Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

Tobacco Commission: Six of Eight Projects Fail

The old logo

The old logo

 By Peter Galuszka

Down Danville way, of eight companies that have received money from the Tobacco Region Opportunity Fund (the old, embattled tobacco commission) only two have managed to fulfill contractual obligations to create jobs and help the local economy.

According to a report by Vicky M. Cruz in the Danville Register & Bee, the six firms that have failed to meet their obligations mean a loss of 1,340 potential jobs and $63 million in local investment. It also means that Danville owes the tobacco commission $5.47 million.

Here’s a list of the companies.

The tobacco commission has been around since 1999 to supposedly help residents in the tobacco growing areas of the state move into non-leaf related jobs. The money came from the huge multi-billion dollar Master Settlement Agreement between four cigarette companies and 46 states that had sued them over health concerns.

The tobacco commission has been a bit of a sham. Money has been doled out without checks on how it was spent or how successful projects have been. A former director ended up in prison for siphoning off funds. A state audit has been ultra-critical of the fund, which figured in the political corruption conviction of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife.

Last month, Gov. Terry McAuliffe renamed the fund, appointed a new director and changed its board. The cases reported by the Register & Bee obviously date before the reforms. Let’s hope they work.

(Hat tip to Larry Gross).

Map of the Day: Disconnected Youth

youth_disconnection

Source: Social Science Research Council

A new report by the Social Science Research Council, “Zeroing in on Place and Race,” defines “disconnected youth” as Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school. Disconnected youth, who consist disproportionately of minorities and the poor, are at higher risk for a variety of social pathologies such as criminal activity and teenage pregnancy. Their delay in acquiring workforce skills and experience portends ill for their longer-term earning prospects. Here are the numbers for Virginia’s largest metros (listed by their ranking among the nation’s 98 largest metros):

disconnected_youth

— JAB

Crossing the Rubicon

cost-share

By Steve Haner

I don’t know about others, but I notified the Governor’s Office in March that I did not want another term on the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV). My goal in going on that panel was to advocate against skyrocketing tuition. Four years of a losing battle was enough.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported recently that incoming in-state freshmen at William and Mary will pay $30,350 a year, or $121,400 over four years, with room and board included. The “affordably accessible” University of Virginia will soon catch up. In both cases some of the increased tuition revenue is openly diverted to scholarships for others. How much remains to be seen.

In a presentation on “affordable excellence” to the General Assembly last month, the president of UVA argued that only 30 percent of Virginia families will be classified as so wealthy they have to pay this new top tuition price. That is not the question – the question is how many of the families of high school graduates entering UVA will have to pay it? That may be far higher than 30 percent. How many families will find that years of saving for college means they end up paying the higher price?

The economic incentive for both UVA and W&M will be to take in more and more students paying full freight. The economic incentive will be to limit the number of students accepted who need financial aid. Having moved this far without objection, I fear they will go further – seeking tuitions equal to the private schools they consider their competition.

The General Assembly may be accepting the new “from each according to his means” pricing structures at UVA and William and Mary because it is removes pressure to fund the alternative. As recently as 2011, in the so-called “Top Jobs of the 21st Century” legislation, the Assembly reaffirmed its commitment to funding 67 percent of the cost of an undergraduate program for in-state students. And the year before the state came very close to that, funding 62 percent overall.

The four years that followed were a period of erosion in state funds and tuitions rising far faster than inflation. In the school term ending in the spring of 2014, according to data I asked State Council for Higher Education in Virginia to compile, Virginia had crossed the Rubicon. The percentage of the cost of higher education for in-state undergraduates covered by the state fell to below 50 percent. In the school term just completed, it dropped another couple of points to 47 percent. Even at the low cost community colleges, the gateway schools, the state now covers less than half.

Tuition increases have made up the difference. From 2010 to 2014 the basic general fund account for the state schools started and ended at $1.3 billion (with a dip in between), which means due to inflation it lost value. From 2010 to 2014 non-general fund revenue (mostly tuition and fees) rose from $2.2 to $2.8 billion, an additional $600 million a year. Much of that money had to be borrowed by families. And those figures do not reflect what William and Mary and UVA are now doing. That will be fully reflected in future reports.

In the most recently adopted state budget there is a slight uptick in general funds for the schools for 2015-16. But two schools are receiving less support in 2015 than in 2010. Guess which two. The question now is how soon will Virginia Tech, James Madison or George Mason adopt the same pricing policy? Will they be forced to even if they would rather not?

This is a sea change in Virginia’s system of public higher education. I’m sure this will be popular with Virginia taxpayers (and voters) who feel they have no stake in the public institutions and thus resent paying taxes to support them. But it deserves more debate and discussion than it is getting, because I cannot see how raising the price of getting educated is going to result in a more educated populace.

Hottest Primary May Be 10th Senate District

 By Peter Galuszka

Emily Francis

Emily Francis

Primaries in Virginia used to be a bore, but no longer.

Last year, Dave Brat’s Tea Party-backed insurgency against the seemingly impregnable Eric Cantor garnered national headlines in the 7th Congressional District.

This year, you have several General Assembly races come June 9 that will seek to replace several prominent politicians who are retiring, including Republicans John Watkins of the 10th Senate District; Walter Stosch of the 12th Senate District; and Democrat Charles Colgan of the 29th.

I picked the 10th District race for a piece in Style Weekly. There, historic tax credit developer Dan Gecker, a long time Chesterfield County planning commissioner and supervisor, is up against progressive non-profit consultant Emily Francis and former delegate and lawyer Alex McMurtrie for the Democrat candidacy. Whoever wins faces Republican nominee Glen Sturtevant and Libertarian Carl Loser.

Dan Gecker

Dan Gecker

The race could well determine whether the state senate remains in Republican hands. Should the Democrat win, the mix in the senate could bounce back to 20-20; it is 21-19 now in favor of the GOP. Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington,  told me this is the race to watch.

What’s also curious is that the 10th District is a true anomaly. One might assume that such as district would be comfortably GOP. It isn’t since it stretches from the blue areas of Richmond like the Museum District and the Northside. It covers parts of the more conservative mega-neighborhoods of Brandermill and Woodlake in Chesterfield and then all of Powhatan County.

Instead of having the likes of Brat saying that his opponent isn’t conservative enough, Francis says she’s the only true progressive in the race.

Another quirk is that Gecker, a moderate who says he’s a progressive, figured in the Bill Clinton impeachment.

Back in the 1990s, he was lawyer to Kathleen Willey, a Powhatan resident who claimed that Clinton groped her in the White House. Gecker represented her in a book deal. Some Democrats have said that Gecker is a Clinton-basher – an interesting claim now that part of the Democratic establishment is gearing Hillary Clinton for another presidential run.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton confidante, has tried to smooth things over by endorsing Gecker.

Two Stories on Change in Richmond’s Suburbs

 

New wegmans site

New wegmans site

By Peter Galuszka

Well, well,

Jim Bacon has this month’s cover story in the Henrico Monthly about the changing nature of office parks in one county that has plenty of them.

Not to be outdone, I have my own cover story in the Chesterfield Monthly, a sister magazine published by the same people.

My piece is about how Midlothian Turnpike, the main artery of suburban sprawl in Chesterfield County, is being led into its next iteration y two new types of grocery stores.

One is the high-end Wegmans. The other is New Grand Market, a large-scale international food store that reflects Richmond’s fast-growing diversity and foreign flare.

I think both of our pieces, in different ways, reflect big shifts in two of the largest counties in the state. (I wonder if I got paid more than he did).

Will the “Ferguson Effect” Kill Urban Renewal?

by James A. Bacon

Baltimore is the East Coast’s answer to Detroit, a once-prosperous city hollowing out from decades of mismanagement under the Blue State governance model. By the time the Washington Village Development Association (WVDA) filmed its documentary, “Fleeing Baltimore,” in 2013, 31,500 residents had abandoned Maryland’s largest city over the previous decade. Sixteen thousand buildings stood vacant. The documentary described how heroic efforts of middle-class Baltimoreans, both black and white, to clean up trash, combat crime and provide positive experiences for inner city youth were overwhelmed by the ineffectiveness of the city’s criminal justice system.

If conditions were hostile to the middle class two years ago, imagine what it is like now. Last month, a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, died under mysterious circumstances in police custody, raising concerns about police abuse and laying bare a history of strained relations between police and the city’s poor black population. Riots ensued, and now gun violence is up 60% compared to the same time last year. Thirty-two shootings took place over Memorial Day weekend.

Similar explosions in violence are occurring in cities across the United States as as police and inner-city populations react to a series of incidents in which unarmed black men died at the hands of white police. In what what urbanist Heather Mac Donald calls the “Ferguson effect,” police are disengaging from discretionary enforcement activity, the criminal element is feeling empowered and a wave of violence has reversed much of twenty years’ decline in crime rates.

If the surge in murder and violence is foreshadowing of things to come, it will have a tremendous impact on the livability of major urban areas. Two outcomes can be predicted. First, middle-class households with the means to do so will flee the urban core. Second, law-abiding African-Americans living in high-crime neighborhoods but lacking the means to flee will suffer the most.

I’m not disputing the ugly reality that police abuses occur in poor African-American communities. I’m not disputing the fact that police sometimes commit violent crimes themselves, or that African-Americans have a basis for mistrusting the police in some cities. These are real problems that our society must grapple with. But I’m also arguing that the over-reaction to these problems threatens to un-do much of the progress we’ve made in the past twenty years in fighting the scourge of crime and revitalizing our central cities.

Police officers increasingly second-guess themselves in the use of force, writes Mac Donald, writing in the Wall Street Journal. “Any cop who uses his gun now has to worry about being indicted and losing his job and family,” one policeman told her. If police are more timid in applying force, the bad guys will be emboldened in their criminality. She continues:

Even if officer morale were to miraculously rebound, policies are being put into place that will make it harder to keep crime down in the future. Those initiatives reflect the belief that any criminal-justice action that has a disparate impact on blacks is racially motivated.

In New York, pedestrian stops — when the police question and sometimes frisk individuals engaged in suspicious behavior — have dropped nearly 95% from their 2011 high. … Politicians and activists in New York and other cities have now taken aim at “broken windows” policing.

Meanwhile, the move to end “mass incarceration” is gaining momentum across the country. Across the board, Americans are second-guessing the strategies that largely won the “war on crime.” The results will look a lot like Baltimore as productive, law-abiding citizens flee jurisdictions where anarchy and disorder prevail for the safety of suburban jurisdictions.

Watch the WVDA documentary, and you’ll wonder how the city of Baltimore can ever reverse its decline. One of the most basic human needs is a desire to feel safe from physical harm. If the rebound in crime is more than a passing blip — if peoples’ perceptions of crime in American cities undergoes a major change — the human cost will prove devastating and urban jurisdictions once again will slip into the corrosive spiral of rising crime, middle-class flight, shrinking tax base and busted budgets from which we hoped they had escaped.

New Film Documents Horrors of Coal Mining

blood on the moutain posterBy Peter Galuszka

Several years in the making, “Blood on the Mountain” has finally premiered in New York City. The documentary examines the cycle of exploitation of people and environment by West Virginia’s coal industry highlighting Massey Energy, a coal firm that was based in Richmond.

The final cut of the film was released publicly May 26 at Anthology Film Archives as part of the “Workers Unite! Film Festival” funded in part by the Fund for Creative Communities, the Manhattan Community Arts Fund and the New York State Council of the Arts.

Directed by Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman, the film shows that how for more than a century, coal companies and politicians kept coal workers laboring in unsafe conditions that killed thousands while ravaging the state’s mountain environment.

As Bruce Stanley, a lawyer from Mingo County, W.Va. who is interviewed in the film and has fought Donald L. Blankenship, the notorious former head of Massey Energy, says, there isn’t a “War on Coal,” it is a “war waged by coal on West Virginia.”

When hundreds of striking workers protested onerous and deadly working conditions in the early 1920s, they were met with machine guns and combat aircraft in a war that West Virginia officials kept out of history books. They didn’t teach it when I was in grade school there in the 1960s. I learned about the war in the 1990s.

The cycle of coal mine deaths,environmental disaster and regional poverty continues to this day. In 2010, safety cutbacks at a Massey Energy mine led to the deaths of 29 miners in the worst such disaster in 40 years. Mountains in Central Appalachia, including southwest Virginia, continue to be ravaged by extreme strip mining.

As Jeff Biggers said in a review of the movie in the Huffington Post:

“Thanks to its historical perspective, Blood on the Mountains keeps hope alive in the coalfields — and in the more defining mountains, the mountain state vs. the “extraction state” — and reminds viewers of the inspiring continuum of the extraordinary Blair Mountain miners’ uprising in 1921, the victory of Miners for Democracy leader Arnold Miller as the UMWA president in the 1970s, and today’s fearless campaigns against mountaintop-removal mining.”

The movie (here is the trailer) is a personal mission for me. In 2013, after my book “Thunder on the Mountain, Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” was published by St. Martin’s Press, Mari-Lynn Evans called me and said she liked the book and wanted me to work with her on the movie project. She is from a small town in West Virginia a little south of where I spent several years as a child and thought some of my observations in the book rang true.

I drove out to Beckley, W.Va. for several hours of on-camera interviews. Over the next two years, I watched early versions, gave my criticisms and ideas and acted as a kind of consultant. Mari-Lynn’s production company is in Akron and I visited other production facilities in New York near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Interesting work if you can get it. My only forays into film making before had been with my high school film club where he videographed a coffin being lowered into a grave (in West Virginia no less). I was greatly impressed when I saw the movie at its New York premiere.

Mari-Lynn and Jordan have been filming in the region for years. They collaborated on “The Appalachians,” an award-winning three-part documentary that was aired on PBS a few years ago and on “Coal Country” which dealt with mountaintop removal strip mining.

They and writer Phyllis Geller spent months detailing how coal companies bought up land on the cheap from unwitting residents, hired miners and other workers while intimidating them and abusing them, divided communities and plundered some very beautiful mountains.

Upper Big Branch is just a continuation of the mine disasters that have killed thousands. The worst was Monongah in 1907 with a death toll of at least 362; Eccles in 1914 with 183 dead; and Farmington in 1968 with 78 dead (just a county over from where I used to live).

By 2008 while Blankenship was CEO of Massey, some 52 miners were killed. Then came Upper Big Branch with 29 dead in 2010.

At least 700 were killed by silicosis in the 1930s after Union Carbine dug a tunnel at Hawks Nest. Many were buried in unmarked graves.

While state regulation has been lame, scores West Virginia politicians have been found guilty of taking bribes, including ex-Gov. Arch Moore.

The movie is strong stuff. I’ll let you know where it will be available. A new and expanded paperback version of my book is available from West Virginia University Press.

Blankenship is scheduled to go on trial on federal charges related to Upper Big Branch on July 13.

Fixing Food Deserts Won’t Fix Food Insecurity

by James A. Bacon

Speaking of food…food_desert there’s new research out on the differences in diet and nutrition between different socioeconomic groups. The conventional wisdom is that a major factor explaining the gap in nutritional quality between affluent and poor Americans is the difficulty poor people have in accessing fresher, healthier food — the food desert phenomenon.

Using new data sets unavailable to previous researchers, Jessie Handbury, Molly Schnell and Ilya Rahkovsky were able to hone in food-buying practices of poor and affluent shoppers in the same grocery store. They found that the same patterns prevailed  — affluent people buy healthier, more nutritious food than poor people do.

“Our results indicate that improving access to healthy foods alone will do little to close the gap in the nutritional quality of grocery purchases across different socioeconomic groups,” they write in “What Drives Nutritional Disparities? Retail Access and Food Purchases across the Socioeconomic Spectrum,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Improving the concentration and nutritional quality of stores in the average low-income and low-education neighborhood to match those of the average high-income and high-education neighborhood would only close the gap in nutritional consumption across these groups by 1-3%.”

The authors suggest that two other variables are at play: the price of food and consumer preferences for certain kinds of food over others. Their research did not indicate the relative importance of those factors played in influencing food purchases.

Bacon’s bottom line: Once food preferences are established, it is very difficult to change them. That’s not to say it can’t be done — If I learned to like brocolli and brussel sprouts, for cryin’ out loud, anybody can change their food preferences — but it is a long, slow process. The problem is compounded by the fact that the food preferred by the poor — loaded with salt, fat and sugar — is engineered to taste better than healthy foods. And it’s compounded yet again by the fact is that many Americans across the income spectrum have lost the cultural knowledge of how to cook healthy foods. Educated Americans acquire that knowledge by watching cooking channels, buying cook books, and exposing themselves to new foods at finer restaurants. Those options are less available to the poor.

Spending money to induce grocery stores to locate in food deserts and stock their shelves with nutritious food is a fool’s errand. Grocers won’t stock shelf space with food that no one buys. Conversely, if poor people (a) showed a strong preference for nutritious food and (b) could afford to buy it, grocers would need no prodding — they would supply what the customer demanded.

The lousy nutrition of America’s poor is a demand-side problem, not a supply-side problem. To change how America eats, the first order of business is to change what Americans want to eat and can afford to eat.

The Parental Backlash Against SOL Tests

SOL LogoBy Peter Galuszka

Although their numbers are small, more Virginia parents are refusing to have their children take the state’s Standards of Learning tests, saying that test preparation takes away from true education.

In the 2013 -14 school year, 681 SOL tests were coded as parent refusals out of the nearly three million given, with Northern Virginia, Prince William County in particular, having the highest number.

Some parents are annoyed that teachers in public schools spend so much time teaching how to take the SOLs, which are used to measure a child’s educational standing and also rate how well school districts are performing.

“Students can spend up to one-third of their time of the school year preparing for the tests and that is wrong,” says Gabriel Reich, an associate professor of teaching and learning at Virginia Commonwealth University. Last year, he refused to allow his fifth-grade daughter to take the tests.

It isn’t really clear if parents and their children have the legal right to take the tests or not. If parents refuse, the child gets a “zero.” That might go against the school’s overall rating.

How it affects the student isn’t clear. Continual refusals could keep children out of special programs, such as ones for gifted students. But students from private schools, where SOLs are not usually taken, regularly transfer to public schools with little problem.

In different parts of the state, parents have formed grass roots groups to educate and support parents who have concerns that the mania for standardized testing is hurting true education.

Throughout the state, ad hoc groups are forming where parents can meet and plan refusals. In Richmond, RVA Opt Out meets every third Monday evening of the month and has tripled its attendance in the past several years.

Confronting standardized testing is in part a reaction of politicians who insist that standardized testing is a primary – if not the only – way to make sure that students are being educated properly. Such tests have been around for years but got a strong boost in former President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program of 2002.

Standardized testing has also been used as a weapon against teachers’ unions. Some politicians have suggested that data from SOLs and other tests be collated and configured to give individual teachers ratings that could be made public – something teachers associations bitterly oppose.

What’s more, SOL and other similar data have been used for purposes that have little to do with education. Realtors often collect schools’ performance data to push home sales in certain neighborhoods to give for sale prospects snob appeal.

Critics say that multiple-choice testing doesn’t always reflect a student’s ability to think or show what he or she really understands. It also doesn’t reflect creativity to draw, paint or perform or write music.

The anti-testing movement is growing nationally. In one case in New York state, about 1.1 million children in grades three through eight typically take reading and math tests. Last year, about 67,000 children skipped the tests.

The push-back is growing.

Finally, Tobacco Commission Gets Reforms

Feinman

Feinman

By Peter Galuszka

Virginia’s infamous tobacco commission appears to be finally getting needed reforms 15 years after it went into existence.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced today that he was appointing a new executive director, Lynchburg native Evan Feinman, ordering a slimmed down board of directors and requiring a dollar-for-dollar match on grants the commission doles out to support community development in Virginia’s old tobacco belt.

In another break with the past, McAuliffe is renaming the old Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission as the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

That might sound cosmetic, but any change is welcome given the commission’s history.

Since its formation after the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between 46 states and four large cigarette makers, the commission has been spending millions of dollars won from the tobacco firms supposedly to help tobacco growers in a region roughly following the North Carolina border wean themselves off of the golden leaf toward economic projects that are far healthier.

Instead, the commission has been racked by scandal after scandal, including the conviction of a former director, John W. Forbes II, for embezzling $4 million in public money. He is now serving a 10-year jail sentence.

The commission also figured in the corruption trial of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell since it was suggested my McDonnell as a possible source of funding for businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. during McDonnell’s trial for corruption. Williams, who was the star prosecution witness against McDonnell, got help from McDonnell in promoting one of his vitamin supplement products. McDonnell was convicted of 11 felonies and is now appealing.

The old commission also has been criticized by a major state audit for funding dubious projects and not keeping track of whether the money it has doled out has done much good. It had been criticized for acting as a slush fund for projects favored by Southside and southwestern Virginia politicians.

McAuliffe’s reforms include reducing the commission’s board from 31 to 28 members and requiring that 13 of them have experience in business, finance or education.

Feinman has been deputy secretary of natural resources and worked with McAuliffe’s post-election team.

It’s too soon, of course, to know if these changes will bring results, but anything that moves the commission away from its past and the grasp of mossback Tobacco Road politicians is welcome.