Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

More Unaffordable Affordable Housing

The Lawson Companies., a Virginia Beach multifamily development company, is planning to construct a $19.25 million, low-income housing project in South Richmond, reports Richmond BizSense. The apartment complex will have 96 units, for an average cost of $200,000 each. Rent for two-bedroom apartments will average around $1,000 a month, while three-bedroom units will go for $1,100.

“We see this project drawing a lot of families,” said Freddie Fletcher, a Lawson development associate. “It’s a good market over there for families looking for an affordable, Class A apartment.”

The Virginia Housing Development Authority (VHDA) is providing financing for the development. The article does not say whether or not the $1,000-a-month rent will be subsidized from vouchers or other public funds.

The project appears to be similar to many other lower-income housing projects in Virginia. Lawson Corp. has $290 million in ongoing development across Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, and is looking to do more deals in the Richmond region. Continue reading

Virginia’s Unaffordable Approach to Affordable Housing

The Creighton Court public housing project in Richmond.

If the public policy debate over affordable dwellings is as impoverished as that described in The Virginia Mercury this morning, poor Virginians are doomed to lives of housing misery. Here’s how reporter Ned Oliver sums up the controversy: “Is affordable housing something for the state to tackle, or should it be left to cities and counties to address with local money?”

Embedded in this formulation are two assumptions: (1) The paucity of affordable housing might be remedied by more grants and low-interest loans; and (2) it is the responsibility of government, either state or local, to find the money for those grants and loans. In other words, the solution to the affordability crisis is more government, not less. Yet in the same article, Oliver notes that it costs $200,000 per unit to build new apartment complexes! Continue reading

Mugged by Reality: Sedgwick Gardens Edition

Lawrence Hilliard moved to Sedgwick Gardens to escape the ghetto. Then the ghetto came to him. Photo credit: Washington Post

A conservative, as the saying goes, is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Well, it appears that a large number of liberals in the affluent Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C., have been mugged by reality. Whether they become conservatives remains to be seen.

In a social experiment that could have implications here in Virginia where the idea of mixed-income housing is all the rage, the D.C. Housing Authority increased in 2016 the maximum value of vouchers to 175% of fair market rent as set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That meant, according to the Washington Post, that vouchers could be used for one-bedroom apartments renting at up to $2,648 per month.

At Sedgwick Gardens, a historic Art Deco apartment complex overlooking Rock Creek Park, one-bedroom apartments rented for about $2,200 per month in 2017. The apartment complex, located in D.C.’s predominantly white Cleveland Park neighborhood, is, as the WaPo puts it, “a bastion of urbane liberalism where only one in 20 voters cast a ballot for President Trump in the 2016 election.” The reaction of many Sedgwick Gardens inhabitants to the influx of tenants directly off the streets, however, was less than warm, tolerant and embracing. Continue reading

Wealth Shocks and Wealth Creation in the South

Rhett Butler, dissipated southern aristocrat who (in fiction) made a fortune after the Civil War.

The abolition of U.S. slavery after the Civil War, along with the accompanying decline in land value, triggered one of the greatest episodes of “wealth compression” in world history. Slaves accounted for roughly half the accumulated wealth of Southern whites in ante-Bellum society. Reflecting a loss in productivity after the war, the value of land, which accounted for much of the non-slave wealth, fell by 60% in the Deep South and by 15% in the rest of the South. Overall, southern whites in the top 5% percentile lost 75% of their wealth, according to  according to research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Remarkably, however, the sons of slaveholders largely recovered their relative standing by shifting to new occupations, concludes the paper, “The Intergenerational Effects of a Large Wealth Shock: White Southerners after the Civil War,” by Philipp Ager, Leah Platt Boustand, and Katherine Eriksson.

Despite the massive loss of material resources, the ability of slaveholders’ sons to find new sources of wealth suggests “a remarkable persistence” of wealth that cries out for explanation. The authors’ research, based upon newly digitized, complete-count Census samples linked to 1860 slave schedules, did not enable them to identify the attributes that allowed families to reconstitute their wealth. However, drawing upon the research of others, they speculate that the sons of slave-holders bounced back thanks to their access to elite social and marital networks. Continue reading

How Government Creates Poverty: Fines and Fees

Government is much better at creating poverty than at curing it.

Yesterday the General Assembly voted to end the practice of suspending driving licenses for non-payment of fines or restitution or both and ordered Department of Motor Vehicles to restore driving privileges for hundreds of thousands of Virginians. If you need to do business at a DMV office in July, get there early. Restoring 600,000 licenses may take a while.   Continue reading

Promoting Financial Literacy

Here’s a government initiative I like. The City of Richmond’s Treasurer’s Office is holding its first Financial Literacy Fair this Friday. States the press release:

The purpose of this fair is to empower the citizens of Richmond to take more control of their finances and begin the initial steps needed to build personal wealth. The mission of the Richmond City Treasurer’s Office is to inspire, encourage and pursue the high possibilities of potential in others through the elimination of financial barriers by taking “Small Steps for Big Change.” This literacy fair is one step toward big change in the lives of our Richmond residents.

The fair will hold workshops such as Banking 101, Budgeting and Saving, Balling with Budget and Credit. Financial counselors will be onsite.

Bacon’s bottom line: One reason — I’m not saying it’s the main reason, but it’s a contributing factor — that people fall into the poverty trap is that they often make poor financial decisions. The literacy affair addresses a root cause of poverty. Let’s hope it gets great attendance!

Brace Yourself for the “Food Justice” Movement

Richmond Food Justice Corridor “planting party”

“Food justice” is a thing now.

My first instinct when I read the phrase was cynical: While some people are busy running food banks and food pantries, growing urban gardens, and setting up grocery stores in Richmond’s inner city — you know, doing things that actually feed poor people — food justice warriors are busy advocating economic and political change.

As I looked into it, I decided my gut reaction wasn’t entirely fair — partly fair, but not entirely. The Richmond Food Justice Alliance, for example, has sponsored urban-gardening events and nutritional workshops. And some of the values it promotes — inner city citizens eating better, becoming food producers as well as food consumers, in sum becoming more self-sufficient — are actually quite admirable. The movement does appear to be pushing for some positive cultural changes in the inner-city black community.

Still, steeped in the rhetoric of the Oppression Narrative, food justice warriors seem hostile to the efforts of well-intentioned outsiders. There are signs that a rift has developed between African-American community militants and white liberals in the nonprofit sector who espouse similar goals. That doesn’t help anyone. Continue reading

Yes, Let’s Restore Drivers Licenses. But…

The General Assembly spiked bills in the 2019 session that would have ended the practice of suspending the drivers licenses of Virginians who fail to pay court fines and other obligations unrelated to driving. Without some kind of repercussion, foes of the bills argued, those obligations often would go unpaid.

Now Governor Ralph Northam is proposing to use the budget as an end run around the failed legislation. He is adding an amendment to the budget bill to end the licenses-suspension practice and reinstate driving privileges for more than 600,000 Virginians.

“Having a driver’s license is essential to a person’s ability to maintain a job and provide for their families,” Northam said at a press conference yesterday. “It is especially pertinent to those that live in rural Virginia because we don’t have public transportation that is adequate to get to employment.” Continue reading

Fatherless Households and SOLs

Source: Cranky’s Blog

We know that the percentage of “economically disadvantaged” students in a school district is correlated significantly with Standards of Learning failure rates. But is poverty the driver behind low test scores, or is it just correlated with a third factor that is the real driver? Over on Cranky’s Blog, John Butcher ran an interesting analysis: He correlated English reading pass rates in a Virginia school district with the percentage of no-husband households in the jurisdiction. The results can be seen in the graph above. The percentage of no-husband households accounts for roughly 40% of the variability in SOL pass-rate performance.

John was addressing a different issue from the one I am interested in. He was making the argument that school districts should not be judged on raw SOL pass rates. Given the fact that SOL pass rates are strongly correlated with poverty, and even more strongly correlated with the percentage of fatherless children, schools should not be held accountable for their district’s demographics. They should be held accountable for under-performing on a demographically adjusted basis. (Even by that standard, he notes, the City of Richmond schools underperform “atrociously.”)

While I totally agree with the point Butcher is making — schools should be judged on their educational value added, not the demographics of their student bodies — my interest in this post is different. To what extent is the sociological background of Virginia’s students responsible for poor educational outcomes? Continue reading

Health Care and the Oppression Narrative

County health rankings. Source: Robert Woods Johnson Foundation

Correlation does not equal causality. That’s a fundamental tenet of statistics, but the concept apparently is so rarefied that a Virginia Mercury article based the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings appears to be unfamiliar with it. The result is a headline — “In Virginia, health outcomes follow geographic and racial lines” — that has become standard fare in the ongoing Oppression Narrative embraced by most of Virginia’s media outlets. By misdiagnosing the problem, the Oppression Narrative does a grave dis-service to Virginia’s poor and minorities.

Writes the Virginia Mercury today:

More than 20 percent of Virginia’s black, American Indian and Hispanic populations report poor or fair health, compared to 14 percent of the state’s white residents. …

Year over year, the rankings essentially tell the same story: Virginia’s healthy counties, many of which are nestled in the northern part of the state, remain healthy, while its unhealthy localities, clumped together in the south and southwest, continue to struggle with poor outcomes. …

Continue reading

Richmond Schools Weaken Anti-Truancy Initiative

Attendance officer Breon Eppes. Photo credit: Richmond Free Press

It has long been a pillar of Virginia education policy to increase the high school graduation rate. To advance that goal, several school districts have cracked down on students skipping school. The Richmond Public School system, for instance, has long employed a team of “school attendance officers” to round up truants and get them back into the classroom.

Then last year, in a move that generated little publicity, the General Assembly gutted a 20-year-old anti-truancy law. That bill, according to the Richmond Free-Press, did four things: It (1) doubled from five to 10 the number of days that a student could miss, (2) allowed schools to wait another 10 days before meeting with parents, (3) eliminated most of the authority of school attendance officers to be involved, and (4) allowed school districts to use volunteers instead of paid staff to work on attendance issues.

Now, with support from the Richmond school board, Superintendent Jason Kamras proposes to save $500,000 by eliminating 21 positions slotted for attendance officers and replacing them with seven “attendance liaisons.”

The Richmond Free-Press quoted Bacon’s Rebellion’s friend and comrade-in-arms John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog and the first person outside the educational establishment to notice the change:

Update: In an important comment, Dick Hall-Sizemore takes exception to the way the Richmond Free-Press characterized changes to the anti-truancy law, and suggests that the tweaks might have stemmed from issues specific to Fairfax County, and anything happening in Richmond was unintended consequence. Continue reading

Moral Measures, Skin in the Game, and K-12 Education

Four former state secretaries of education banded together to publish an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today in support of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s proposal to raise real estate and cigarette taxes to fund the Richmond public school system’s strategic plan. In the op-ed they made a statement that is core to liberal thought:

The moral measure of any community is its commitment to investing in opportunities for its neediest citizens. About 40 percent of children in the city of Richmond live below the poverty line, and nearly three-quarters are economically disadvantaged. All of Richmond’s children deserve the opportunity to reach their potential to be contributing members of society. When that happens, our entire community will benefit.

The answer, of course, is mo’ money. The answer is always mo’ money.

I may not speak for everyone with conservative or libertarian leanings, but I speak for many. We, too, want to create a society in which every Virginia child has access to a good education. We, too, want to see African-American children in Virginia’s inner cities escape the clutches of poverty. We, too, want everyone from every county, city and town in Virginia to become a productive and contributing member of society enjoying a decent standard of living.

We disagree on how to achieve those aims. Continue reading

What Can Educators Learn from CollegeU?

ChallengeU, says it’s website, can “put success in the palm of your hand.”

It’s a heart-warming story: Thanks to the intervention of the nonprofit ChallengeU program, four former high school dropouts from the Petersburg school system received their high school diplomas in a ceremony Wednesday. (A fifth diploma earner could not participate.)

“The event was much the same as a traditional graduation ceremony, complete with speeches and a walk across the stage to receive their diplomas,”  said the Times-Dispatch editorial page today. “The euphoria in the room was electric. All four students say they hope to continue with higher education.”

It’s always good news when at-risk kids manage to turn their lives around, complete their high school educations and get a shot at climbing out of poverty. As the ChallengeU website notes, in Virginia 8,000 kids dropped out of high school last year. Coaxing these kids back into the educational pipeline is one of society’s great challenges.

ChallengeU takes on hard cases with some success, as evidenced by the graduation of those four Petersburg kids. But the program is highly unconventional — the kids learn online — and it is resource intensive. The question arises: Does ChallengeU provide an educational model that can be replicated, in whole or in part, in the public school system? Does the ChallengeU model warrant greater support from the philanthropic sector? Conversely, do the high school diplomas reflect real learning? Are the program’s successes worth the resources expended? Unfortunately, ChallengeU’s website provides no metrics, so those questions are difficult to answer. Continue reading

Blacksburg Tapping the Brakes on Student Housing

Student-oriented housing near Virginia Tech. (Photo credit: Roanoke Times.)

While the People’s Republic of Charlottesville grapples with mandatory parking (see previous post), the People’s Republic of Blacksburg is wrestling with the problem of privately developed student housing. Apparently, too many developers want in on the opportunities created by expanding enrollment at Virginia Tech. Town Council voted 7 to 0 recently, according to the Roanoke Times, “to be more selective whenever it receives requests for student housing projects.”

We commonly hear how the private sector is uninterested in building affordable housing. Yet in Blacksburg we see local government dampening developer enthusiasm for meeting the demand for student housing (much of which, I assume, falls under the rubric of “affordable.”) It is not clear whom Town Council sees as picking up the slack.

“It is extremely lucrative to build purpose-built student housing. It’s so lucrative that people will come in with these very large plans,” said Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith. “We have people expressing interest monthly.” Continue reading

Squeezing the Most from Every Health Care Dollar

Teaching healthy cooking at Health Brigade’s Food Farmacy.

Medicaid expansion in Virginia is forcing Virginia’s free clinics to make a fundamental choice. Should they participate in Medicaid or not?

Accepting Medicaid payments would provide a new source of funding for clinics, which don’t charge for medical services, and would allow them to continue treating patients who qualify for Medicaid and would otherwise need to seek primary care services elsewhere. But Medicaid generates extensive, complex regulations which must be handled by paid administrative staff.

Health Brigade, formerly known as the Fan Free Clinic, has made the strategic decision not to participate. The clinic, which serves the Richmond area, will forego significant revenue and lose many patients. But there will be no lack of patients to take their place, says Wendy Klein, the clinic’s medical director. While Medicaid expansion will provide insurance coverage to up to 400,000 Virginians, an estimated 300,000 still will have none.

“We take care of people with no insurance and no Medicaid,” says Klein. “There are still a lot of poor people who don’t qualify for Medicaid. Even with expansion, people will fall between the cracks.”

The go/no go decision on Medicaid cuts to the heart of the free clinic business model. It determines the populations they serve, and it shapes their organizational structure. Health Brigade, which is run by socially progressive non-profit entrepreneurs, has concluded that it can accomplish more good as a scrappy, low-overhead outfit filling gaps in the safety net rather than as a cog in the bureaucratic healthcare system. While cultural conservatives may feel uncomfortable with some of Health Brigade’s priorities — it serves transgender patients and illegal immigrants — anyone who believes in a strong civil society will find much to admire in the organization.  Continue reading