Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

By Peter Galuszka

Back in the winter of 2015, Craig Vanderhoef, a former Navy captain, got a disturbing surprise in his mailbox at his retirement home near Afton in Nelson County. A letter from Dominion Resources noted that it wanted to survey his land for a new 600-mile-long natural gas pipeline.

On two occasions, he wrote the utility telling them no. Then he got another surprise. A sheriff’s deputy knocked on his door to serve him with papers notifying him that Dominion was suing him to get access to his property.

In short order, about 240 Virginia landowners were on notice that they too might be sued for Dominion’s proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The county sheriff was notified that he, too, was being sued, although it was an error.

Thus, the stage was set for one of the nastiest environmental and property rights battles in Old Dominion history.

It centered around the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would run from Harrison County, W.Va. across the rugged Appalachians, down through some of the most peacefully bucolic land in the Virginia., to Union Hill, a mostly African-American community in Buckingham county and on into North Carolina, running through the Tar Heel state’s mostly African-American concentration along its northeastern border with Virginia. Continue reading

The Systemic Racism of Monument Avenue

By Peter Galuszka

Richmond’s grand Monument Avenue, a double lane, tree lined thoroughfare, has been the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter campaign that has focused on the statues of several Confederate figures one the road, including Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis.

All are up for removal, but the same foot-dragging that has for years protected the statues that some consider racist is at work today. Protestors have torn down Davis and have defaced the rest. On Sunday night, they nearly ripped down the Stuart statue as two city council members urged that it be removed on an emergency basis.

Lee’s statue has been ordered down by Gov. Ralph Northam, but the effort has been tied up in lawsuits by several property owners. One claims either that the original deed that gave the state the site for Lee included language that it could not be removed. Other plaintiffs, most anonymous,  claim that removing the statues would hurt their property values and their special tax status.

If anything smacks of white privilege and entitlement, this is it. But for more perspective, this article in The Atlantic neatly sums up the history behind the statues and the Avenue, noting that the issue has everything to do with rewriting Richmond’s history and making a marketing play to sell expensive and exclusive real estate decades after the Confederacy was suppressed. Continue reading

Who Pays The Unpaid Bills? Watch Out.

By Steve Haner

This was published this morning in The Roanoke Times and then distributed by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy.

There may be a second wave of COVID-19 disease coming, but the secondary effects of various pandemic economic decisions may hit us sooner. Rent and utility bills customers can delay paying because of the crisis will eventually come due.But for whom?

The Legal Aid Justice Center looked at U.S. Census survey data that indicated many Virginians have fallen behind on their rent and did not expect to pay their next bill. It predicted an “eviction catastrophe” as eviction and foreclosure bans end, and lenders and landlords rush into newly reopened courts for judgments.

“The Governor should use emergency powers to immediately enact a moratorium on evictions or should allow localities to enact their own until the General Assembly can address tenants’ mounting debt. The General Assembly should create relief for tenants who are significantly behind in rent payments through a waiver or rent cancellation plan,” the advocacy group asserted.

Governor Ralph Northam took up the call, and the Virginia Supreme Court has agreed to hold off eviction proceedings a few more weeks, until June 28.   Continue reading

Gunning Up Virginia’s Cops

By Peter Galuszka

 In 2014, the Sheriff’s Department of York County and Poquoson got their very own tank-like vehicle, called a “Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP).”

Fully armored and tan in color with steep sides, it looks like something out television footage of the war in Iraq where U.S. troops needed to get through mine-infested streets and terrain safely.

But why do such generally sleepy communities such as these need a high-powered armored car? Sheriff J.D. “Danny” Digs told The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press that it isn’t meant to “intimidate people” but can be useful during adverse weather when trees are down. Really? Wouldn’t a pickup truck work?

The newspaper story is important since it combs through what Virginia law enforcement got after the “1033”Defense Department program started to sell surplus military gear to local law enforcement in 1997.

It notes that military surplus sales in Virginia went from $216,000 in 1999 to $853,824 in 2019, according to Defense Logistics Agency statistics. The latter number included the cost of another MRAP so Virginia Beach could get its very own armored truck. Over time, the City of Portsmouth got 87 M-16 assault rifles. Other goodies include night vision glasses. Continue reading

The Real Danger with ANTIFA

By Peter Galuszka

Get ready. The names of all kinds of leftist organizations are going to be kicked around as the masterminds behind violent, cop-beating looters, especially the so-called ANTIFA movement in Virginia and across the country..

But what is reality? I don’t have clear answers but I have some ideas to share since I have been dealing with activist groups since I was in high school in the late 1960s. I hope they help this blog’s discussion.

First, there’s plenty of research available about ANTIFA and there are already plenty of reports about it. It is not a single group but a very loose collection of autonomous activist groups, most of which do not advocate violence. For reference, see yesterday’s Daily Beast piece with the blunt headline, “Trump’s ‘ANTIFA Threat Is Total Bullshit – And Totally Dangerous.”

That article and plenty of others note that ANTIFA, or whatever it is, has no clear chain of command and uses ultra-fast social media to alert other activists about rallies and protests but has no control over them. If you are thinking about the tightly-controlled and secretive Communist cells of the past century, you are not getting it. Continue reading

Construction: Virginia’s Quiet, Strong Man

Scene from Micron’s $3 billion construction project in Manassas. Photo credit: Inside NoVa

By Peter Galuszka

For all the complaints about the COVID-19 pandemic in Virginia – the shut-down restaurants and (temporarily) closed beaches – one industry has been working steadily and quietly all along – the state’s construction sector.

Builders haven’t missed much of a beat since the “state at home” orders started going out a couple of months ago.

In Pentagon City, works still progresses on the two, 22-story towers for Amazon’s new eastern headquarters. In suburban Chesterfield County near Richmond, workers toil adding new drain pipes and four-laning once- rural roads. Four-story apartments overlooking Swift Creek Reservoir are taking shape for the over-55 crowd.

At a loud and garish protest next to the State Capitol against Gov. Ralph Norham’s work-stoppage plans last month, Mark Carter, a contractor from Hanover County, made his views known. “We‘re still working,” he told me. “I’m not for Trump and I’m not a Democrat. People need to work.”

In Virginia, some are. After all, New York state and Boston stopped construction work due to the pandemic. Continue reading

WTJU Podcast: COVID-19 and the Economy

By Peter Galuszka

Here’s is the twice-monthly podcast produced by WTJU, the official radio station of the University of Virginia. With me on this podcast  are Nathan Moore, the station general manager, and Sarah Vogelsong, who covers, labor, energy and environmental issues across the state for the Virginia Mercury, a fairly new and highly regarded non-profit news outlet. Our topic is how Virginia is handling the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thank God for Medicaid Expansion

By Peter Galuszka

For years after the Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare,” made millions of federal dollars available for states to expand Medicaid health coverage, Virginia Republicans steadfastly blocked Virginia from using the money.

Led by former House Speaker Bill Howell and Sen. Tommy Norment, the GOP claimed that expanding Medicaid to nearly 400,000 people would be too expensive and would blow out state funding.

This skinflint approach was finally put to rest after Democrat Ralph Northam became governor in 2018, foreshadowing a Democratic sweep of the General Assembly in elections last year.

Thank God the Democrats prevailed.

Virginia’s formerly robust economy has been shattered by the COVID 19 pandemic. Last week, some 110,000 Virginians filed for unemployment support. It was 46,277 the week before.

Who covers them is an open question but many would qualify for Medicaid. Expansion has boosted lower-income Virginians so that they may be able to better ride out the pandemic. Continue reading

Now Library Fines are a Social Injustice

Mayor Levar Stoney (left) and Library Director Scott Firestine

by James A. Bacon

The Richmond Public Library has joined 200 other public libraries across the country in eliminating the charging of fines for overdue books. Why? Because, in the words of City of Richmond press release, the fines, which make up less than 1% of the library’s total budget, “disproportionately affected low-income, African American and Hispanic communities.”

By eliminating fines, the city hopes that “residents of all backgrounds will feel more comfortable and welcome” to use library resources. Says Mayor Levar Stoney: “A welcoming library … provides a gateway to the world of learning and opportunity for personal progress. Ending fines … will alleviate the burden on our most vulnerable Richmonders.”

Added Richmond Public Library Director Scott Firestine: “Our library has removed a punitive, inefficient and misguided practice that was a barrier blocking our most vulnerable users. This is a giant step forward to inform, enrich and empower.”

Needless to say, my initial reaction to this idea was not a positive one. Eliminating fines erodes personal responsibility. It sends a signal to poor people that larger society won’t hold them accountable for their actions. You’re poor? You get a free pass. At the same time, I do believe in following the facts. Arguments that aren’t certifiably insane actually can be made that the idea is a good one. Continue reading

The Ohio Energy Bill Subsidy Virginia Would Copy

Three of the six electric utilities charging customers to provide others with Ohio PIPP subsidies. Per 1,000 kWh the surcharge to customers is $3.19 for Toledo Edison, $3.34 for Ohio Edison and $2.37 for The Illuminating Company.

by Steve Haner

Both the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate have voted to increase the price of electricity to most Virginians in order to subsidize the bills of low-income utility customers. How much? They have no idea. But the program in Ohio being copied adds from $1 to $3.66 to the price of 1,000 kilowatt hours for those not subsidized.

The Virginia version is even borrowing the name and acronym from Ohio, the Percentage of Income Payment Program (PIPP). The charge in both is called a “universal service fee.” In 2020, the Ohio program will cost ratepayers $301 million to subsidize the power bills of about 275,000 low-income households. The Public Utility Commission of Ohio (PUCO) sets the amount charged in each utility’s service territory and the Ohio Development Services Area transfers the necessary funds to the various electricity providers.

The largest electricity provider in that state of 11.7 million people, Ohio Power, has the highest “adder” on its rates, $3.66 per 1,000 kilowatt hours used. That works out to $44 per year for a residential customer using exactly that amount monthly. A large industrial or commercial user would pay the same rate until monthly consumption hit 833,000 kilowatt hours, when a reduced rate kicks in on additional consumption. The first 833,000 kilowatt hours of usage in Ohio Power’s territory is hit with a $3,050 monthly surcharge.  Continue reading

Minimum Wage and Medical Insurance

Question of the Day: If Virginia enacts a minimum wage increase, how many employers will respond by cutting fringe benefits like medical insurance?

Kennon Morris, president of the Virginia Forest Products Association, raises the concern in a Free Lance-Star op-ed today. Here’s his prediction of what would happen in rural Virginia: The minimum wage “would force many businesses to shut down, cut jobs, or hire part-time workers without benefits.”

Foes of the minimum-wage hike have focused mainly on the impact on jobs. But employers may choose other ways to control costs. One possibility is scrapping company-subsidized health plans — encouraging employees enroll in Medicaid or buy Obamacare. I would love to see an analysis of how many workers potentially would be affected and what the fiscal impact on state and federal government would be if thousands suddenly became medical wards of the state.

— JAB

More Mobile Homes, Please

Smitty’s Mobile Home Park in Norfolk

by James A. Bacon

The good news is that the poverty lobby has recognized that mobile home parks provide a valuable source of affordable housing in Virginia. The bad news is that… the poverty lobby wants to help.

There are about 600 mobile home parks in Virginia. The average sales price for a single-width mobile home is about $53,000 (not including lots), a fraction of the $280,000 median price for a single-family house. These parks provide affordable housing for tens of thousands of Virginians — more than 11,400 in Central Virginia alone.

One way to approach mobile homes in Virginia is to say, “Fantastic! A source of affordable housing. How can we open up more land for development of mobile home parks? How can we increase the supply and give poor people more options for where to live and whom to rent or buy land from?”

Another way to approach mobile homes is to look at the negatives. It turns out that many are in disrepair. Figure that — homes owned by poor people are in disrepair. Not only that, Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, tells Virginia Public Media (VPM), many trailer parks have less than desirable surroundings. “They didn’t have street lights, they didn’t have paved roads, they didn’t have up-to-date electricity or sewer systems.” Continue reading

Energy Omnibus III: Race, Poverty and Justice

By Steve Haner

Unfortunately, there is nothing new about the Virginia General Assembly passing an energy development bill which overrides the authority of the State Corporation Commission or usurps its role in planning utility resources.

Where Governor Ralph Northam’s new clean energy transition legislation breaks ground is its immersion into questions of race, poverty and environmental justice.  Should it pass and be implemented, the large electric utilities will be charging means tested rates, exempting low income ratepayers from some charges entirely, submitting their construction plans to an environmental justice council and engaging in preferential hiring for at least some construction projects.  Continue reading

Energy Omnibus: What it Does, How it Costs You

What will Virginians see due to the Virginia Clean Economy Act? “Lots and lots of solar,” said the patron, Del. Richard Sullivan, D-Arlington. Higher bills, added the State Corporation Commission.

By Steve Haner

The General Assembly adopted Governor Ralph Northam’s clean energy package Tuesday, with party-line votes in both the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate. Two House Democrats joined the Republicans in opposing the House version.

House Bill 1526 and Senate Bill 851 appear identical but amendments were being adopted at the last minute. Now that they have crossed over to the other chamber, they likely will become identical.  And expect furious efforts to recruit some Republican votes in favor, as this new vision for Virginia’s energy economy will be disruptive, expensive and politically explosive.

Using the House version as it passed, here is a tour of some (not all) highlights, with line references so you can follow on this PDF version of the engrossed bill. If you want to see it without line numbers, but with highlighting of the new language instead, look here. For that I’ve used the Senate bill.

The bill overrides State Corporation Commission authority to look out for consumers in too many places to count, but you’ll find the clearest and most important example of that on line 1399 of the House bill.  Continue reading

More Data on Why Students Don’t Complete College Degrees

by James A. Bacon

The biggest reasons students take college courses but fail to complete a degree are work-related, according to a Strada Education Network survey of more than 42,00 adults nationally with some college but no degree. Seventeen percent cited “work-related” reasons for ceasing their studies. The second mostly commonly cited reason was financial pressure, followed closely by life events/personal problems.

When people rack up thousands of dollars in student loans without obtaining an educational credential that will enable them to qualify for a better job, it is both a personal setback and a waste of social resources. The Strada study is important because it helps identify the reasons why many students fail to get degrees, and it provides lawmakers and colleges guidance in how to address the college dropout issue.

Governor Ralph Northam has budgeted $145 million to make community college tuition-free for low- and middle-income students pursuing jobs in high-demand fields. He cited numbers from Reynolds Community College showing that full-time students who dropped out before completing their degrees “usually had earned a 3.1 grade point average when they left school.” If they didn’t leave for academic reasons, the Governor surmised, they must have left for a lack of money.

After checking the Reynolds data, I found that conclusion was unwarranted. Although the data ruled out low GPAs as a reason for at least 40% to those who did not return for a second year of study, it did not address what their motivations were. I suggested that one other reason might be because they had found a job. There could have been other reasons.

However, the Strada data provides some evidence in support of Northam’s position. Continue reading