Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

A Positive Alternative to Payday Lenders

mccarthy

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.)

Virginia’s Top Stories in 2014

mcd convictedBy Peter Galuszka

The Year 2014 was quite eventful if unsettling. It represented some major turning points for the Old Dominion.

Here are my picks for the top stories:

  • Robert F. McDonnell becomes the highest-ranking former or serving state official to be convicted of corruption. The six-week-long trial from July to September of the Republican former governor and his wife, Maureen, was international news. In terms of trash, it offered everything – greed, tackiness, a dysfunctional marriage, a relationship “triangle,” and an inner glimpse of how things work at the state capital.  More importantly, it ends forever the conceit that there is a “Virginia Way” in which politicians are gentlemen above reproach, the status quo prevails and ordinary voters should be kept as far away from the political process as possible. It also shows the unfinished job of reforming ethics. The hidden heroes are honest state bureaucrats who resisted top-down pushes to vet dubious vitamin pills plus the State Police who did their investigative duty.
  • Eric Cantor loses. Cantor, another Republican, had been riding high as the 7th District Congressman and House Majority Leader. A wunderkind of the Richmond business elite, Cantor was positioned to be House Speaker and was considered invulnerable, at least until David Brat, an unknown college economics professor and populist libertarian, exploited fractures in the state GOP to win a stunning primary upset. Cantor immediately landed in a high-paying lobbying job for a financial house.
  • Terry McAuliffe takes over. The Democrat Washington insider and Clinton crony beat hard-right fanatic Kenneth Cuccinelli in a tight 2013 race. He bet almost everything on getting the GOP-run General Assembly to expand Medicaid benefits to 400,000 low income Virginians. He lost and will try again. He’s done a pretty good job at snaring new business, notably the $2 billion Shandong-Tralin paper mill from China for Chesterfield County. It will employ 2,000.
  • Roads projects blow up. Leftover highway messes such as the bypass of U.S. 29 in Charlottesville finally got spiked for now. Big questions remain about what happened to the $400 million or so that the McDonnell Administration spent on the unwanted U.S. 460 road to nowhere in southeastern Virginia.
  • Gay marriage becomes legal. A U.S. District Judge in Norfolk found Virginia’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional and the U.S. Supreme Court pushed opening gay marriage farther. The rulings helped turn the page on the state’s prejudicial past, such as the ban on interracial marriage that lasted until the late 1960s.
  • Fracking changes state energy picture. A flood of natural gas from West Virginia and Pennsylvania has utilities like Dominion Resources pushing gas projects. It’s been nixing coal plants and delaying new nukes and renewables. Dominion is also shaking things up by pitching a $5 billion, 550-mile-long pipeline through some of the state’s most picturesque areas – just one of several pipelines being pitched. The EPA has stirred things up with complex new rules in cutting carbon emissions and the state’s business community and their buddies at the State Corporation Commission have organized a massive opposition campaign. McAuliffe, meanwhile, has issued his “everything” energy plan that looks remarkably like former governor McDonnell’s.
  • State struggles with budget gaps. Sequestration of federal spending and defense cuts have sent officials scrambling to plug a $2.4 billion gap in the biennial budget. It is back to the same old smoke and mirrors to raise taxes while not seeming to. Obvious solutions – such as raising taxes on gasoline and tobacco – remain off limits.
  • College rape became a hot issue after Rolling Stone printed a flawed story about an alleged gang rape of a female student at the prestigious University of Virginia in 2012. Progressives pushed for raising awareness while conservatives took full advantage of the reporter’s reporting gaps to pretend that sex abuse is not really an issue.
  • Poverty is on the radar screen, especially in Richmond which has poverty rate of 27 percent (70 percent in some neighborhoods) and other spots such as Newport News. Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones got a lot of national press attention for his campaign to eradicate poverty but it is really hard to understand what he’s actually doing or whether it is successful. The real attention in Richmond is on such essentials as replacing the Diamond baseball stadium, justifying a training camp for the Washington Redskins and giving big subsidies for a rich San Diego brewer of craft beer.
  • Day care regulation. Virginia has a horrible reputation for allowing small, home day care centers to operate without regulation. Dozens have children have died over the past few years at them. This year there were deaths at centers in Midlothian and Lynchburg.
  • The continued madness of the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission. This out-of-control slush fund in the tobacco belt continued its waywardness by talking with Democratic State Sen. Phil Pucket about a six-figure job just as Puckett was to resign and deny a swing vote in the senate in favor of expanding Medicaid. The commission also drew attention for inside plays by the politically powerful Kilgore family and giving $30 million in an unsolicited grant to utility Dominion.

Redistricting, Ethics Panel Pushes Ahead

seal_virginiaBy Peter Galuszka

Against strong chances that their efforts will be killed in the self-serving General Assembly, a panel is pushing ahead with badly needed reforms in government ethics and redistricting.

The bipartisan Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government wants to change the state constitution to create and independent redistricting commission tasked with remaking voting districts without regard to an election’s outcome.

Headed by Republican former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Democrat former U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, the group proposes that the redistricting commission be made up of five members. One each would be chosen by the House of Delegates speaker and minority leader and the same in the Senate. The four people would choose a fifth one and if they can’t decide, the state’s chief justice of the state Supreme Court would make the decision.

The idea is coming forward after two big events. One is the first-time ever conviction of a former or sitting governor in the state on corruption charges. The other was a federal court decision in October that the lines of the 3rd Congressional District were drawn in an unconstitutional way by packing in African-Americans. Doing so ensured victories by black politicians while diluted the black vote in neighboring ones.

The state constitution requires state and federal districts to be redrawn every 10 years to changes in settlement patterns. It has also been complicated by the Voting Rights Act, a 1960s-era vehicle that tried to correct the wrongs of white-dominated Southern states erecting districts so black votes were kept away.

At the moment very few of the races of other General Assembly are competitive. They are designed to keep incumbents in power which, in most rural districts, are Republicans. Thus, the real clash of ideas comes from a very tiny margin of voters and activists at Republican primaries that are often not representative of mainstream thinking.

Likewise, Virginia badly needs to address its “anything goes” policies regarding campaign donations and accepting gifts. This is a big reason why Robert F. McDonnell got into such big trouble with his corruption conviction that could put him in jail for a decade or more. Gov. Terry McAuliffe created the Bolling-Boucher commission just after McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted in a federal court in Richmond.

These reforms are absolutely necessary. If the General Assembly stubbornly deep-sixes the redistricting plan, someone else will have to come in. A federal judge has given the state until April 15 to redraw the 3rd district or the feds will do it.

And, as the McDonnell case shows, if Virginia goes over the top with ethics violations, the feds will do it, too. Underlining that point, the U.S. Probation Office is recommending double the usual prison time for McDonnell. Analysts say it is to make the statement crystal clear.

But, this is Virginia, unfortunately. Instead of dealing head-on with serious ethics problems, the ruling elite is mounting a campaign to give McDonnell time in community service instead of behind bars. Its proponents include the usual players like House Speaker Bill Howell and Tom Farrell of the utility Dominion.

Their game is to keep the status quo for as long as they can. Too bad times are changing, but the longer they stall, the more they hurt the people of Virginia.

End Student Subsidies for College Athletics

Hey, Wahoo soccer team, congratulations on winning the national championship this year! We're proud of you. Now, figure out how to make your team financially self-supporting and stop dunning the general student population.

Hey, Wahoo soccer team, congratulations on winning the national championship this year! We’re proud of you. Now, figure out how to make your team financially self-supporting and stop dunning the general student population for your most excellent college experience.

by James A. Bacon

House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, is intimately acquainted with the high and rising cost of higher education in Virginia. His two oldest have graduated from Longwood University and James Madison University, and he has two high-schoolers on the way. Not surprisingly, he describes himself as “stressed and anxious” about the increasing cost of higher education.

Unlike most of us, Cox is in a position to do something about it. In a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed, he said that he plans introduce legislation this year that will place caps on mandatory non-educational student fees at Virginia universities.

Student fees are only one factor driving up the rising cost of higher education, but they are the fastest-growing factor. Mandatory fees unrelated to education now represent one-third of total tuition and fees, or about $3,500 per year on average, Cox says. That’s up 99% since 2003. Writes Cox:

These fees are used to pay for a number of functions, but a significant portion is used to fund intercollegiate athletics. Only 3 percent of Virginia students play intercollegiate sports, but student fees fund approximately 69 percent of expenditures in athletic programs at Virginia’s four-year schools. In other words, non-athletes and their parents are paying about two-thirds of the cost of intercollegiate athletics. …

Athletic programs are an important part of the college experience. Virginia is fortunate to have competitive college athletic programs that make students and alumni proud. But we simply cannot ask students who will never play a minute of college sports to bear such a disproportionate share of the costs associated with these programs.

I totally agree, but I’d go farther. Male football and basketball programs pay their own way. No other sports program does. If students want to participate in volleyball, soccer, tennis and the like as part of their college experience, let them pay for it themselves. I studied Korean martial arts at the University of Virginia many moons ago. Everybody kicked in to pay an instructor to drive down from Northern Virginia to teach us. We didn’t think anything about it. Obviously, traveling sports teams with full-time coaches would cost a lot more. Perhaps they should emulate the non-profit soccer and Little League programs here in Henrico County (and many other places) that raise money from parents, bequests, fund-raisers ticket sales and the like.

Once upon a time, it may have been appropriate for colleges and universities to pass on the cost of college athletics to the general student population. But Boards of Trustees simply have to re-think priorities when the cost of education becomes unaffordable to most. Why should one student be compelled to rack up additional student debt to subsidize the amateur athletic experience of another? And not to go all Al Sharpton on the issue, but let’s consider the social justice ramifications. How many  poor and minority students participate in lacrosse, golf, rowing, swimming & diving and field hockey? Is it fair to ask poor and minority students to subsidize the college experience of preppy white students?

Runaway student fees deserve a much closer look. Personally, I’d give public universities ten years to put their athletic programs on a self-funding basis and phase out subsidies from student fees entirely. But Kirk Cox’s proposal, though modest, is a good start.

Big Energy’s Conspiracy with Attorneys General

Former Va. Atty. Gen. Miller --toady for Big Energy

Former Va. Atty. Gen. Miller –toady for Big Energy

By Peter Galuszka

What seems to be strong opposition to a host of initiatives by President Barack Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to curtail carbon and other forms of pollution is no mere coincidence.

According to a deeply reported story in Sunday’s New York Times, some state attorneys general, most of them Republicans, are part of what seems to be a covert conspiracy to oppose carbon containment rules in letters ghost-written by energy firms.

And, there’s a big Virginia connection in former Democratic Atty. Gen. Andrew P. Miller and George Mason University which have been bankrolled by conservative and Big Energy money for years.

The cabal has drawn its modus operandi from the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by the ultra-right, oil-rich Koch Brothers of Kansas. In that case, ALEC prepares “templates” of nearly identical legislation that fits the laissez-faire market and anti-government and regulation principles held dear by the energy and other big industries. Many marquee-name corporations such as Pepsi, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble have dropped their ALEC membership  after public outcries.

In the case of the attorneys general, big petroleum firms like Devon Energy Corporation of Oklahoma draft letters opposing proposals that might hurt their profits such as ones to regulate methane, which can be a dangerous and polluting result of hydraulic fracking for natural gas. The Times notes that Oklahoma Atty. Gen. E. Scott Pruitt then took Devon’s letter and, almost-word-for-word, submitted it in his “comments” opposing EPA’s proposed rules on regulating fracking and methane.

The secretive group involves a great deal of interplay involving the Republican Governor’s Association which, of course, helps channel big bucks campaign contribution to acceptable, pro-business attorneys general. In 2006 and 2010, Greg Abbott of Texas got more than $2.4 million from the group. Former Virginia Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli got $174,5638 during his 2009 campaign.

One not-so-strange bedfellow is former Virginia Atty. Gen. Andrew P. Miller who was in office from 1970 to 1977 and is now 82 years-old. He’s been very business promoting energy firms. As the Times writes:

Andrew P. Miller, a former attorney general of Virginia, has in the years since he left office built a practice representing major energy companies before state attorneys general, including Southern Company and TransCanada, the entity behind the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The New York Times collected emails Mr. Miller sent to attorneys general in several states.

“Mr. Miller approached Attorney General Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma in April 2012, with the goal of helping to encourage Mr. Pruitt, who then had been in office about 18 months, to take an even greater role in serving as a national leader of the effort to block Obama administration environmental regulations.

“Mr. Miller worked closely with Mr. Pruitt, and representatives from an industry-funded program at George Mason, to organize a summit meeting in Oklahoma City that would assemble energy industry lobbyists, lawyers and executives to have closed-door discussions with attorneys general. The companies that were invited, such as Devon Energy, were in most cases also major campaign donors to the Republican Attorneys General Association.

“Mr. Miller asked [West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey] to help push legislation opposing an Obama administration plan to regulate carbon emissions from existing coal-burning power plants. Legislation nearly identical to what Mr. Miller proposed was introduced in the West Virginia Legislature and then passed. Mr. Morrisey disputed any suggestion that he played a role.”

Not only that, but George Mason has an energy study center that is bankrolled by Big Energy and tends to produce policy studies of what the energy firms want. It also has the Mercatus Center, a right-wing think tank bankrolled by the Koch Brothers.

So, when you see what seems to be a tremendous outcry against badly needed regulations to curb carbon emissions and make sure that fracking is safe, it may not be an accident. And, it comes from attorneys general who should be protecting the interests of average residents in their states instead of being toadies for Big Energy.

Virginia’s Very Own Keystone XL

acl pipeline map By Peter Galuszka

The rise of natural gas keeps raising more questions about the proper future of Virginia’s and the nation’s energy policies. What just a little while ago seemed a benign source of energy has gushed into a mass of controversy and advantage.

One focus of the conflict – good and bad – is the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline that Dominion Transmission and three other southern utilities want to build from the booming natural gas fracklands of northern West Virginia, across sensitive Appalachian terrain and on through Virginia and North Carolina.

The pipeline is unusual since it doesn’t follow the usual post World War II path – Gulf States to the industrial northeast — but it shows just how the U.S. energy picture is being turned on its head.

People in West Virginia have faced the raw end of energy issues for a century and a half, but it is a new matter for the bucolic areas of Nelson County and some of Virginia’s most pristine and appealing mountain country.

Here is a story I wrote for Style Weekly on the promises and problems of Virginia’s very own Keystone XL.

Enforcing the American Way of Poverty

Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

A critical but unappreciated contributor to poverty in the United States is the paucity of “social capital” among the poor. Social capital is the term economists use to describe informal knowledge and networks in communities that enable people to collaborate for their mutual benefit and greater good.  The term encompasses such intangibles as trust, reciprocity and cooperation. The United States is rich in social capital, at least in the professional and middle classes. Outside of churches, however, America’s poor have little social capital. That lack is both an effect of their poverty and a cause of it.

Poor African-Americans once had significant of social capital when they had cohesive communities, even during the Jim Crow regime of discrimination and segregation. But planners, do-gooders and advocates of “civic progress” did tremendous damage to African-American communities in the post-World War II era through slum clearance programs, the blasting of freeways through their neighborhoods and other state/local government initiatives. It is widely acknowledged by scholars of all ideological stripes that misbegotten social engineering of the 1950s and 1960s not only demolished African-American communities but disrupted important social ties that ameliorated the condition of poverty.

Unfortunately, the current generation of government practitioners appear to be eager to repeat the mistakes of the past. Writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, John Moeser and Shay Auerbach, warn that the campaign to “clean up” trailer parks in South Richmond could lead to the physical eviction and social disruption of thousands of poor, in this case, mostly Latinos.

Richmond has nine mobile home parks, all in South Richmond and all along the Jeff Davis, Midlothian and Hull Street corridors. Father Shay Auerbach, one of the authors of this column, is the Catholic pastor of the geographic area where all nine mobile home parks are located and knows well many of the residents of the parks and the social dynamics within their communities.

Most park residents are homeowners; they own their own manufactured houses and rent the lot. Some grow small gardens and, in some cases, raise chickens. Despite their sparse social safety nets, they resourcefully create communities bound by language and extended families that provide mutual support for child care, transportation, illness, loss and security. Connection, community and stability characterize park residents despite their tenuous economic status.

Thousands of energetic and hardworking people want to make Richmond their home. For their children, Richmond is the only home they know. Even the poorest members of this community are willing to work and make short-term sacrifices for their children’s future.

Purchasing an inexpensive manufactured home in a community is a crucial first step up the economic ladder for immigrant families. Whether these new city residents become fully integrated into Richmond life or over time lose hope and find that they have been relegated to a cycle of poverty depends largely on how the wider Richmond community embraces them.

Already, some residents are finding their mobile home communities being dismantled with no plan and very little support. Code enforcement “sweeps” — the building commissioner’s own term — are well underway in two of South Richmond’s mobile home parks and are planned for all nine. Remember, many of these homes are owner-occupied.

Bacon’s bottom line: Since the early 1900s, when the United States first introduced public housing, do-gooders have mistaken material poverty for spiritual (or cultural) poverty. Material poverty reflects a lack of income, a predicament tied to the business cycle and the availability of economic opportunity or the lack thereof. Spiritual/cultural poverty amplifies the challenges of material poverty through single-parent households, teen pregnancies, child neglect and abuse, substance abuse, criminality, dropping out of high school and other notorious challenges often associated with, but not caused by, material poverty.

It appears that the Latino immigrants living in material poverty in South Richmond have brought the resilience of their native cultures with them. They have not yet been fully acculturated to the American way of poverty. They own property. They grow their own vegetables. They collaborate to provide child care and transportation to work. They support one another in ways that the American poor typically do not. Now local authorities, mistaking material poverty for spiritual poverty, seem determined to disrupt these self-supporting communities. If this trailer-camp initiative is not thwarted, we can foretell the disruption of the Latino residents’ resilient culture and their conversion into “real Americans” who depend upon government for their subsistence.

Who Speaks for the Victims of the “Victims”?

disciplineby James A. Bacon

Cosmological theorists posit the existence of an infinitude of alternate universes. In one of those universes, perhaps there is one with a Henrico County School System that collects data showing that African-American students are more likely to suffer from violence and disrupted classes in school rather than data showing that African-American students are more likely to be suspended from school.

Unfortunately, in our universe, an array of political forces focuses public sympathy upon the kids who disrupt the learning environment rather than those whose learning is disrupted. The trouble makers are classified as victims. The victims of the victims are ignored.

As a result, readers of the Times-Dispatch are treated to yet another front-page hand-wringer about the disproportionate suspension of African-American students in Henrico schools. Over five years, it appears, Henrico has succeeded in reducing the number of suspensions from almost 10,200 in the school year ending in 2010 to 6,500 in the school year ending in 2014. Alas, in so doing, the percentage of African-Americans among all suspended students has increased from 74.6% to 77.7% over the same period. Reporter Ted Strong quotes the usual suspects on how the disparate results might reflect discrimination against African-Americans and gives a megaphone to School Board member Lamont Bagby, who wants more resources for more intensive therapeutic services for the kids creating the trouble.

This entire controversy is built upon the statistical disparity in suspensions between African-Americans and students of other racial/ethnic classifications. African-Americans account for 36.8% of the students in the school system but 77.7% of the suspensions. That disparity by itself is deemed evidence of discrimination as opposed to, say, evidence of lower incomes, rate of single-mother households or other sociological features of the African-American population. The Times-Dispatch has systematically mined the “discrimination” angle but given virtually no attention whatsoever to the socio-economic characteristics of the students being disciplined.

The Times-Dispatch skips over the fact that most suspensions take place in overwhelmingly black-majority schools where teachers and administrators are themselves disproportionately black. It apparently has never occurred to the Times-Dispatch to ask if African-American teachers and administrators are prone to discriminating against students of their own race or if they are simply responding to incidents on a case-by-cash basis, in which a disproportionate number of troubled, disruptive kids are black.

Perhaps worse, the Times-Dispatch has shown no concern whatsoever for the victims of the so-called victims. What are the standards and procedures for suspending a student? How much disruptive behavior are students permitted before they are suspended? The T-D does not tell us. Has the T-D interviewed teachers and principals to ask if they are frustrated by the limited means at their disposal to discipline misbehaving students? Are teachers frustrated by the disruption to their classes? Do teachers feel that the learning experience of other students is diminished by the disruption? No, of course not. Those questions never occur to the T-D.

How many hours of classroom time — in effect, stolen from students who want to learn — does a student have to disrupt before getting suspended? How many hours of classroom time in total have been lost due to misbehaving students? No one measures those numbers and the T-D does not think to ask.

What has been the impact of the Henrico public school policy aimed at reducing the number of suspensions? Has the number of disruptive incidents declined as well, or are school administrators simply tolerating more ill discipline in order to reduce the number of suspensions ? What has been the impact on academic achievement of Henrico school kids — in particular, what has been the impact on schools where the most incidents and suspensions occur? Is it possible that the crackdown on suspensions has led to an increase in the level of disruptive behavior that has had a deleterious impact on learning? And, if such a perverse consequence has arisen from the policy, to what extent have African-American students been the victims of it?

Henrico public schools do not measure the data needed to answer such questions, or, if they do, the T-D does not think to ask for it. Therefore, readers are left with the impression that the Henrico County Public Schools are likely discriminating against African-American students. Perhaps they are. But the case is far from proven. For all we know, the failure to discipline disruptive kids is discriminating against African-American students. Maybe in an alternate universe, an alternate Times-Dispatch is telling that story.

Bringing Big Data to the Poverty Debate

Here is a positive development in state government that will never get the attention it deserves: The Virginia Department of Social Services is joining four other state agencies in contributing data to the Virginia Longitudinal Data System (VLDS).

VLDS is a system for accessing data maintained by the Virginia Department of Education, the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, the Virginia Employment Commission and the community college system. The program allows researchers to gain insight into what public policy initiatives will most cost-effectively prepare Virginians for a modern, 21st-century workforce.

The Department of Social Services brings new data to the mix and allows researchers to ask new questions, such as:

  • How does participation in public assistance programs (e.g. child care, WIC, Head Start, SNAP, TANF, Medicaid) in Virginia impact school readiness, school achievement, health, family cohesion, future employment and wages?
  • What is the return on investment from public assistance programs in Virginia? Are there patterns that suggest different program delivery models that may yield greater effectiveness or cost savings?
  • What are the most critical health, safety and community factors that contribute to children’s school readiness and school achievement?
  • How does investment in early childhood health and education impact future need for and cost of public assistance?
  • Are participants in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) work skills training programs employed and earning a living wage one or two years after completing the program? Which work skills programs have the greatest success rates?

These are all excellent questions! I am heartened to know that people in Virginia state government are asking them.

So many debates about public policy issues occur in a data-free vacuum. People advance arguments based upon preconceptions and ideology. VLDS holds out the promise of allowing us to reach conclusions based on hard data. This is one wonk who looks forward to the research coming from this initiative — even if the conclusions contradict some of my own pet theories.

– JAB

My Drive Through Two West Virginias

A natural gas well fire in nothern West Virginia

A natural gas well fire in northern West Virginia

 By Peter Galuszka

It was a biting eight degrees when I hit the road in Beckley, W.Va. last Wednesday morning having held a book signing and given a talk in Charleston the night before.

I wanted to drive two hours up to Harrison County, where my family lived from 1962 to 1969, and see what had changed. I hadn’t been there in a few years.

Harrison and neighboring counties Doddridge and Lewis had long been coalfield areas along with natural gas. Coal had pretty much played out after the 1980s but there are still some big mines. Its real claim to fame is the underground rock formation ideal for glass-making. In the 1890s, it had attracted hundreds of craftsmen from Italy who made Clarksburg an important glass center and home to the locally-famous “Pepperoni Roll” – a small loaf of bread with a long stick of pepperoni inside.

As I drove up Interstate 79, I noticed the first signs of the area’s most recent transformation. There were plenty of oversized truck rigs with oddly-shaped machines. A number carried long steel pipes.

When I drove on familiar roads, I noticed that small lots that might have stored strip coal mine gear were all now filled with bright-orange wellheads. Davisson Run, a small creek where we used to hunt for frogs, is now near a large new building for Dominion Transmission — yes, that Dominion based in Richmond — which plans a $5 billion natural gas pipeline from the area through Virginia and North Carolina.

Welcome to Fracking Central. This part of northern West Virginia is booming thanks the Marcellus Shale formation rich with hard-to-get natural gas. In just a few years, hydraulic fracking, using high pressure water and powerful chemicals to fracture underground gas pockets and pump them out, has revolutionized the U.S. energy industry.

My mission (which failed) was to find a woman living in a rural house in the rolling hills and dairy farms of western Harrison County. She had been on YouTube two years ago complaining how her neighbor had sold gas rights and turned pleasant pastureland into an obnoxious industrial site with all-night floodlights and diesel generators roaring 24/7. Huge trucks carrying water for high pressure injection clogged narrow county roads.

I drove through Salem, a tiny college town, and noticed signs reading “Antero Resources” that reminded truck drivers supplying rigs to drive slowly and not to “Jake Brake” – use brakes on some trucks that make a loud, machine gun sound as they tap engine exhaust to slow down.

Antero Resources was a big clue. They are an independent gas and oil firm based in Denver that has hit the fracking craze in a big way. They have rights to something like 384,000 acres of gasland in the surrounding area. Having gone public only recently, the company has revenues that have zoomed from $195 million in 2011 to $259 million in 2012 to $689 million last year.

Antero has had its problems. In July 2013, “flowback” material from a Doddridge Count well exploded, badly burning five workers and killing two. Earlier this year, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued a case operations order to Antero because of tank ruptures. The firm has also been accused of released methane into the private wells of 12 individuals.

I couldn’t find out if some are enjoying the economic benefits of fracking. One reads of people suddenly drawing $1 million a year in royalties. I did notice was that there was a lot more drilling support activity and more shopping malls.

My road trip was in marked contrast to one I had taken the day before in the southern part of West Virginia.

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

I was on my way to give a talk in Charleston about the paperback edition of my book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” I had the time so I chose to head up fateful Route 3 through the Coal River Valley where I have spent a lot of time in the past four years.

Route 3 in Raleigh County is a lot different from any road in Harrison County. The peaks are taller, steeper with more distinct hollers. Rock outcrops jam out at you, unlike the gently rolling hills of the north. The late fall sun is dramatically restricted.

This is the road that suddenly became flooded with ambulance and fire trucks on April 5, 2010. A huge explosion at the Upper Big Branch deep mine owned by then-Richmond-based Massey Energy killed 29 miners. Before then, it had been Ground Zero in the environmentalists’ vigorous war against Mountaintop Removal, which is strip mining on an obscenely large scale. Hundreds of feet of mountaintops are lopped off by gigantic drag lines. The leftover dirt and trees are dumped into creek beds destroying habitat.

I headed north along Big Coal River, which is anything but. Its valley provides just enough space for a road and a CSX rail line in some areas. I went past the new Marsh Fork Elementary School that Massey Energy was forced to build to replace one a few miles away that was threatened by its mine operations.

There was Jarrett’s store (new sign) where bystanders watched all the police cars and ambulances that fateful April day. Soon, the old Marsh Fork school appears. It had been a focus of yet another battle over coal but today it is abandoned and fenced in. Its playground is close to huge coal storage towers. Soaring above them is an earthen dam holding back a lake with about 3 billion gallons of toxic sludge.

There was very little activity – odd since the coal of the valley is the best in the world. Then it came – Upper Big Branch mine – lifeless. It was sealed after the disaster. Past roads with signs reading “Ambulance entrance” there was the portal where the UBB miners came and went. There is a lonely memorial of 29 black helmets at the base of a steel tower. Another memorial to them is a few miles north at Whitesville – a classic coal town filled with empty stores, although the florist shop is still busy.

No coal trucks, no pickups, for miles. The only activity was at the Elk Run deep mine at the very top of Route 3.

Why? One reason is that fracked natural gas from Harrison County and its region is stealing electric utility market share away from coal.

The other reason is Asia’s economic slowdown. Coal River and UBB provide metallurgical coal used for export to smelt steel in foreign mills. (They don’t anything to do with “Keeping Our Lights On” as the pro-coal propagandists say.) Met coal can be enormously lucrative but its prices are down two thirds from three years ago.

That’s bad news for Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought out Massey for $7 billion after the disaster. Alpha is in such bad straits that hedge funds are lining its stock up for shorting trades, according to this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

Well, that’s my road trip. Not to worry, though, I’ll be back soon. The criminal trial of Donald L. Blankenship, former Massey CEO and otherwise known as “The Dark Lord of the Coalfields,” starts Jan. 26 in U.S. District Court in Beckley.