Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

EITC, TANF and the Benefits Cliff

The “Benefit Cliff” for a mother with two children in Albemarle County. As income rises, SNAP, TANF, Medicaid, housing assistance and other benefits disappear.  This example does not include the Earned Income Tax Credit.  Source: VA DSS

For low income families receiving assistance in Virginia, their cash benefit from the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is larger – often substantially larger – than the cash provided by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

A single mother with two small children who has a full-time minimum wage job ($7.25 per hour) qualified for EITC benefits of $436.33, in an example provided by the Virginia Department of Social Services based on 2015 data.  The EITC is paid out as a lump sum but the example broke it into monthly increments.  Doing that underlines its origin as a form of guaranteed minimum income, with the grant adding the equivalent of an additional $2.50 per hour to income.

Continue reading

The Push for EITC Cash Grants Accelerates

A useful EITC example from the Commonwealth Institute’s website. Whether anybody “earns” a credit is debatable, but that claim will appeal to those who benefit.

With the 2019 General Assembly now a handful of weeks away, the main advocacy group for a new cash welfare entitlement in Virginia is ramping up its efforts with various appeals, perhaps testing themes for later use.

On Wednesday on its website the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis was arguing that the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) should be converted to a “refundable” cash grant because of how it would help “communities of color,” who pay a larger percentage of their income in state and local taxes.

A few weeks back, the focus was on how “veterans and their families deserve full credit.”  And, of course, they have broken down their data by legislative district, conflating the number of people who claim the EITC already with the number who would benefit from their idea.  Not everybody who now claims the state EITC would qualify for a grant.

The first to advocate for converting the tax credit into a cash payment was Governor Ralph Northam, who mentioned it last summer as his favored use for the windfall state income tax dollars generated by conformity.  It has nothing to do with that windfall.  In order to benefit from this idea, you already must be paying zero state income tax.

In recognition of that, the argument now is people need to get the balance returned in cash because they are still paying sales, excise and other taxes, just not income taxes.  It’s not good enough to zero out their income tax, advocates claim.

As previously explored, the Earned Income Tax Credit is a program with conservative credentials and has succeeded in improving the finances of low-income working families.  At the federal level, if your income and family size qualify you for a credit which is larger than your tax bill, the difference is sent to you in cash.  To call it a “refund” is political fiction, because it is not cash you paid in taxes to start with.  It just comes at the same time the rest of us are getting refunds.

The federal version has grown into a major income transfer program, about $60 billion annually, and as always with these programs the push to expand them is constant.  A Democratic House of Representatives will be more attentive.

In an earlier tax reform effort, Virginia added its own version of the program, allowing a credit against state taxes equal to 20 percent of the federal EITC.  But Virginia did not take the second step of paying cash grants from state revenue to people who had larger credits than tax bills.  That is what Northam and the Commonwealth Institute are talking about doing now.

The cost impact is about $250 million, based on an earlier legislative proposal which failed, but a full analysis is lacking.  The cost to taxpayers – and it is a cost to taxpayers, not a refund and not tax reform – will need to be more carefully spelled out when a bill finally appears.  Advocates have developed a calculator for individuals and for some the grants would be substantial.

While this proposal is not tax reform, but instead is a way to share the windfall revenue with low-income working families, the idea is not incompatible with tax reform.  It would be possible to couple it with an increase in the standard deduction or some other change in personal income taxes that actually aligns with to the conformity windfall.  It is only a question of how much revenue with which the legislature is willing to part (for some, the answer is none).

The proposal to expand the standard deduction would reach far more Virginians – more in “communities of color,” more veterans, more in every legislative district – than would turning EITC into a cash grant.  The problem for some on the left is they would not all be poor or working-class and might even be well-off.

What they would not be is the same people.  As noted before, to qualify for the cash grant Northam and the Commonwealth Institute are talking about, you already must be paying zero state income tax.  If the EITC credit has already wiped out your state tax bill, an additional standard deduction is of no value.

But there is this, which should appeal to the Commonwealth Institute:  The additional standard deduction would add to the number of people who pay zero income tax.  An EITC cash grant would go to those already paying zero but would not grow their ranks.

And this:  The additional standard deduction would stay with you as your income grew.  EITC – whether a credit or both a credit and grant — shrinks as your income grows, and that is what people really want, growing income.

If the General Assembly must choose, it should choose tax reform and increase the standard deduction.  If its willing to do both, well, this is why the legislative process is great theater.  It cannot be predicted.

2019 General Assembly Session – Privatizing Public Roads in McLean, Va

Judge Dillon’s revenge.  Development vs transportation has been a long running battle in Virginia. Northern Virginia’s local government  politicians never met a developer (or developer’s campaign contribution) they didn’t love. Virginia’s state legislators love NoVa growth since it provides more state tax money to spread around like party favors to their downstate constituencies. However, those same state legislators loathe the idea of repatriating many of those tax dollars back to Northern Virginia to fund needed transportation improvements. The local pols blame the state pols for failing to fund transportation in NoVa. The state pols blame the locals for ineffective land use planning. Meanwhile, both localities and the state are throwing their shoulders out of joint patting themselves on the back over winning half of the new Amazon HQ2 deal. There have even been rumors that Apple may be looking at NoVa for another 20,000 jobs. What could possibly go wrong?

No need to wait for chaos. While Amazon HQ2, Apple and the “densificiation” of Tysons are all largely future events, the chaos of underfunded transportation is already here. Loudoun County’s population grew 97% between 1990 and 2000, 84% from 2000 to 2010 and 27.5% from 2010 to 2017.  Meanwhile, over 50% of Loudoun workers commute to work outside of Loudoun County (hint: they are not working in West Virginia). At the same time, a veritable caravan of immigrants from The Socialist Republic of Maryland cross the Virginia border every morning seeking a better life through employment in Virginia. The predictable result is that the American Legion Bridge has become a chokepoint that backs up the Beltway for miles, especially in the evening.

Adding insult to injury. The same kind of advanced technology that so enthralls Virginia’s politicians in the HQ2 deal creates nightmares for McLean residents. Navigation apps like Waze and Google Maps are being blamed for showing Loudon commuters and Maryland economic refugees how to bypass Beltway traffic by using the surface streets of McLean. The resulting backups on streets that are often narrow and shoulder-less wreak havoc on the daily lives of those living in the affected neighborhoods. One can only wonder how much worse this will get once the new construction in Tysons is completed and Amazon HQ2 starts adding traffic to Arlington, Alexandria and Tysons.

It’s good to be Queen. Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-McLean, has a plan.  Privatize McLean’s public streets for the exclusive use of McLean residents, at least during rush hour. Murphy’s HB295 has been carried over from the 2018 session. The bill is summarized as follows …

“Allows counties that operate under the urban county executive form of government (Fairfax County) by ordinance to develop a program to issue permits to residents of a designated area that will allow such residents to make turns into or out of the neighborhood during certain times of the day where such turns would otherwise be restricted.”

It seems Del. Murphy will protect herself and her well-heeled neighbors in McLean by simply banning traffic she finds inconvenient. Let the commuters eat cake. It’s easy to feel sympathy for the residents of the many areas in Northern Virginia being ruined by clogged streets full of cut through traffic. However, it’s hard to see where this ends. Will the far less affluent citizens of the Route 1 corridor be able to ban cut through traffic on their streets too? Or will this remedy be reserved for Del. Murphy and her wealthy neighbors in McLean?  Limousine liberalism anyone?

Correction: HB295 was incorrectly described as pre-filed in the original version of this article. In fact, it was carried over from the 2018 session.  The content has been changed to reflect this correction.  

— Don Rippert

Medicaid Expansion’s Achilles Heel: the Doctor Shortage

Source: “Virginia Physician Workforce Shortage” presentation to the Joint Commission on Health Care, Sept. 2013.

The Northam administration sold Medicaid expansion to the public in part by claiming that the net cost to Virginia taxpayers would be minimal. Uncle Sam would pay for 90% of the cost of extending medical coverage to up to 400,000 Virginians, and the state’s 10% share would be offset by savings in prisons, mental health, and other areas. What no one talked about, except in the fine print, was the necessity of increasing reimbursements to physicians.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page explains today why higher reimbursements for physicians are an integral and unavoidable part of Medicaid expansion:

Medicaid underpays its physicians, reimbursing them at only 71 percent of the rate they get paid by Medicare, and an even smaller percentage of what private insurers pay. As a consequence, only 63 percent of physicians accept Medicaid patients, and only 71 percent of those are taking new patients. So, when Medicaid expands eligibility to as many as 400,000 near-poor Virginians this year, many will find it difficult to find a primary care physician, and they’ll wind up seeking care in the emergency room, just like they always have.

The Department of Medical Assistance Services (DMAS), which administers Virginia’s Medicaid program, now is asking for $19.1 million in the second year of the next biennial budget for Virginia’s share of the cost to lure more docs into the program. The hope is that hiking reimbursements from 71% of the Medicare benchmark to 80% of the benchmark will induce a meaningful number of physicians to take more Medicaid patients.

How likely is that?

Virginia has about 25,000 full-time-equivalent physicians, according to “Virginia Physician Workforce: 2016” published last year by the Healthcare Workforce Data Center (HWDC).

Source:  “Virginia Physician Workforce: 2016”

HWDC found that 57% of physician were accepting new patients at their primary office. Of those who are taking in more patients in their primary offices, 35% can accept no more than 50, while 23% can accept between 50 and 99 new patients. If I understand its presentation correctly (see the chart to the left) HWDC estimated a “new patient capacity” of about 14,000 at both primary and secondary locations. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the expected influx of 400,000 new Medicaid patients.

The shortage is not likely to improve. Nearly 4,000 doctors, about 17% of the physician workforce, are over 65 years or older. Although many docs plan to work into their 70s, 8% of Virginia’s physicians plan to retire within two years, and 30% expect to do so within 10, estimates the HWDC.

If 8% of physicians retire in the next two years — about 1,000 per year — there are two ways, broadly speaking, to replace them. (1) working physicians can take in more patients, and (2) hospitals can recruit more doctors.

Female physicians work fewer hours on average than males at all ages. Source:  “Virginia Physician Workforce: 2016

While older physicians are predominantly male, the younger generation of physicians is half female. That’s great for gender equality, but it stretches the profession even thinner because female physicians tend to work fewer hours than males (presumably because, as mothers, many are juggling professional and domestic responsibilities). As male physicians age out and are replaced by females, doctors on average will tend to work fewer hours, meaning they will see fewer patients. For this and other reasons, 2,531 doctors told HWDC they were planning to decrease patient hours compared to 2,183 who said they were planning to increase their hours within the next two years — a net of 348 doctors intending to cut back.

Another way to accommodate 400,000 more Medicaid patients is to train and recruit new doctors. According to HWDC data, Virginia medical schools granted 1,322 residencies over the past five years. That’s a pipeline of barely 600 per year. Assuming every Virginia resident stayed in Virginia (which they don’t), the number fall significantly short of the 1,000 or so doctors expected to retire. That means the gap must be filled by recruiting doctors from outside the state. How likely is that to occur? Who knows. That’s a big uncertainty.

Some regions of Virginia will be able to absorb the influx of Medicaid patients better than others. The major metropolitan areas have higher doctor-population ratios than the non-metros. Indeed, as shown in the map at atop of this post, a 2013 presentation to the Joint Commission on Health Care designated much of the state as “primary care shortage areas.” That presentation cited a shortage of 126 primary care physicians in those areas. Continue reading

A Crime-Fighting Experiment at Gilpin Court

Police patrol at Gilpin Court. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Attorney General’s office is funding an interesting social experiment. On the theory that fighting crime requires addressing root causes over and above actually, uh, fighting crime, the AG is providing $1 million to fund programs designed to improve health, education and economic outcomes and strengthen neighborhood ties at the City of Richmond’s largest housing project, Gilpin Court.

“Instead of a top-down approach that tries to tell Gilpin what it needs, we’re going to bring together everyone who cares about this community and who has good ideas to reduce crime, strengthen the neighborhood, and improve quality of life for Gilpin residents, especially young people, said Attorney General Mark Herring, as quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Greater Gilpin is going to reduce crime and make Gilpin Court safer by taking a more holistic approach and attacking the factors we know contribute to higher rates of crime, like poverty, drug use, limited educational or job opportunities, and poor health.”

The grant will allocate $187,000 to pay for additional police patrols in Gilpin Court, a project of 781 housing units occupied by about 2,700 residents. But the rest will go to hiring a full-time program coordinator and underwrite for programs identified through community meetings.

“Building stronger, safer communities means addressing the underlying factors that can contribute to violence and violent crime,” Mayor Levar Stoney said in a statement. “This initiative will build on the strengths of the community and empower Gilpin residents to have a say and a stake in the future of the neighborhood.”

The program encapsulates every liberal piety about the relationship between poverty and crime…. which, in my estimation, means that it is doomed to failure because liberal pieties about poverty and crime are misguided. While it is true that violent crime is more prevalent in poor neighborhoods, there has been very little correlation between changes in the rates of poverty and violent crime over the decades. The relationship between the two is tenuous and complex with many intervening variables.

One critical variable is the prevalence of families dominated by unwed mothers and the lack of consistent daily discipline provided by fathers, which results in a failure to enculturate young people with non-violent norms. Teenage boys roam free in Gilpin Court with few parental restrictions. They develop their own young, male, Lord-of-the-Flies subculture, which skews towards partying, substance abuse, petty criminality, an obsession with status among peers, and, often, violence.

To the extent that crime among male teens and young men is the outcome of rational calculation — weighing potential gains from crime versus the prospect of getting caught and punished — increased neighborhood patrols undoubtedly will be useful. Richmond police doctrine emphasizes the building of community bonds that engender trust with residences, so a heightened the police presence should have a positive impact. Conversely, while the funding of “community programs” may provide benefits to Gilpin residents, unless they interrupt the dynamic of fatherless boys, I am dubious that they will have any impact on crime.

I might be wrong, however. I’m not omniscient. Perhaps liberals have it right. Perhaps the program will be a smashing success. The fact is, nobody knows. That’s the point of conducting an experiment.

I’d be all in favor of conducting this particular experiment if it were set up so we might learn something from it. Ideally, the experiment would confirm or disprove the notion that addressing certain “underlying factors” by means of programs chosen through community input will reduce crime. Unfortunately by doing two things at once, both boosting policing and attacking root causes, the factors contributing to positive or negative outcomes will be hard to disentangle. If the program does prove to be beneficial, we are unlikely to learn anything from it because we won’t know whether the police or the community programs deserve the credit. In the absence of unambiguous data, liberals will continuing embracing their pieties, and conservatives theirs, everyone will continue believing what they always believed, and we will flounder about as always.

Smaller Class Sizes Not the Answer

Graph credit: John Butcher

Parents and educators commonly believe that smaller class sizes provide a superior education. It seems logical: Smaller classes allow teachers to provide more individual attention to students. But the evidence supporting this intuitive view is surprisingly thin. A new study by the Campbell Collaboration, which promotes social and economic change through evidence-based policy, which calls the conventional wisdom into question.

The belief in the efficacy of small class sizes has inspired class-size reductions in the United States, Great Britain and Netherlands, observes the study, “Small class sizes for improving student achievement in elementary and secondary schools: a systematic review.” But the investment is expensive? Does it work?

The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 127 studies that analyzed 55 student populations across 41 countries. The conclusion: “There is some evidence to suggest that there is an effect of reducing class size on reading achievement, though the effect is very small. There is no significant effect on mathematics achievement.”

While the overall effect is negligible, smaller class sizes have been shown to be more beneficial for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Smaller class sizes are costly, however, the study argues, and there may be more cost-effective strategies for improving student achievement.

I asked John Butcher, of Cranky’s Blog fame, to run an analysis for Virginia school systems. The chart above, which compares teacher-pupil ratios and math Standards of Learning pass rates of Virginia school districts, shows a negative (though statistically insignificant) correlation between teacher-pupil ratios and academic performance — totally consistent with the Campbell Collaboration study.

Bacon’s bottom line: Parents and educators in Virginia take it as an article of faith that class size is a key determinant of educational quality. But the effect may be far less significant than imagined. Instead of pushing for smaller classes, perhaps educators should consider different strategies.

For example: A judicious increase in class sizes — say, from 24 students per class to 26 students, should have no discernible effect on student achievement. But what if adjusting the teacher-student ratio freed resources that could be redirected to staffing classrooms dedicated to disadvantaged or disabled kids with a track record of disrupting their classes? Would such focused classes do a better job of helping the troubled students? Would the removal of classroom troublemakers allow teachers do a better job of teaching the other students?

I don’t know the answer. And even if I thought I did, I’d favor running pilot programs to test the idea before rolling it out on a large scale. But this is the kind of thinking, I submit, in which we need to engage rather than doubling down on stale and failed prescriptions.

Market-Based Social Justice: Roll Back Zoning Restrictions on Housing Supply

Source: StatChat blog

Unaffordable housing is a problem for more Virginians today than it was during the 2000s housing bubble. Median rent has increased at three times the rate of incomes since the end of the recession, says Hamilton Lombard with the Demographics Research Group at UVa on the StatChat blog.

Among Virginians earning between $35,000 and $75,000 (the second from bottom income quartile), the share of income they spend on rent above the HUD-recommended limit of 30% reached 41% last year, nearly double pre-recession levels. The share of 18- to 34-year-old adults living with parents  surpassed 45% last year.

In Lombard’s analysis, the problem can be traced to an imbalance in supply and demand. To house its growing population, Virginia needs to build more than 40,000 new homes each year. As can be seen in the chart below, home builders have been erecting around 30,000 a year.

When new homes are built, they tend to be geared to higher-income households because those houses have the highest profit margins. In a properly functioning housing marketplace, however, as housing stock ages, it depreciates in relative value and becomes affordable to households lower in the income spectrum. In a process that economists refer to as “filtering,” aging houses continually replenish the supply of lower-cost dwellings. A higher rate of new home construction accelerates the filtering process. However, writes Lombard:

In Virginia, where fewer new homes are being built, census data shows that many of Virginia’s older homes are not depreciating in relative value as quickly as in past decades (particularly in Northern Virginia), indicating that the filtering process has slowed. This lines up with [the] analysis that found filtering is typically slower in regions with rapid home price increases and low rates of new home construction. Rising home prices and a limited supply of new homes often encourages investors and home buyers to demolish or renovate older homes that might otherwise have become low income housing.

The slowdown in new construction is at the root of Virginia’s affordable housing crisis, which contributes to ancillary problems such as the rise in homelessness and the increase in the number of evictions. If we want to solve these “downstream” problems, we need to address the source. Why has home building slowed down? I would argue that home builders would eagerly meet the demand for new housing if only they could get the required zoning permissions.

For decades it was relatively easy to get permission to build low-density cul-de-sac subdivisions on the urban fringe, but housing preferences have shifted decisively toward walkable urbanism closer to the urban core. Re-developing real estate at higher density in established areas runs into intense neighborhood resistance, which throttles the supply of new housing projects. Meanwhile, zoning policy has all but exterminated affordable-housing options such as boarding houses, single-room-occupancy housing, granny flats, garage apartments, and construction of new trailer parks.

Bacon’s bottom line: Parents, if you want to get your 24-year-old kid out of the house, support the rollback of zoning restrictions! Even if developers want to build luxury condos, they’re still contributing to affordable housing simply by increasing the housing supply. Market-driven development will even advance social justice by easing evictions and homelessness!

“Government Failure” in the Housing Market

Something is seriously out of whack here. The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) has a vision — a commendable one, I might add — of demolishing the city’s six public housing projects to end concentrated pockets of poverty, crime, substance abuse and social dysfunction. But it turns out that the price of developing new mixed-income apartments runs around $250,000 per unit.

The RHHA has concluded that it would be significantly cheaper to renovate the existing public housing stock at the cost of roughly $50,000 to $60,000 per unit, reports the Richmond Free Press. New construction would take about 30 years to replace the 3,300 public housing units. Renovations would cut the time to 10 to 15 years. De-concentrating poverty, it appears, is no easy task.

But how can it cost $250,000 to build a new public housing apartment unit? At right is a townhouse on the market for $250,000. It has 2,349 square feet with the following features: two and a half bathrooms; a one-car garage, and a master suite with huge walk-in closet and en-suite bath with jetted tub, shower and double vanity. It is located within 10 minutes of downtown, Carytown, VCU, and James River trails and parks.

If townhouse living isn’t your style, then there are numerous single-family dwellings in suburban neighborhoods. For example, the house at left is also on the market for $250,000. It has 1,900 square feet, two-and-a-half baths, a fenced backyard, a two-car garage, and “a glamour bath with Whirlpool” tub.

How big are the RRHA’s new public housing units? What amenities do they have? Was RRHA proposing to place poor people into units normally affordable by the middle-class as part of its proposed “mixed-income” projects — in effect vaulting low-income public-housing residents into vastly improved housing conditions? Did it run up costs by ensnaring the projects in bureaucratic red tape? Or is there some other explanation?

The justification for “public” housing is that government can address “market failure” in the housing market by providing shelter for lower-income Americans at a lower cost than private industry can. Clearly, there is no market failure in Richmond’s middle-class housing market. The failure more likely is a regulatory one in which local governments have zoned affordable housing categories — boarding houses, Single Room Occupancy rooms with shared amenities, garage apartments, granny flats, trailers, and converted cargo containers — out of existence.

Still, it astonishes me that the best RRHA can do is $250,000 in new construction or $50,000 for renovated units. What’s the opposite of “market failure”? Government failure? That, it appears, is what we’re dealing with here. Pity the poor who find themselves wards of the state.

Virginia’s Not-So-Crazy Rich Asians

Graph credit: StatChat

Once the victims of discrimination, Asians now are prospering in the United States. The median income in 2017 for Asians in the United States was $83,500. That compared to a national average of $60,300 — a 38% differential.

In Virginia, Asians’ incomes, and the income gap with other Americans, was even greater: $101,500 compared to $71,500, a 42% differential. Indeed, Virginia is the state with the second highest average median household income for Asians, second only to New Jersey.

Why do Asians out-perform other racial and ethnic groups? One reason is that they cluster in urban areas, where wage levels are higher. You don’t see many Asian farmers or mill workers in the United States. (When I lived in Martinsville nearly 40 years ago, I knew a Korean textile mill foreman, a former bodyguard of a South Korean dictator, who had been exiled for some reason that I can no longer remember. But his family was the only Korean household in town.)

Another reason, according to the StatChat blog, published by the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia, is that Asians are represented disproportionately in high-paying STEM-H occupations such as health care; architecture & engineering; life, physical and social science; and computer & mathematical.

Virginia’s Asians are a highly diverse group encompassing Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Indians and Pakistanis, so we have to be careful with generalization. One thing all of these groups share, however, is strong, intact families that uphold the institution of marriage and insulate children from the corrosive temptations of popular culture. Generally speaking, Asian kids work harder at school, they are more likely to succeed academically, they are more likely to attend and complete college, and they are more likely to choose academically challenging career paths that lead to higher-paying jobs. Oh, and when the IRS calculates income, Asians are more likely to belong to two-income households.

The emphasis on academic achievement can be seen in comparisons of Standards of Learning test scores.

Not only do Asian students out-perform all other ethnic groups, including whites, disadvantaged Asian students out-performed their disadvantaged peers in other ethnic groups. Remarkably, disadvantaged Asian students out-performed all blacks and Hispanics. Some of the disparity in academic achievement may be attributable to the fact that academic performance is correlated with income and that Asian students belong to higher-income households. But the achievements of disadvantaged Asian students demonstrates something else is going on.

That something, I would argue, is a familial culture that values intact family structures, academic achievement, self-discipline, and a propensity to defer gratification. Singapore Asians may be “crazy,” to riff off the title of the popular movie, “Crazy Rich Asians,” but American Asians are anything but. More than any other group, Asians embody the virtues that made this country great. That’s why they have engendered so little ethnic animosity in contemporary society, and almost all Americans are happy to see them succeed.

Some School Districts Do a Better Job Educating Poor Kids than Others


I’m playing around with Datawrapper, which provides cool ways to display data– don’t quite have the hang of it, but making progress. Anyway, my inaugural effort shows the considerable variability between school districts in pass rates for English Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.

We all know that the socio-economic status of a student is a major predictor of their academic achievement. Because school districts draw their student bodies from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, it is not fair to compare the academic achievement of Virginia school districts without adjusting for demographics. Therefore, for this map I compare the English SOL pass rate for disadvantaged kids, kids who are poor enough to qualify for free school lunch.

Virginia school districts range from an 87.5% pass rate for disadvantaged kids in West Point, a mill town on the edge of Hampton Roads, to 49.3% for Danville, a mill town in Southside; and from 85.96% in Highland County, the locality with the smallest population in Virginia, to 51.68% in the City of Richmond, the state capital.

If disadvantaged kids in Danville, Petersburg, and the City of Richmond have dismal standardized test results, local educators can’t blame the outcomes on poverty alone. Other localities have poor kids, too, but they have significantly better outcomes. What could explain the variability between school districts?

One possibility is that some districts spend more money per student than others. Perhaps West Point and Highland County spend more per student than Danville and Richmond. The “more money” hypothesis seems less than plausible from a superficial look at the map above, which shows that the pass rates for disadvantaged kids tend to be lower in the affluent Northern Virginia localities. But maybe there’s an explanation that transcends spending per student. Maybe Northern Virginia school districts have more hard-to-educate English-as-a- Second-Language students. The issue warrants closer examination.

Another explanation of the variability seen in the map might be that poverty is worse in some localities than others — not more widespread, but more intense and socially destructive. In cities like Richmond, Petersburg and Danville perhaps the poverty is more concentrated in a few neighborhoods, or poor kids are more concentrated in a few schools, or the degree of social breakdown and dysfunction is greater.

Yet another potential explanation is that school districts have different racial/ethnic mixes and that different ethnic groups put a greater premium on succeeding academically than others. For example, Asians might study harder than their socioeconomic peers in other racial/ethnic groups. Or Hispanics might encourage their kids to drop out of school, become wage earners and contribute to their families.

Yet another option: Maybe some school districts do a better job with the resources and student populations they have.

Finally, a related possibility: Perhaps the move from traditional disciplinary practices to restorative justice disciplinary practices (my pet theory) has eroded discipline and promoted classroom disorder with deleterious consequences for kids who want to learn.

Clearly, the data in this map tells us only so much. But one limited conclusion does seem inescapable. Blaming poor educational results on the prevalence of “poor kids” in the school district goes only so far.

Assuming I can figure out how to create fully functional maps, I’ll be exploring these competing theories in the future.

Getting Virginians their Lives Back One License at a Time

LaPonda Carter lived with a relative in Amelia County, raising her daughter and driving to her job at the VCU Medical Center in downtown Richmond. She frequently loaned her car to the family member. Unbeknownst to her, the relative racked up frequent toll violations. The charges quickly added up — $0.75 per toll, plus $25 administrative fees for not paying on time, plus $500 court fines, plus court costs. The fees, fines and penalties eventually reached an astonishing total — nearly $100,000. Adding insult to injury, Carter had her license yanked.

By working with Drive-to-Work, a Richmond-based nonprofit organization dedicated to helping lower-income Virginians get their driving rights restored, she managed to get her licensed reinstated. Now Drive-to-Work is working with her to resolve the toll-violation cases.

Virginia law allows for the suspension of revocation of driver’s licenses for a wide variety of offenses that have nothing to do with bad driving — collecting court costs, non-payment of civil judgments, and failure to pay child support. Of Virginia’s 5.8 million licensed drivers, 974,000 are under suspended-license orders. While some kind of sanction may be called upon for their offenses, says Drive-to-Work President Randy Rollins, a person deprived of a driver’s license often is unable to work and meet the very obligations the suspended licenses are meant to punish.

Ten years ago when Rollins first approached members of the General Assembly to reform the laws, he typically got a frosty reception. But attitudes are changing among both liberals and conservatives, he says. Restoring drivers licenses increasingly is seen as an issue that both advances social justice and supports individual responsibility and self-help.

The nonprofit group operates first and foremost to help people like Carter get their licenses back and work out arrangements so they can pay their fees, fines and penalties. Case workers have helped more than 2,000 individual clients to date. In a related initiative staffed by volunteer attorneys, Drive-to-Work has given 96 prison seminars to help offenders get their licenses when they are released from custody.

Rollins also is working with the Department of Corrections (DOC) to remove another potential impediment — the need to attend a driver improvement clinic before getting a license reinstated. What better time to attend such a clinic, he asks, than when offenders have lots of free time in prison? Drive-to-Work will deliver a clinic online for $65 per participant, a sum that will be reduced to $20 after DOC and Drive-to-Work subsidies. That program is temporarily in limbo up as DOC undertakes the migration of its IT systems to the state’s new vendor, but Rollins is optimistic the issues will be worked out soon.

In the meantime, Rollins, who served as Secretary of Public Safety during the Wilder administration, is working to help lawmakers identify ways to help the cause. He highlights one piece of successful legislation and two additional measures that he would like to see passed.

Pay plans for court fees. Millions of Virginians live paycheck to paycheck, and they don’t have a spare $1,000 to pay court fines and fees. Rather than suspend their licenses, making it harder to work and pay back anything, a law sponsored by Republican Del. Manoli Loupassi allowed for repaying the fines in agreed-upon installments and restoring the license when the agreement was signed, not later when the fines were paid in full.

After a year’s experience, says Rollins, the law appears to be making a difference. Judges are considering individual circumstances when setting payment agreements, many are requiring lower down payments, and a 10-day grace period is preventing defaults.

Suspensions for civil judgments. If a motorist drives a car while uninsured and causes an accident, his or her license can be suspended for failure to pay civil judgments to the insurance companies. While Rollins agrees that there should be sanctions against people who fail to pay, he says suspending their licenses for reasons unrelated to safety violations makes no sense. The license suspension is just another collection tool. If you owe a hospital money, the hospital can’t suspend your license. If you default on your credit card, the card company can’t suspend your license. Why should insurance companies be treated differently?

Child support payments. Licenses can be suspended for failure to pay child support. Child support obligations can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. While the courts do allow payment plans, the minimum down payment is too high, Rollins argues. A $20,000 obligation, for instance, would require a 5% down payment or $600, whichever was higher — often beyond the means of the poor and near poor. Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, sponsored a bill last year that would have set the obligation at the lower of 5% or $600. The bill was defeated last year.

“Suspensions for child support have nothing to do with traffic safety,” says Rollins. In fact the suspension can be a barrier to gainful employment and reduce the chances for paying any child support.”

Failing Richmond Schools Doubling Down on Failing Policies

Thomas Jefferson High School graduates. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Richmond Public School System is in crisis, roiled by two independent audits and the publication of new state data showing that the administration is hobbled by rampant inefficiency, there are deep and pervasive achievement gaps between white students and black and Hispanic students, and the high school dropout rate is the highest in Virginia.

The sense of urgency is welcome. The school system has been failing its students for many years. But the major players — school board members and school administrators — seem to be drawing the wrong conclusions. Judging from news accounts, educational power brokers are doubling down on their commitment to “restorative,” or therapeutic, disciplinary policies designed to reduce “inequities.”

From flawed assumptions flow flawed policy prescriptions. These policies, I predict, will backfire. The restorative justice approach to school discipline will make the racial gap worse by disrupting the education of minority students who come to school motivated to learn.

Captive to progressive dogma, Richmond public school officials are blind to the nature of the problem. That dogma was captured perfectly in a quote from the new school superintendent Jason Kamras, who said: “There’s nothing wrong with the kids in RPS. We, the adults who are charged with caring for them, have not done right by them for too many years.”

It’s true enough that the adults have failed spectacularly. As documented by one of the audits Kamras commissioned, the administration is riddled with inefficiency. Employees aren’t fulfilling basic tasks, for instance, such as building inspections, contributing to the disgraceful deterioration of the city’s aging school buildings. Richmond allocates significantly more per student on operational expenditures than neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield Counties — $10,973 in 2014 compared to $8,879 and $8,958 respectively — yet its physical plant often is in atrocious condition.

Unfortunately, there is plenty wrong with the kids, too. A large percentage come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and many are categorized as having learning disabilities. Describing the students as “economically disadvantaged” really doesn’t tell the whole story. Most “economically disadvantaged” kids also are socially disadvantaged. The problem isn’t material poverty, it’s social breakdown. The kids live in single-mother households; many if not most have absentee fathers. Many are subject to child abuse and neglect, often at the hands of live-in boyfriends. Their domestic lives often are chaotic. They receive little educational guidance or encouragement at home. Tragically, these dismal realities affect students’ success at school.

But look how the social-breakdown problem, when viewed through the social-justice paradigm, is translated into a racial issue (and here I quote the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s summary of an audit performed by The Education Trust):

The audits found major inequities in the district’s academics, ranging from suspension rates that disproportionately affect students of color to white students having better access to advanced courses….

The Education Trust’s report, which focused on academic equity, found that nearly 1 in 6 students were suspended out of school at least once in 2017 and 1 in 5 students were chronically absent. The report also found that elementary and middle schools with a population that skews white are much more likely to have students enrolled in gifted education programs and algebra in eighth grade, which have been shown to better prepare students for college and careers.

What’s the answer? Round up truant kids and get them back into school. Change policies to reduce the number of suspensions and other disciplinary actions. Get teachers to engage with problem students rather than expel them from the classroom. Judging by a Michael Paul Williams column in the Times-Dispatch, the RPS administration is doubling down on restorative justice in the expectation of reducing the inequities. Writes Williams:

Kamras, to his credit, appears focused on attacking those inequities. The hiring of Ram Bhagat to implement restorative justice practices and to develop a trauma-informed approach to education was inspired. Bhagat, a retired RPS teacher with substantial community capital, is the district’s manager of School Climate and Culture Strategy.

The power of ideology to blind people to reality is on full display in the Richmond public schools. Let’s start with the obvious: the fact that one in five Richmond students was chronically absent in 2016-17. The “inequities” decried by The Education Trust and school officials stems from that fact. Clearly, a high percentage of Richmond students — almost all of whom come from “economically” disadvantaged backgrounds — are not committed to advancing their education. Rounding up these kids and getting them back into school does not improve their motivation. Most of these students have already fallen far behind their classmates academically. They find class either boring, frustrating or threatening because, in many cases, they can’t keep up with what’s going on. Thus, they “act out.” Teachers spend more time focused on the problem students and less time with students wanting to learn.

By contrast, most white kids in Richmond public schools come from affluent families that place an emphasis on education. Parents have the wherewithal to invest considerable time at home reading to their children, teaching the alphabet, helping them with homework when they’re younger, and leaning on them do their homework when they’re older. Needless to say, chronically absent students aren’t attending the advanced classes, so white students are largely insulated from the consequences of politically correct policies that undermine order.

Here’s the real tragedy: There are thousands of black kids whose families value education and who expend great effort — often in the face of greater social obstacles than their white peers — to learn. Last year 80% of Richmond students were not chronically absent. Roughly half of Richmond’s black students passed their reading and math SOL assessments. One in twenty earned assessment scores that ranked them as advanced. I submit that very few of these black achievers are among those who skip school, skip class, and disrupt teachers when they are in class. To the contrary, these are the students who are cheated by the erosion of order in schools and classrooms. These are the ones who receive fewer hours of instruction every week while teachers are distracted by trouble makers. But no one speaks for them.

What can we expect as the flailing leadership of Richmond Public Schools doubles down on restorative justice? More disruptive students in classrooms. More distracted teachers. More demoralized teachers, who quit or transfer out of inner-city schools. More students short-changed of a full education. A continued erosion of student assessment scores. And more anguished hand-wringing by educators committed to the social justice paradigm whose policy prescriptions continue to fail.

The Catastrophic Effects of Henrico Schools’ War on Discipline


Sometimes I ask myself, do I write too much about race on Bacon’s Rebellion? I lament the nation’s descent into racial identity politics — am I contributing to the trend by dwelling upon the topic so much myself? Then I encounter a report like “A Review of Equity and Parent Engagement in Special Education in Henrico County Public Schools,” and I am reminded that I am only responding to the obsession about race in Virginia’s public policy establishment.

“A Review of Equity,” whose lead author is Anne Holton, wife of U.S. Senator Tim Kaine and a former state Secretary of Education, makes a fetish of statistical disparities between white and black students, whether the issue is the percentage classified as having disabilities, placed in special education classrooms, or subject to short-term suspensions and other disciplinary actions.

The report gives limited praise to the Henrico County Public School system. The system does not demonstrate “racial disproportionality” in identifying students with disabilities. Schools have reduced the number of short- and long-term suspensions in recent years as teachers and administrators implemented more “restorative” or therapeutic approaches to maintaining discipline. The number of expulsions and suspensions has declined markedly — 38% for black students and 41% for white students between the 2011-12 school year and the 2015-16 school year. Progress has been particularly evident among students with disabilities, and the white-black disparity in suspensions has shrunk by a third.

Yet disparities persist, notes the Holton report. Black students are still more likely than their white peers to receive short-term suspensions, even when the numbers are adjusted for poverty. The report views continued racial disparities as a big problem and major injustice. Suspending students reduces the time they spent in class, which makes it all the more likely that they will fall behind in their studies.

The report recommends that Henrico County act more aggressively to reduce in-school and out-of-school disparities in disciplinary actions.

Despite HCPS’s successful efforts in recent years to reduce suspensions and expulsions overall, the division still struggles with excessive discipline, particularly for Black students and students with disabilities. In addressing this persistent issue, HCPS should consider setting targeted goals around the reduction of suspension and expulsion rates for certain subgroups of students.

Henrico should “consider designing and implementing a locally tailored plan that explicitly focuses on race and culture to reduce exclusionary discipline practices in elementary and secondary schools.” Henrico’s Positive Behavior Intervention Supports approach, says the report, is beneficial to the extent that it relies on proactive rather than reactive discipline practices. “This shift in how to approach student behavior has been critical to advancing how to re-think discipline, particularly for students with disabilities.” The drawback, however, is that Henrico’s policies are “racially and culturally neutral.”

Instead of applying race-neutral disciplinary policies, Henrico schools should set “specific goals for the disciplining of Black students and students with disabilities.” In effect, Holton is calling for disciplinary quotas — capping the number of disciplinary actions for blacks — in order to bring about racial proportionality.

In pursuit of racial proportionately, Henrico should amend the Code of Student Conduct to promote “alternative discipline approaches” for minor infractions in place of “exclusionary discipline.” Specifically, infractions such as disobedience and disrespect — such as, to give concrete meaning to the report’s recommendation, refusing to be quiet and telling a teacher to go f— himself — should be reclassified in order to help reduce suspensions. And, of course, staff training should be mandated for “implicit bias, trauma-informed care, restorative practices, understanding of diverse cultures, and basic understanding of the needs of children with disabilities.”

Bacon’s bottom line. Nowhere in the report do Holton and her co-authors acknowledge the possibility that perhaps the reason blacks are disciplined at higher rates than other racial groups is that they engage in more disruptive behavior. Given the higher incidence of poverty, single-parent households, child neglect and abuse, and other socio-economic characteristics that affect children’s well being, this is hardly a novel suggestion. Yet the report argues that school disciplinary practices — not the disruptive behavior itself — is the problem.

And nowhere does Holton examine negative effects of Henrico County’s embrace, as insufficient as she believes it to be, of the therapeutic paradigm for maintaining school discipline. Holton and her co-authors authors totally ignore the “disproportionate” impact of eroding classroom discipline on black students who come to school ready and willing to learn. Teachers are required to spend more time on “positive behavior intervention,” which subtracts from classroom teaching time. I would argue that the student-hours of instructional time lost by students suspended from school is a small fraction of the instructional time that all students lose when trouble-makers disrupt classrooms.

Rule-abiding black students suffer the most from restorative disciplinary policies designed to benefit the rule breakers. The “disproportionate impact” is vividly on display in the table atop this column. The failure rate in reading, writing, math, science and history trended the wrong way for all racial groups between the 2015-16 and the 2017-18 school years as the new disciplinary policies took hold. The decline in performance was marginal for whites and Asians but catastrophic for blacks and Hispanics.

The war on discipline in Henrico County schools, launched on the pretext that previous disciplinary policies disproportionately impacted blacks, has… disproportionately impacted blacks (with Hispanics as collateral damage). Oblivious to deteriorating conditions in schools and classrooms, Holton and her colleagues double down on their disastrous prescriptions.

How much longer must black children suffer from the failed prescriptions of liberal white ideologues before someone calls a halt to this madness?

Update: In fairness to Holton and her co-authors, they were responding to Henrico County’s request to focus on disproportionality. (See LarryG’s comment here.) The obsession with race in this report ultimately emanates from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Metrics, Reality, and Virginia’s New Accreditation Standards

Tomorrow the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) will release the first public school accreditation ratings calculated according to the 2017 Standards of Accreditation. The new standards are designed to measure how well schools are educating Virginia’s school children, giving credit to schools that are showing progress even if they fall short of the standards.

VDOE has a tough job. On the one hand, educators want to set high standards of achievement so Virginia students can engage successfully in a highly competitive global economy. On the other, rule writers want to acknowledge the challenges faced by schools with disproportionately large numbers of “at risk” students — those with disabilities, from lower-income families, or who speak English as a second language. The new accreditation standards cut low-achievement schools some slack if they manage to improve performance year to year.

As VDOE summed up the new approach in a press release issued in anticipation of the accreditation report tomorrow:

The new state accreditation standards are designed to promote continuous achievement in all schools, close achievement gaps and expand accountability beyond overall performance on Standards of Learning tests. These new standards also recognize the academic growth of students making significant annual progress toward meeting grade-level expectations in English and mathematics.

You can read here a detailed explanation of what goes into the accreditation standards. Schools will be evaluated according to three broad sets of criteria:

  • Overall student achievement based on Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rates for English, math, and science in elementary and middle schools, and on other criteria in high school.
  • Achievement gaps based on differences in average scores between “student groups.” The groups are not spelled out explicitly, but presumably are racial/ethnic groups or groups defined as “disadvantaged,” disabled, or ESL (English as a Second Language).
  • Student engagement metrics such as dropout rates, absenteeism, and graduation and completion rates.

VDOE provides an illustration (reproduced above) of how this might work for a sample middle school. Let’s say 10 students take the SOLs and only six students pass. But if two of the failing students showed “growth,” and one English Learner showed “progress,” the school would be given a “combined rate” of 90%.

The goal is admirable: to reward schools that show achievement gains even if the average pass rates fall short of desired standards. It makes no sense to shame teachers and administrators of poorly performing schools if they’re showing signs of engineering a turn-around. The danger of this approach, however, as amply demonstrated by SOL cheating scandals in recent years, is that teachers and administrators may be tempted to game show progress by manipulating the metrics.

That danger appears to be most evident in the high school “student engagement” metrics. One way school districts have combated high drop-out rates is by ramping up their anti-truancy programs. But it’s one thing to get kids back onto the school grounds, and another to get them into the classroom. At some schools, teachers literally patrol the grounds to get kids back inside. And even if kids are corralled into classrooms, there is no guarantee that they are learning anything. Indeed, to the extent that disruptive kids are coaxed back into classrooms, they may degrade the learning of others. In the end, evaluating schools based on drop-out metrics creates tremendous incentives to give kids so-called social promotions. Many students now attending graduation ceremonies receive “certificates of attendance” — improving a high school’s “completion” metrics but degrading the value of the high school credential and tarnishing the accomplishment of students who, despite the odds, earned a diploma.

There is another danger in the high school evaluations — how to show students’ progress in the absence of SOL tests, the last set of which occurs in the 8th grade. The VDOE summary mentions “assessments” for English, math and other subjects but does not say what they are. The following comments here are based upon a fragmentary understanding of how the system works, thus they are subject to correction. I bring up the topic in the hope that readers will fill in any gaps.

In Henrico County, high school teachers compile SGMs or Student Growth Measures, for each of their students. While students may fall short of standardized assessments, the idea is to document that they have at least shown “growth” in their understanding of a subject through the school year. Teachers are evaluated by the number and percentage of their students who show growth. The potential for sanctions creates incentives for teachers to fudge the evaluations — counting even miniscule signs of learning as “growth” — in order to give administrators what they want. The SGMs do not indicate mastery of a subject, but they allow administrators to say their students are making progress.

What happens in Henrico County may or may not be representative of what occurs in other Virginia school districts. But the temptation for teachers and administrators to fudge statistics is universal. VDOE can update its methodology for accrediting schools, and the department can try earnestly to safeguard its metrics against cheating and manipulation. But when schools are driven to graduate kids who have no desire to learn, and administrators are compelled to adopt restorative-justice disciplinary methods, and VDOE tightens its strait-jacket of rules and reports — in sum, when teachers and principals are asked to do the impossible — don’t be surprised if school statistics and accreditation reports become increasingly disconnected from reality.

ACLU: The System, Not Female Prisoners, Guilty

You find what you look for. When you look for statistical evidence of discrimination and injustice, you will find it.

In a corrections system in which 85% of prisoners are male, for example, the ACLU of Virginia finds evidence of “widespread and discriminatory suffering” imposed upon women. You see, while women constitute only 15% of Virginia prison inmates, their numbers are increasing at a faster rate than those of men — 32% over the past four years, compared to only 4% for men.

Over a 26-year period, the numbers are even more striking. The commonwealth saw a 930% increase in its female inmate population between 1980 to 2016: from 303 women in prison to 3,123.

“It was fairly shocking,” Bill Farrar, strategic communications director for the ACLU of Virginia told the Virginian-Pilot. “People should care about any group that is marginalized or adversely affected by their government in a disparate way.”

What Farrar finds shocking is not that women commit more crimes than they did three decades, which might be construed as a sign of corrosive social breakdown, but that society is incarcerating women who commit the crimes. In a study that prompted the Virginian-Pilot reporting, “Women in the Criminal Justice System: Pathways to Incarceration in Virginia,” the ACLU argues that many of the crimes are relatively minor in nature — “nonviolent crimes related to property, public order or drugs.” And, of course, the women themselves often are victims — of poverty, drug addiction or domestic abuse.

States the report:

Incarcerated women often become engaged with the criminal justice system as a result of attempts to cope with challenging aspects of their lives, such as poverty, unemployment, and physical or mental health struggles — especially those arising from drug addiction and past instances of trauma. …

The over-incarceration of women is a symptom of a complex network of social barriers, economic inequality, reproductive injustice, and racial and sexual discrimination deeply woven into our society.”

The ACLU’s bottom line: Society is guilty, not the women. The proffered solution: more study, more “training” of employees in the criminal justice system, more spending on social programs, more spending on substance-abuse programs, more spending on programs to deal with sexual victimization, elimination of cash bail, increasing the felony threshold to at least $1,500, repeal of the three-strikes-and-you’re-out law, and a host of other measures.

Bacon’s bottom line: A handful of ACLU recommendations might be worth considering, such as raising the felony threshold for property crimes, and steering women into substance-abuse programs as a first-time alternative to jail and prison. But one doesn’t need to frame such initiatives as responses to “widespread discrimination” in order to justify them.

Furthermore, not all women are in prison because of petty crimes. Roughly one in seven offenders in crimes of violence are women. The ACLU “reform” agenda would serve mainly to cast women as victims and hold them less accountable for responsibility for their actions, but do very little to curb anti-social behavior.