Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

The New Wave of Senseless Violence

Amiya Moses, caught in the cross fire.

Amiya Moses, caught in the cross fire.

by James A. Bacon

This may be the most grim but fascinating sociological insight into the nature of poverty and crime I’ve seen all year… While violent crime is down overall in the City of Richmond since its horrendous peak in the 1990s, which earned the city the reputation as a murder capital of the United States, the motives for assault and murder have changed dramatically.

“Where a decade ago most shootings were fueled by a melange of drugs, gangs and robbery, today the standout motive is petty squabbles turning into deadly violence,”writes reporter Ted Strong writes for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“A lot of folks today don’t know how to resolve conflict,” said Police Chief Alfred Durham at a news conference about the death of 12-year-old Amiya Moses, who was killed a week ago in an argument that escalated into a gunfight. “They resort to violence and we have to change that behavior. And when I say we, it’s not the police department’s job to change that behavior, but it’s the community.”

The change has been so marked that Richmond prosecutors do not even try to provide a motive for murder in jury trials, said Traci Miller, assistant commonwealth attorney. The triviality of the motive is too jarring. “It’s so senseless that I don’t want to try to sell that to a jury,” she said.

Bacon’s bottom line: The 90’s-era murder wave proved ephemeral thanks to a variety of factors that social scientists do not fully agree upon but are commonly attributed to superior policing and a parole system that kept bad guys locked in jail longer. What’s particularly worrisome about the new wave of violence is that it might well prove to be impervious to policing and corrections policies. The rapid escalation of minor arguments into deadly violence arguably reflects the underlying pathologies of entrenched, multi-generational poverty that fails to inculcate in children the most basic standards of behavior.

To be sure, prosecutors attribute the problem in part to the easy availability of guns. When everyone has access to a gun, angry disputes that once would have led to fisticuffs now lead to shootings. It’s not clear, however, if guns are more easily available today than they were ten years ago.

The problem is especially acute in Richmond because poverty is so concentrated there. Sadly, the erosion of the social fabric among America’s poor is endemic, not just among Richmond’s inner-city blacks, but among poor whites and the poor of other races and ethnicities. Thus, Richmond’s inner city could be the fabled canary in the coal mine, giving us insight into the emergent nature of violent crime everywhere.

The Forgotten Victims of the Crack Addict

crackby James A. Bacon

Carl V. Hughes IV, a 28-year-old Chesterfield County man, had a serious addiction to crack cocaine. Living with his sister and elderly parents, he frequently stole from them to support his habit. According to testimony from a recent trial, he’d stolen a video game system and games from his sister, a laptop computer and car from his mother, and a video game system and cell phone from his former girlfriend and mother of his child.

On Sept. 22, high on crack and resentful of ridicule for his out-of-control drug use, he felt like he had “no other alternative” than to “erase” his family. He proceeded to stab his father and mother to death in their sleep, and then his sister as she watched television. After the killings, he met a woman in a hotel on Jefferson Davis Highway, purchased more crack and smoked it with her. Later, he pawned his mother’s wedding ring and two other rings to buy more drugs.

The next day, police found him at the railing of the Lee Bridge, where he was threatening to commit suicide. He was distraught at what he’d done, telling police “he could not believed he killed his sister” because she “was the only one who loved” him. The Times-Dispatch has the details of the story here.

It’s a tragic story all the way around. It’s also a powerful reminder of (a) the power of crack cocaine to destroy peoples’ lives, not just the lives of users but the people around them, and (b) why there are laws on the books that dish out harsher penalties for crack than powdered cocaine, a disparity than many have decried as racist because crack users are disproportionately African-American.

The story also occurs against a growing sense of white guilt at the “mass incarceration” of African-American men and concern about the impact that incarceration has on the black family — it’s difficult for a man to be a good husband and father while he’s stewing in jail — when one-third of African-American males wind up in jail or prison at some point in their lives, often for seemingly victimless crimes like drug possession.

I have no doubt that there are injustices in the criminal justice system, and I’m open to the idea that there are better ways to handle the epidemic of substance abuse (which is just as prevalent among whites as it is among blacks, incidentally) than throwing every offender in jail. I also share the belief that drug addicts have a problem that cannot be solved by incarceration; they need help dealing with their substance abuse. However, amidst the rush to portray drug users as victims of institutional racism, I have seen little acknowledgement as the debate has unfolded that drug addicts often prey on the people around them — stealing their money, pawning their possessions, assaulting them, dumping familial responsibilities others, and, in extreme cases like Hughes’, killing them.

Family members of substance abusers are the silent victims. Hughes’s family came to the notice of the public only because a triple homicide is such an extreme case. But before the murders, no one knew about or cared about Hughes’ endless predation upon family members in a series of petty crimes that most likely were never reported. How many thousands of other families in Virginia are suffering silently from a substance abuser close to them? How many of them feel oppressed by their presence, and how many, at some level, feel liberated when their oppressor is put in jail?

It’s good to have a conversation about the mass incarceration of young African-American men. We should be investing more resources in programs that help substance abusers kick their habit and ease their transition from jail and prison back into society. But we also need to be cognizant of their silent victims, who also happen to be African-American and whose interests may not be served by handing out get-out-of-jail free cards to the people who rob and abuse them. Those people have rights, too. Their rights just aren’t politically fashionable right now.

Hosing the Middle Class: Campus Edition

UVa college bookstore

UVa college bookstore. Don’t get me started…

by James A. Bacon

Paige Taul, a 19-year-old University of Virginia student, earns $8.25 as a cashier at a college bookstore. Assuming no taxes were taken out of her paycheck, she would have to work about 80 hours to earn the $657 that UVa charges its students through fees to support the athletic program.

“Wow, that doesn’t seem fair,” Taul told the Washington Post, in an article about the cost of college sports. The irony is that Taul, who expects to graduate with about $30,000 in debt, doesn’t go to football games. As the Post dryly observes, “She’s too busy working.”

“Athletics is a common good, bringing people together, developing relationships, unifying the institution, bringing fantastic exposure,” said Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage. While UVa’s football team is nothing to brag about, its basketball team last year flirted with greatness, and the university is a perennial powerhouse in lacrosse, tennis, soccer and golf. But maintaining those programs is expensive. In 2014, $70.5 million in athletic department revenues had to be supplemented by $13.2 million in student fee income to keep the programs going.

That $657 fee is a not-insignificant contributor to the cost of attending the University of Virginia, where in 2015 total tuition, fee, room, board, textbooks and miscellaneous expenses amounted to about $28,800. (The cost is about $10,000 higher for out-of-state students.) The problem of escalating costs has gotten so bad that the Board of Trustees approved a new plan that will jack up tuition by $2,000 over two years to raise money for financial aid for the lowest-income students… but makes education even more unaffordable for middle-class students.

Here’s my question: Why does the Board of Trustees require students like Taul to subsidize the athletics program? Why can’t the athletic program support itself? Does UVa really need to field nationally competitive teams in tennis, golf and soccer that generate next-to-zero revenue? It strikes me that the university’s priorities are severely out of whack.

Higher ed has lost its moorings. Virginia needs a new kind of higher ed institution that provides a stripped-down service — an education without the bells and whistles — for an affordable price. Actually, that’s not a new idea. That’s the kind of education once provided by the old “commuter colleges” like George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University before they reinvented themselves as residential institutions aspiring to national status, and it’s the kind of education that many European universities provide today.

Middle-class families are in desperate straits, squeezed by stagnant incomes, soaring medical bills and the ever-escalating cost of a higher education (the entry ticket for a middle-class occupation). Higher ed has failed the middle class miserably. UVa’s top fiscal priority at present is to help low-income students and high-income faculty. The “Affordable Excellence” plan will ensure that no low-income student accrues more than $4,000 in need-based loans over four years. The plan also aims to make the salaries of full professors, which average $156,900 this year, more competitive with those of other elite institutions. The goal is to achieve a Top-20 ranking faculty salary ranking among institutions in the Association of American Universities.

What’s in the Affordable Excellence plan for Virginia’s middle-class students? Free football tickets! … Assuming they can make it to the games.

No Easy Route on the Jeff Davis Highway

jeff_davis_highwayby John Szczesny

Kudos to the Richmond Times-Dispatch for putting a human face on Chesterfield County’s plan to revitalize the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor. The RTD’s Pathway to Poverty feature is a sobering look at how poverty and homelessness have made life a daily struggle for so many in the area. It also begs the question of how Chesterfield’s plan will impact the lives of these individuals and families.

The visible signs of blight along the roadway make it easy to overlook how the surrounding area buzzes along as a hive of industrial activity. Not far from the trailer parks and run-down motels exists the most vital cluster of manufacturing employment in the Richmond metro: Dupont, Philip Morris, Kaiser Aluminum and other companies will soon be joined by Chinese-owned Tranlin Paper, which state officials expect to create 2,000 jobs at an average salary of $45,663. There is also the massive Defense Supply Center Richmond (DSCR) complex, scheduled for further expansion by the feds. And just a few miles to the south is the Amazon fulfillment center in Chester which opened in 2012.

County officials deserve their share of credit for these economic development successes. Through incentives and other means they have created an environment conducive to business and job creation.

Yet the industrialization on the edges of Jefferson Davis Highway has not done much to improve conditions for the 11,000 residents in the County’s study area, where 30% of the population lives below the poverty line. Chesterfield officials have gone a long way to offer assistance and resources for corporations in the Bermuda district. It is only fair that they offer a similar helping hand to area residents by connecting them with the employment opportunities in their own neighborhood. Workforce training programs would be a win-win for employers and job-seekers, and would help bridge the skills gaps needed for these positions.

Perhaps the thorniest issue for County planners is what to do about land use. It will be tempting to call for zoning revisions to invigorate the Jeff Davis area with new housing and retail projects. Redeveloping underutilized properties along the corridor would make economic sense, create jobs, and boost county tax coffers. But allowing these changes would probably also lead to the demolition of the motels and trailer parks where some of the poorest residents live, often just one missed rent payment away from homelessness. A redevelopment plan that throws these people out on the street without a suitable housing option is immoral and unacceptable.

Chesterfield has taken a noble first step in developing a plan to reverse the decline of the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor. It is now imperative for county officials to make future decisions with an eye towards improving the lives of area residents as opposed to just the built environment.

John Szczesny is a Chesterfield resident, urban planner, and telecommunications consultant.

More Meaningless Numbers from Virginia Educrats

bogus_numbersby James A. Bacon

In a story that generated front-page headlines, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced yesterday a “significant increase” in the number of Virginia public schools earning accreditation in 2015. The number of fully accredited schools increased by 10 percentage points to 78%.

“Offering every Virginia student a world class education in a public school is at the very foundation of our efforts to build a new Virginia economy,” the governor said. “This year’s strong progress is a reflection of the dedicated work of educators, parents and communities and a clear sign that the reforms we have put into place are working.”

“Getting challenged schools the resources they need to ensure student success is one of the most important steps we can take to improve our Commonwealth’s education system,” said Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton. “Every school that earned full accreditation this year is another school that is better preparing its students for a lifetime of success.”

O Frabjous day! Calooh! Callay! Maybe the educational establishment has finally figured out how to turn around Virginia’s ailing public schools! Maybe there is hope for the future!

Or maybe not. The press release was honest enough to acknowledge the following: “The 2014-2015 school year was the first during which students in grades 3-8 were allowed to retake SOL tests in reading, mathematics, science and history. On average, the performance of students on expedited retakes increased pass rates by about four points on each test.”

In other words, any comparison between 2015 results and 2014 results is likening apples to oranges.

What the press release does not tell us is how many schools this adjustment pushed over the minimum accreditation level. (“Students must achieve adjusted pass rates of at least 75 percent on English reading and writing SOL tests, and of at least 70 percent on assessments in mathematics, science and history.”) Four points on a 1-100 scale is not insignificant. Moreover, that four points is an average. It is possible, indeed probable, that the “expedited retakes” proved to be a bigger factor in improving test scores for poorly performing schools, where more students needed to retake the tests, than for strong performers.

Among the crucial data not included in the press release was the number of schools that would have been accredited had the old policy remained in place. The Virginia Department of Education did not provide the data for citizens to conduct their own analysis or draw their own conclusions.

John Butcher has been illuminating VDOE statistical prestidigitations far longer than I. As he has written on his blog, Cranky’s Blog:

The moving target moves; and having moved,
Moves on:  nor all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to give an honest answer
Nor all thy tears wash away the bureaucrats’ obfuscation.

The manipulation of data is insulting. And who suffers the most from this statistical sleight of hand? Children, disproportionately from poor, African-American households, who are consigned to schools with no effective accountability, that’s who. Just another example of how the bureaucratic, statist status quo works to oppress poor people of color in Virginia. If you think there’s such a thing as “institutional racism” in this country, this is it.

Update: Cranky calculates the impact of other “adjustments” VDOE makes to the data for students with limited English proficiency and for students who have recently transferred into a Virginia public school. On the math tests, the adjustments had the felicitous effect of increasing the number of schools achieving the 70% pass rate from 1,519 to 1,627, or six percentage points.

Shutting Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline


The case of Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an 11-year-old autistic child in Lynchburg schools, started with kicking a trash can and ended with a charge of felonious assault, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

by James A. Bacon

Amid growing national concerns about “mass incarceration,” particularly of African-Americans, a Center for Public Integrity study found in August that Virginia schools refer students to law enforcement agencies at a higher rate than schools in any other state in the country — and three times the national average. The report highlighted the case of an autistic, 11-year-old African-American student in a Lynchburg school, Kayleb Moon-Robinson, who, in a series of incidents that started with kicking a trash can, wound up being charged with disorderly conduct and felony assault on a police officer.

There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that the United States puts too many people into jail and prison, and that there has to be a better way to deal with minor crimes and misdemeanors.  There is less agreement about what that “better way” might be.

Fortunately, the federal system of the U.S. government creates a “laboratory for democracy” that allows lots of experiments at the state and local level. One such experiment for reducing the school-to-prison pipeline will take place in the City of Richmond when schools resume next year after the Christmas break. A new program called LIFE, reports Louis Llovio with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, will divert students into an after-school program designed to “get them the skills needed to make better decisions.”

Richmond police arrested 149 students last year; of those arrests, 59 were for disorderly conduct for such behaviors as not sitting down in class or cussing at a teacher. In the hope of plugging the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” LIFE will be open to students committing minor offenses. Students will attend nine 90-minute sessions covering topics such as conflict resolution, drug and alcohol awareness, gangs and respect for self and others. Parents are expected to attend three of the nine classes.

Diversion programs have a mixed record, according to Llovio’s reporting — some research finds that they lead to increased recidivism. But program organizers continue to tweak them in the hope of improving outcomes, so it’s possible that the Richmond program will enjoy better results. Personally, I’m highly skeptical that 13 to 14 hours in an after-school program can do much to change a student’s behavior by the time he’s reached middle school or high school. But I’m willing to entertain the notion that if participants are chosen based on a teacher’s appraisal of their potential willingness to change, and if parents participate as well, the program might rescue a few kids from jail.

The key is to set goals and metrics by which to measure those goals. If results don’t improve, adjust the program. If they still don’t improve, shut it down.

Bacon’s bottom line. Two things worry me. First, one of the few clear public policy successes of the past two decades has been so-called “broken windows” policing, in which police crack down on seemingly minor offenses like vandalism in order to avert an escalation into major crimes. The thrust of the movement to roll back “mass incarceration” seems to go against the broken-windows philosophy. We need to be vigilant against a retrogression to the widespread public disorder of the 1970s and 1980s.

Second, we must remember the silent victims of school disorder — the majority of students whose education is disrupted by the behavior of a noisy, troublesome minority. The hand-wringing over “mass incarceration” paints criminals as the victims while ignoring the plight of their victims. While it’s true that the jailed and imprisoned population is disproportionately African-American, let us not forget that the vast majority of their victims are African-American. Affluent white Virginians living safely in their leafy suburbs have little to fear from the consequences of social experiments gone awry. Poor African-Americans have the most to lose.

So, let’s try experiments to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline, but let’s monitor them very closely and make sure they accomplish what we expect of them.

Woolly Headed Thinking about Transportation

Woolly headed

Baaah! Baaaaaaah!

by James A. Bacon

Virginia Beach’s ongoing debate over light rail is emblematic of everything that is wrong with Virginia’s system for determining which transportation projects get built. While the Virginia Department of Transportation is implementing a mechanism for ranking road and highway projects, there is no mechanism for ascertaining the proper balance between roads/highways and mass transportation or even to prioritize mass transit projects. Those choices remain as muddied and politicized as ever.

The latest episode in the long-running saga of Virginia Beach light rail, which would extend Norfolk’s existing The Tide rail line to the Virginia Beach resort area, revolved around a bid yesterday by Virginia Beach Councilman John Moss to use $10 million dedicated for light-rail plans to plug a projected $33 million budget hole. City Council rebuffed the measure, but a vocal minority of citizens continue the fight against the rail line. (See the Virginian-Pilot coverage here.)

Foes oppose a rail line that will require heavy up-front subsidies to build and ongoing subsidies to operate. They make a legitimate point. Rail supporters retort that building and maintaining roads also entail taxpayer subsidies. They, too, make a legitimate point. Ever since Virginia abandoned the user-pays principle of transportation funding in the bipartisan transportation-funding legislation of the McDonnell administration, all forms of transportation are subsidized to a greater or lesser degree. Because everything is subsidized, it is exceedingly difficult to determine whether any project is economically justifiable. Anyone can make any claim without any effective way to test it.

In an ideal world, Virginia Beach’s mass transit project would pay for itself through (a) fare revenues, (b) ancillary revenues such as advertising, and (c) revenues from special tax districts surrounding rail stations to capture some of the increased real-estate value created by the rail service. A transit authority would issue bonds to be repaid from those revenue sources, and bond buyers would exercise an independent, non-political judgment as to whether they were likely to earn a competitive, risk-adjusted return on their investment.

But it’s not an ideal world. Mass transit advocates argue rightly that rail competes against subsidized roads. No longer does Virginia pay for its roads mainly through the gas tax. But, rather than hold road funding to a higher and stricter standard, Virginia carves out a percentage of transportation allocations for mass transit. Funds are spread around to appease regional constituencies and ideological enthusiasms.

To see where fuzzy logic of transit funding leads us, read this op-ed by Nelson Reveley, a co-coordinator for the Richmond Clergy Committee for Rapid Transit. Reveley invokes social justice, the environment, public safety and economic development in support of a “comprehensive transportation system for the sake of all our citizens” in the Richmond region. Writes Reveley, a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Virginia:

This isn’t about any singular neighborhood. It’s about all our neighborhoods, as we appreciate and celebrate our intimate interrelation as one metro ecology of education and commerce, employment and leisure, justice and mercy, beauty and creativity, vulnerability and mutuality.

My stomach heaves in rebellion against such treacly sentimentality. Nowhere in his op-ed does Reveley wonder how much this majestic mass transit system might cost. Obviously, the concept of “alternate opportunity cost” is not taught in the UVa religious program, for nowhere does Reveley wonder what could be accomplished by expending the same sum in other ways. Nor does he much care who will pay for this vision of his, although we can be certain it will not be the people who ride the buses or otherwise benefit from the transit lines through the higher property values he insists will occur or workforce benefits accruing from the young talent he suggests will be attracted to the region.

Further, nowhere does Reveley acknowledge the emergence of an alternative, private sector-driven model as epitomized by companies like Uber, Lyft and Bridj, which, given sufficient time and dismantling of regulatory barriers, could provide a shared-ridership transportation alternative far more robust and comprehensive than a public system.

The prevalence of blinkered, woolly headed thinking in the Old Dominion is just staggering. It goes a long way towards explaining our stagnation and relative decline among the 50 states.