The Roosevelt Restaurant in Church Hill — gentrifier, job creator, neighborhood revitalizer.

by James A. Bacon

Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones wants to tackle the city’s entrenched poverty, and he wants to do it by investing smartly in community revitalization efforts. The big question is, what works?

Supporting job training might seem a logical way for the city to lift people out of poverty. But what good is  job training if poor people can’t find jobs near where they live? Perhaps the city should try to stimulate job creation in poor parts of town. But what if job creators don’t want to do business there because the crime rate is too high? And around it goes in circles…

Poverty is not a simple problem and there are no simple solutions. What’s needed, says Andreas Addison, a management analyst in the city’s chief administrative office, is to view the city as a complex system, develop metrics to identify and track the key drivers of change and understand how the pieces interconnect. Then the city can invest its finite resources with greater confidence of positive results.

Creating a Smarter City Decision System is one of the key recommendations coming out of a IBM Smarter Cities Challenge project with the City of Richmond undertaken last month. Richmond was one of seven localities in the United States, and 32 worldwide, to win free IBM consulting services and technical assistance.

Richmond asked IBM to help devise a way to create economic opportunity in targeted neighborhoods. IBM flew in a team of experts from around the country, and Addison acted as the point man, setting up 33 meetings with 38 people over seven days. The result is not another anti-poverty plan. The product is, in essence, a plan for creating a plan. It starts with collecting good data in order to make informed decisions.

The consultants recommended the creation of metrics in five key areas:

  • Poverty cycles
  • Neighborhood vitality
  • City government
  • Workforce development and education
  • Jobs

The city can map zoning, the location of businesses, population density, crime, vacant properties, tax revenues, tenancy vs. home ownership and dozens of other variables. “We have a lot of data but we haven’t connected it together,” says Addison. The Smarter City Support System will help do that. He says he would like the city to be able to build scorecards, or statistical profiles, of some 126 neighborhoods and, through social-scientific analysis, identify the key levers.

The Church Hill area north of Broad Street makes a fascinating case study. Gentrification has created a critical mass of customers capable of supporting local retail and service businesses — enterprises that can provide jobs to the poor inhabitants in the area. From a job-creation perspective, gentrification is a good thing. But gentrification increases property values and taxes, which puts financial pressure on poor homeowners. Good metrics can lend insights into how those dynamics might play out in a particular neighborhood. How many gentrifiers does it take to spark business and job creation? What’s the impact on the neighbors? Specifically, what is the ratio of tenants to home owners?  Tenants can relocate fairly easily; home owners have more to lose from rising housing prices and tax assessments.

Those are the kinds of questions that Addison is asking right now. The IBM team will return in August with detailed recommendations on which metrics to collect, how to align stakeholder groups around neighborhood revitalization and which social enterprise business models — like urban garden co-ops — might make sense.

Mayor Jones summed it up in a city press release: “This new research and analysis can help provide us with a solid road map that will enhance our focused budgeting work and improve our economic development and neighborhood revitalization efforts.”

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10 responses to “Better Government through Better Metrics”

  1. larryg Avatar

    re: creating jobs for people who are functionally illiterate vs going back and insuring that they receive 21st century educations.

    One the the things they teach in engineering is how much it costs to correct an error – early on in the design process or towards the end and the final product.

    You cannot “fix” a place where the people are barely literate in the 21st century.

    It’s easier in this country to get public assistance than to work for Bangelesh wages and working conditions.

    some people think the answer is to take away the entitlements.

    that “woks” also. In many 3rd world countries such people live in cardboard shacks and dump their sewage outside their huts.

    but we Americans are too much “wusses” to put up with that so we pay taxes to provide them shelter and food.

    but no employer wants to go to a place where the workers are essentially illiterate unless it’s a right-to-work state, right?

  2. Breckinridge Avatar

    Agreed. This is hilarious. IBM is taking money out of the city taxpayer’s pockets and laughing all the way to the bank. All the metrics required come from the school system, and the good paying jobs will require a far higher percentage of the workforce that is able to read complex instructions, compose reports, do algebraic calculations, use computerized controls, etc. The advanced HS diploma is good, supplemented with some CTE credits is better, but in reality the level of an associate’s degree is usually required. (Even in a right to work state.) The jobs exist. The workers are driving in from the ‘burbs now.

    Urban garden coops to fight poverty? LOL.

    1. For the record, IBM is not taking any taxpayer money. The company is donating an estimated $400,000 in services.

      As for urban garden co-ops, why would you mock them? We’ll see what happens. Maybe no one will want to join them. But how can they hurt? Unlike government programs, they don’t breed dependency. Those who participate must expend labor on their own behalf. How could a conservative argue against that?

    2. I will agree, though, that there is naivite in the assumption that poor people in Church Hill can’t get jobs in the suburbs. How do Hispanic immigrants get jobs? They carpool. Why can’t inner city residents carpool?

  3. larryg Avatar

    re: ” The workers are driving in from the ‘burbs now.”

    that’s a telling statement about poverty and high unemployment in a city – where people commute from the suburbs to jobs that do exist right there where people don’t have the qualifications for the jobs.

    the people who work there don’t want to live there for fear of crime.

    any kind of a “jobs” program for people who are illiterate is going to be minimal.

    I don’t necessarily blame the schools. If Mom is 15 and also illiterate and not capable of proper parenting, even a private, non-public school is going to have trouble doing any better than the public schools as long as that demographic is the student population – however I’m fine with having competitive private schools – as long as we have the same standards for both. The harsh truth is that is a person is a certified teacher – they’re not going to pick the city venue unless they have no choice and so those schools are not going to attract the better, more experienced teachers and I’m not sure how private schools would do any better. What would be different enough for a private urban school that would make it more attractive for a teacher than teaching in the suburbs? You’ve got the absolute worst Demographic to teach and you get labelled as a “bad” teacher if the school is not doing well ….

    Not sure I know exactly how to go about improving the situation but as long as we refuse to deal with the realities and pretend that the problem is things like “bad teachers” and public schools… we’re not fixing anything either.

  4. Breckinridge Avatar

    I agree, the problem is bigger than the schools themselves and many excellent teachers and administrators are busting their humps trying to motivate students before another generation is lost. And many kids do make it — that should not be ignored. The opportunity is clearly there for those who are motivated. Note the U of R’s recent decision to increase the income level where a student who gets in can go for free. Children growing up in distressed circumstances have more opportunities today than at any time in history.

    But education is the key, a solid high school program followed by a career prep program (college is great but not always required). Keeping clean of drugs is the key, because in the good jobs you have to be clean. Not getting pregnant (or making someone pregnant) in your teens is key. Those should the daily messages of every city or business leader who wants to see things get better. That’s the way out of poverty, and urban garden coops are a great way to get fresh vegetables but have absolutely nothing to do with fighting poverty. Please. I’m more impressed with encouraging employers to hire summer workers to provide real work experience to 15-16 year olds. What barriers to that need to be removed?

    The traditional war on poverty fits the traditional definition of insanity. We keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result.

    1. No one thinks that urban co-ops are remotely a panacea. They’re just one piece of the puzzle. But you’re missing the broader point. The City of Richmond has X dollars to spend fighting poverty. Where does the city spend that to the greatest effect? Well, the city can spend it on the mayor’s pet projects. Or it can spend it places where it buys votes. Or it can spend it according to the latest intellectual fashion….

      Or, the city can figure out where expenditures provide the greatest bang for the buck on a system-wide basis, which is what IBM is proposing to help Richmond figure out. Maybe it turns out that staff time spent organizing urban farm co-ops is totally wasted. Maybe the money ought to be spent on drug prevention programs. Who knows? The fact is, no one really knows. We’re all flying by the seat of our pants.

      So, don’t focus on the tree — heck, urban co-ops are a *branch* on a tree — and focus on the big picture. Data-driven government is a big step forward, and I commend the city for pursuing it.

      1. larryg Avatar

        I don’t even think they are a piece of the puzzle – all due respects.

        I think they are feel-good diversions from the fundamental realities which are being essentially evaded.

        I think “do-gooders” are a scourge in fact if they focus attention and resources on things that, at best, make the folks contributing “feel good” about their efforts which are, at best, superficial.

        we need ALL of us to focus on the fundamental problems – together – to put our collective efforts together rather than our more typical shotgun approach.

        education is fundamental. Every kid who grows up with a crummy one …I’m sorry, is not going to be helped much by an urban co-opt.

        it’s revealing when we say “maybe” something will help (or not). That indicates to me that there is some doubt as to what needs to be done.

        My view: fix the education issue first -then if you got resources left over and want to do more, then go for it!

        Kids are not stupid. They need some level of assurance that getting a good education is the path to a better life. Promise them a guaranteed 4-year college (or technical school e.g. like the GI bill) in exchange for a B average. Offer them guaranteed enlistment in the armed services or peace corp or other “service” organization in exchange for good grades.

        Bribe the heck out of them… “incentivize” them… do what it takes to engage them – that getting good grades is in their best interest – no matter their parental or home life status. Win them away – from their current circumstances. Many will see what you are up to – and grab that gold ring ……

        we need to actually CARE for these kids – as if they were in some sense our own.

  5. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    I believe this program might show promise if only because it might deliver and organize data in ways that provide new insights into the problem of poverty today, and give us new tools by which to attack those problems.

    On the other hand I agree with much of the commentary above that is skeptical because the program doesn’t address education for one example.

    Without disagreeing with that skepticism, a few thoughts keep me full of wonder.

    One is how many of those who served in WWII were not only vastly undereducated by our current standards but impoverished by our current standards. Yet, what these undereducated impoverished youth and young adults accomplished in war and peace was prodigious.

    Cannot the same also be said today for many of our illegal immigrants. Yet, not only are many of them vastly undereducated and impoverished, many don’t speak the language of this country, yet they are fierce workers doing prodigious amounts of much needed work in this country.

    To get a sense of the prodigious energy these people unleash every day, stand outside any Home Depot at seven a.m any morning. Watch in awe.

    Even those who don’t have work for the day, they are working hard to find it – by linking up with daily work right there in the parking lot.

    Like many Americans who flooded the military at the start of WW11, they yearn for work to survive, to send money back home, and earn for themselves all the essential benefits, like pride, that come with work.

    Everyone needs a chance. And everyone needs the determination to grab that chance. And to keep grabbing for it despite adversity. That chance chance is work. This program might help there. Determination might be more illusive sometime. But we need ways to build and marry up the two.

    I suspect things like urban co-ops helps build in the determination part. Giving confidence and opportunity gained by experience, for example.

    Again this not diminish the crying need for literacy, and much else.

  6. larryg Avatar

    Some of that is true Reed but keep in mind:

    1. – in WWII “education” was basically the ability to read and write – and either serve in the military where they trained you or work in a factory where they trained you.

    Today, the world is globalized and the truth is that our education has not gone downhill – it’ the same it’s always been – but the world has changed and so has education in the other OECD countries and we failed to adopt similar strategies to up-grade our education to keep pace with a globalized economy.

    2. – yes.. many were “impoverished” (including Southern Blacks) when they went into the armed forces but some very interesting things happened.

    first the military trained those folks – gave them a skill – and some of the skills actually were applicable in the civilian world after the got out.

    more than that –

    they and their families got health care
    they got food and housing allotments
    they got the GI Bill when they left – to help them buy a home
    and get a higher education degree.

    The Armed Forces instituted “socialism” and “entitlements”… isn’t that ironic?

    The Armed Forces even incubated the Civil Rights Movement because when those South Blacks returned home as “veterans” and then saw when they got out of the military that Jim Crow returned when it came to housing and public facilities, etc… all HELL broke loose… and the Blacks were no longer going to stand for discrimination – not when their own families bled the same red blood and sacrificed the same way for the country.

    Blacks did fine with a minimal education – as long as they could get a union job in a factory. Many blacks became middle class and prospered working on the same auto assembly lines as their white neighbors and just like their white neighbors, their kids went to the same schools and many went on to college – courtesy of the GI bill.

    when the basic factory jobs started to recede in the urban areas, the blacks had no where to go. They could not go back to the South where things were still not that good and without a factory job they could not move to where the schools had gotten the same rot the rest of urban blight got.

    Today – we have a cycle of poverty. Kids who are 15 have kids and the kid is going to go to the same wretched urban school his Mom did and the results will be the same – one more cycle.

    It’s bad enough that there are single moms but when we send blacks to jail over drugs – at more than twice the rate of whites – each one becomes a mom with a kid and no dad.

    To the degree that we feel that the urban schools are “bad” schools because they have “bad” teachers (preferably “unionized” for the maximum boogeyman effect) – why would we feel that private schools would attract “good” teachers when “good” teachers usually have a choice where to work so why would they want to work where they would then be instantly converted to a “bad” teacher ?

    I have to keep telling folks – no matter how much we dislike the situation – just keep in mind – every kid that does not get a good enough education will be an entitlement (or incarceration) burden for YOUR CHILD.

    we have to face the reality, stop blaming people and institutions and take responsibility to make it better – for real – not just ideological blather talking points.

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