the driver of civil rights bills. In fact, his deft ability to knock political heads on Capitol Hill was probably the reason why they passed. It was a feat that even the Kennedys probably couldn’t have achieved.

One scene in the movie bothered me at first. King leads protestors to the Selma court house to register. When a brutal sheriff stands in their way, they all kneel down on the pavement with their arms behind their heads in a manner very reminiscent of last year’s protests against a police killing in Ferguson, Mo.

I thought, “Hey, I don’t care how they present LBJ, but fast-forwarding to 2014 is a bit of stretch.”

Then I decided that maybe not, history aside, the same thing is really happening now. There’s not just Ferguson, but Cleveland, Brooklyn and other places. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports this morning that over the past 14 years, police in the state killed 31 blacks and 32 whites. Only 20 percent of the state’s population is black. Now that is a disturbing figure.

Another disturbing allusion to the present is the widespread move mostly by Republican politicians in the South and Southwest make it harder for people to register to vote. In one move scene, Oprah Winfrey wants to register before an arrogant white clerk. He asks her to recite the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. She does. He then asks her how many judges there are in Alabama. She gives the correct number. He then demands that she name all of them, which very few might have been able to do. She is rejected.

The moves to blunt new voters today is focused more on Hispanic immigrants but it is just as racist and wrong. And, Virginia is still stuck with the anti-voter policies of the Byrd Organization that was in power at the time of the Selma march. The idea, equally racist, was to keep ALL voters from participating in the political process as much as possible. That is why we have off-year elections and gerrymandered districts.

I was only 12 years old when Selma occurred but I remember watching it on television. I was living at the time in West Virginia which didn’t have that much racial tension. But I do remember flying out of National Airport in DC on the day that King was assassinated. The center of town, mostly 14th Street, appeared to be in flames.

Interview: McAuliffe’s Economic Goals

 maurice jonesBy Peter Galuszka

For a glimpse of where the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe is heading, here’s an interview I did with Maurice Jones, the secretary of commerce and trade that was published in Richmond’s Style Weekly.

Jones, a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College and University of Virginia law, is a former Rhodes Scholar who had been a deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama. Before that, he was publisher of The Virginian-Pilot, which owns Style.

According to Jones, McAuliffe is big on jobs creation, corporate recruitment and upgrading education, especially at the community college and jobs-training levels. Virginia is doing poorly in economic growth, coming in recently at No. 48, ahead of only Maryland and the District of Columbia which, like Virginia have been hit hard by federal spending cuts.

Jones says he’s been traveling overseas a lot in his first year in office. Doing so helped land the $2 billion paper with Shandong Tranlin in Chesterfield County. The project, which will create 2,000 jobs, is the largest single investment by the Chinese in the U.S. McAuliffe also backs the highly controversial $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline planned by Dominion because its natural gas should spawn badly-needed industrial growth in poor counties near the North Carolina border.

Read more, read here.

(Note: I have a new business blog going at Style Weekly called “The Deal.” Find it on Style’s webpage —   www.styleweekly.com)

Whatever Happened to “Boomergeddon?”

rush_limbaugh5By Peter Galuszka

Attention ditto-heads!

Before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last night, there was an interesting piece on CNN of hard-line conservatives claiming two years ago that the U.S. economy would collapse if Obama were re-elected.

They claimed that the U.S. faced uncontrollable government spending and ever-growing budget deficits. Obama’s efforts to kick-start the economy were just one missfire after another. Don’t believe me? Look up a zillion posts in Bacon’s Rebellion written by the usual suspects.

My favorite segment on the CNN report was radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh making his usual dire predictions about our plunge to Boomergeddon:

“How long does this country have if Obama wins? We’re headed toward an economic collapse and we are the leader of the world. ….If Obama’s re-elected, it will happen. There’s no IF about this. And it’s gonna be ugly. It’s gonna be gut-wrenching, but it will happen. The country’s economy is going to collapse if Obama is re-elected. I don’t know how long: a year and a half, two years, three years.”

Well we’re almost there and guess what? Obama felt comfortable enough strong economy last night to rebrand himself as a liberal and push programs to finally help out the middle class. They include a more fair tax system and helping make community college study free. In a University of Richmond poll in last year’s fourth quarter, most of the 62 chief executive officers of Central Virginia companies said they had “strong optimism” about the country’s brightening economic picture.

What about deficits? Well, not to raise any names associated with this blog, but last October, the budget deficit had dropped to its lowest level since the Great Recession. It had fallen to $483 billion in f/y 2014. That’s only 2.8 percent of GDP and less than the average of the previous 40 years, the U.S. Treasury Department reported.

Hmm. Does anyone have a copy of the book “Boomergeddon?” I can’t find mine and want one as a keepsake.

A Positive Alternative to Payday Lenders

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Thanks to the Methodist Church, Nina McCarthy found an alternative to expensive payday lenders to pay off her debt. Photo credit: Washington Post.

by James A. Bacon

It’s understandable that people get upset with payday loan companies. The short-term lenders, who use borrowers’ paychecks as collateral, charge interest rates that seem extortionate on an annualized basis. Many borrowers get caught on a treadmill of indebtedness, taking out new loans to pay off the old ones.

The problem with most consumer activists is that they focus primarily on shutting down payday lenders. But driving small-loan providers out of the market doesn’t do anything to help working-class people desperate for cash — it simply eliminates one of the few options available to them.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see churches stepping in with their own lending programs. In an article today, the Washington Post describes how the United Methodist Church in Richmond has created the Jubilee Assistance Fund, which uses church funds as collateral for parishioners to take out low-interest loans through the Virginia United Methodist Credit Union. Over 7 1/2 years, the program has helped parishioners secure 14 loans, from $500 to $8,800. Writes the Post:

Similar initiatives run by faith-based organizations across the country are shifting the way churches approach charity. These programs offer parishioners an alternative to commercial lending agencies, which often charge triple-digit annualized interest rates.

Unlike commercial lenders or even other nonprofit alternatives, these church-backed programs offer near-zero interest rates – a model, proponents say, that helps struggling borrowers get back on their feet.

This is a positive response, not a negative one, to the demand for small, short-term debt. Church programs provide poor people with more options — and better ones — than they had before, rather than taking options away.

Creating “jubilee” programs is consistent with Old Testament theology of loan forgiveness, and it plays to the natural strength of churches, which are communities of parishioners who support one another in times of need. As members of the community, borrowers arguably are more highly motivated to repay their debt. Accordingly, I would expect church lenders to enjoy lower default rates. Also, churches probably have a lot less paperwork and administrative overhead than payday lenders do. It will be interesting to see, though, if churches can achieve a scale that can help thousands, rather than dozens, of people in need.

(As an aside, please contrast the Methodist Church’s approach to economic insecurity to that of the village radicals disrupting Richmond City Council, described in the previous post. One actually helps people; the other just raises hell.)