Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

Teen Births and Violent Crime — a Weak Connection

I’ll be the first to admit, giving me an Excel spreadsheet is the intellectual equivalent of handing a chimp a machine gun. What I don’t know about statistics would, well… it would fill a statistics textbook. But I abuse statistics less than most journalists, commentators, and politicians, who, to paraphrase renowned economist Ronald H. Coase, routinely torture the data until it confesses. I count on readers to call B.S. when they see it and modify my findings accordingly. In the spirit of exploration and with all due humility, I present the following:

In a previous post, I disputed the conventional wisdom that “poverty” is a “root cause” of violent crime. The lack of income and material resources is undoubtedly a contributing factor, playing into feedback loops of tremendous complexity, but overall the correlation between the poverty rate and the crime rate across Virginia’s 100+ localities is weak — an R² of .1802, which is considered a small effect size. There is a much stronger correlation — an R² of .4007 across Virginia localities, a moderate effect size — between the percentage of single-parent households and violent crime.

If the percentage of single-family households in a population has a moderate influence on crime, I wondered about the percentage of teen births. Continue reading

Thousands of Virginians Getting their Licenses Reinstated

Angela Battle: one of thousands of Virginians to have their license restored. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Some 37,700 Virginians who couldn’t drive yesterday can drive today, thanks to a budget amendment to Virginia’s Fiscal 2020 budget, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. More than 600,000 drivers have suspended licenses because a failure to pay court fines and costs, creating a Catch 22 situation for thousands: People can’t repay their fines if they can’t drive to work, and they can’t drive to work if they can’t repay their fines. The Department of Motor Vehicles will contact other Virginians with suspended licenses to inform them how to get their licenses back.

Randy Rollins, president of the Drive-to-Work nonprofit that helps people get their drivers licenses reinstated, has tried unsuccessfully for the past 10 years to get the law changed, but Governor Ralph Northam was able to enact the new policy, for a year at least, by means of a budget amendment. Continue reading

Pious Platitudes about Poverty and Crime

The City of Petersburg has the highest homicide rate in Virginia, with 53.5 killings per 100,000 residents since 2013 — exceeding Virginia’s other homicide hot spots of Danville, Hopewell, Richmond, and Portsmouth. So reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch in a recent article.

In talking to the RTD, Petersburg Police Chief Kenneth Miller was reluctant to blame the violence on the city’s socioeconomic challenges. “I was raised poor and I’m police chief now,” he said. “I can’t give in and say, well, because we’re poor we can’t [behave in a more acceptable way]. I think poor people want good policing and they want [public safety] just as much as anybody does.”

Nevertheless, states the RTD, Petersburg police must contend with a litany of social ills. Twenty-seven percent of the population is in poverty, and more than half the population is enrolled in Medicaid. Median household income was less than half the state average. The graduation rate was the ninth worse in the state last year.

It is the conventional wisdom in the United States today — a belief that permeates the political establishment, journalists, and the pundit class — that poverty is a “root cause” of violence. The correlation between poverty and violent crime is so widely accepted that it needs no justification or empirical support. But is the connection as strong as the chattering class thinks it is? Continue reading

Unpaid Bills, Debt Collection, and Hospital Profits

Carlos Ortiz. Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

Carlos Ortiz underwent tests last year at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg for dizziness stemming from an inner-ear problem. When the 65-year-old uninsured gardener couldn’t pay his $15,000 bill, the nonprofit institution took him to court. Mary Washington was suing so many patients that day that the circuit court had cleared the docket to hear all the cases.

As it turns out nonprofit hospitals are more likely than for-profit hospitals to garnish patients’ wages to collect their bills, according to a study of Virginia hospitals published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association and reported upon by the Wall Street Journal. In 2017 Virginia nonprofits filed 20,000 lawsuits against patients for unpaid debt.

Remarkably, the study found, nonprofits are more likely than for-profits to file lawsuits against patients for unpaid debt. These numbers do raise fundamental questions about Virginia’s social compact with its nonprofit hospitals. But hasty judgments are not in order. Continue reading

How Crime-Prone Students Worsen Educational Outcomes for Everyone

Exposure to crime-prone students in school has “large and significant” effects on test scores, school discipline and even adult criminal behavior, finds a new study by Stephen B. Billings and Mark Hoekstra published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Exposure to crime-prone peers in the same neighborhood also has an effect, but the negative influence is far stronger in the school setting.

“We estimate that a five percentage point increase in school and neighborhood crime-prone peers increases arrest rates at age 19-21 by 6.5 and 2.6 percent respectively,” state the authors in “Schools Neighborhoods, and the Long-Run Effect of Crime-Prone Peers.” 

Billings and Hoekstra stick to the narrow issue of establishing the correlation between “crime-prone peers” and students’ cognitive and behavioral outcomes, but the study is sure to influence the debate over school disciplinary policies. If students displaying anti-social behavior are kept in school as part of the therapeutic disciplinary regime now in vogue, one can predict negative spillover effects on fellow students.
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A Nonprofit Insider’s View on Child Nutrition

Last week I asked the question how, given our nation’s’ extensive social safety net, it is possible that children in Virginia go hungry and suffer from malnutrition. Are government support payments deficient? Are food deserts to blame? Do people squander their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) stipends? Is something else going on? The explanations we hear from the usual sources don’t seem to add up.

That piece triggered a response from Robin Mathews, who worked with recipients of SNAP and WIC programs as an employee in the nonprofit sector for several years. “I feel like I’ve seen just about all,” she says. Here are key points she makes in response to specific questions I raised in the post. (I have reproduced her comments here with light editing.)

Eligibility for SNAP. Unemployment rates are low but the income guidelines are stringent; a single parent with two children working full time at Amazon earning $15 an hour would not qualify for SNAP or WIC so these programs may be intended to supplement the “working poor” families.

Could single mothers’ budgets be stretched by live-in boyfriends who don’t qualify for food stamps? Of course, but what I see more often in public and subsidized housing is the “live in” who is not always a boyfriend but a “boarder” who has income (sometimes from selling drugs and guns) to pay for items not covered by SNAP and contributes this in exchange for the room and board/food he receives from the recipient who is eligible. Continue reading

If Kids Are Going Hungry, Does Anyone Care Why?

No one wants to see children go hungry, so one’s natural instinct is to sympathize with a new initiative like No Kid Hungry, which is helping parents and caregivers locate free meals in their communities with a simple text message. But a Richmond Times-Dispatch article profiling the program makes a startling statement:

The school year is over this week for most local schoolchildren, which means so are the daily meals many of them rely on as their main — and sometimes only — source of nourishment.

Note the RTD’s emphasis: School breakfast and lunch programs are sometimes the only source of nourishment for American school children. The RTD is asserting, presumably drawing upon the authority of its sources, that some kids in America don’t have access to any food during the summer. Is that not an astonishing statement? If true, is that not an an extraordinary indictment of our social safety net? Continue reading

As Arlington Housing Prices Soar, Supply Is Unresponsive

The worst fears of Amazon critics are coming true. Housing prices are becoming increasingly unaffordable — even before Amazon sets up shop at its HQ2 facility in Arlington and floods the region with 25,000 employees.

The average home price in Arlington County jumped 7% in the past year to $713,000, as investors poured into the market in anticipation of Amazon’s arrival, reports the Washington Post. Inventories are so sparse that some popular Zip codes in Arlington and Alexandria show no homes for sale at all.

Alexandria saw a comparable increase in average home prices, while Fairfax County saw a year-over-year gain of 6%. Said Terry Clower, director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis: “This is a market response to the Amazon HQ2 announcement, with investors competing with residents for a shrinking number of homes for sale.”

In a functioning real estate market, prices act as a signal for the allocation of capital. A surge in home prices would be matched by a surge in home building as developers and builders. But, as seen in the table above, based on Arlington County permit statistics, the supply of housing is increasing negligibly. In 2016 the county’s housing stock stood at 111,549 units. According to Arlington County permitting data, the increase in housing units (completions minus demolitions) was only 810 units in 2017 and a negligible 220 units in 2018 — roughly a 1% increase in the housing stock over two years. Continue reading

The Crux of Arlington’s Affordable Housing Crisis: $350,000 Per Unit


Amazon will donate $3 million to support affordable housing in Arlington County, the company has announced. While government officials and charities welcomed the donation, reports the Washington Post, critics contend that the sum is sufficient to build only a handful of units.

According to the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, new housing in the Virginia suburbs costs about $350,000 per unit. In other words, Amazon’s gift is enough to build about 8.6 housing units. For purposes of comparison, the tech giant expects to employ 25,000 at its Arlington facility, and that doesn’t include jobs created by vendors, partners, spin-offs and support entities such as Virginia Tech’s new technology campus that locate near Amazon’s HQ2.

In other words, the donation is meaningless. The number we should focus on, however, is $350,000. If that’s what it costs to build “affordable” housing in Northern Virginia, then no wonder there is a housing panic. Continue reading

Promoting Social Mobility via STEM Education


Job openings outnumber job seekers by a record gap, the Wall Street Journal reports today. There were a seasonally adjusted 7.45 million unfilled jobs at the end of April compared to 6.2 million Americans looking for work. With workers so much in demand, there exists a never-seen-before-in-our-lifetimes opportunity to increase social mobility.

Here in Virginia, contend John Broderick, president of Old Dominion University, and co-author Ellen J. Neufeldt, the commonwealth can kill two birds with one stone: meeting the demand for tens of thousands of unfilled technology jobs and helping lower-income Virginians climb out of poverty and near-poverty by equipping the disadvantaged with the skills required for those jobs. In a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed published today they write:

It is our obligation, particularly at public universities,” “to enhance social mobility for the students we serve. By removing barriers to higher education and preparing students for STEM-H jobs, institutions will not only increase economic opportunity and social mobility, but also ensure that the jobs of the future are filled by a well-educated, career-ready and diverse workforce.

From a high-altitude perspective, Broderick and Neufeldt make an excellent point and their ideas are well worth exploring. However, their analysis fails to account for the bottleneck in the school-to-college pipeline for lower-income students, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, and a naive application of their ideas could have unintended negative consequences. Continue reading

Want More Affordable Housing? Try Free Markets.

More apartments needed… Affordable housing complex approved in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Exclusionary regulation at the local level is the root cause of unaffordable housing, and a rollback of exclusionary regulation is the best long-term solution, argue Salim Furth and Emily Hamilton, research fellows at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.

“Contemporary American land use law embodies the bad idea that private land ought to be publicly planned. In practice, these plans routinely exclude low-income families by indirect means, causing income-based segregation,” they write in an attachment to April 2, 2019, testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services.

Exclusion is widespread: most jurisdictions, through zoning ordinances, ban apartments and manufactured homes in all but a few locations. Single-family homes are usually allowed, but only in specified areas and often on lots larger than many buyers want. As a consequence, those states that give the most power to planners and the least authority to property owners have abysmal housing growth rates. When wages rise in those states, rents and home prices soar.

Continue reading

Cranky Strikes Again, Shows Rampant Cheating in Richmond Schools

I have been chronicling the administrative-cheating scandals in the Richmond Public School system, noting with each post that the situation is even worse than it appeared the previous time I wrote. Now it appears that administrative cheating is even more systemic than even I had suspected. In a statistical tour de force, John Butcher, writing in Cranky’s Blog, leaves readers with the impression that the graduation criteria have been so thoroughly corrupted that the numbers are meaningless.

Butcher starts with the common-sense (and incontestable) observation that economically advantaged (referred to as Non-Economically Disadvantaged, or Not ED) students pass the SOLs at higher rates and graduate from high school at higher rates on average than Economically Disadvantaged (ED) students. No one disputes this generality. Indeed, the statement is a truism. The disparity in outcomes is routinely cited in the debate about the inequity in racial outcomes.

Incredibly, the pattern doesn’t apply at Richmond’s five mainstream high schools. At four high schools, economically disadvantaged students graduate at higher rates than their Not ED counterparts. The only exception to the pattern is Armstrong High School, where the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) conducted a course schedule audit in 2016, bringing attention to the administrative-cheating scandal that has been brewing ever since. The ensuing crackdown at Armstrong, Butcher argues, had a “salutary effect” there but had no impact on the other four high schools. Continue reading

Counseling, Jail Time, and the Cycle of Violence

Prayer vigil at Carter Jones Park

Families in south Richmond have long held community cookouts at the Carter Jones Park. Last Sunday evening, an altercation broke around at a basketball/skateboard facility nearby. Gunshots were fired. Nine-year-old Markiya Simone Dickson and an unnamed 11-year-old boy were struck by bullets. Markiya died.

Community members and city leaders gathered at a vigil yesterday to protest the violence. One of the city officials in attendance, Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras, addressed the impact of trauma upon school children.

Dozens of children in the park witnessed the tragedy, said Kamras, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “They will carry that trauma into their lives, and certainly into their classrooms. Sadly, this is all too common for many of the young people in Richmond Public Schools.”

As Richmonders held their vigil, First Lady Pamela Northam was addressing Southwest Virginia’s Rural Summit for Childhood Success across the state in Abingdon. Shootings that kill random by-standers are rare in that part of Virginia, but child abuse and child neglect are far from uncommon. According to the Washington County News, Northam said: Continue reading

Housing’s Supply-Side Revolution

IndieDwell’s 960-square-foot house, made from three shipping containers, on display at the Richmond Convention Center. (Does not include peaked roof, which would not fit in the convention center.)

IndieDwell converts shipping containers into affordable housing. The Idaho-based business has taken an idea championed locally by entrepreneurs Sheila and Sidney Gunst (see “Thinking Outside the Container“) and turned it into a growing business enterprise.

The company now sells 640-square-foot dwellings, including the cost of delivery and installation, for $78,000. Add $11,500 to build a foundation (IndieDwell’s estimate), plus utility hookups if applicable, plus, say, $10,000 for a tiny lot, and it should be possible to create a new unit of affordable housing in Virginia for less than $100,000 — roughly half the price of what it costs public housing authorities in Virginia today.

IndieDwell was just one of the businesses presenting fresh perspectives on affordable housing at a Virginia Housing and Development Authority (VDHA) event yesterday organized to exploring new approaches to affordable housing. Other speakers addressed the phenomenal productivity gains in the manufactured housing industry and explored new concepts in modular housing. It was evident that a supply-side revolution in the housing industry is gathering momentum that holds out the potential to slash the construction cost of workforce and lower-income housing. Continue reading

Helping the Poor by… Replacing Lower-Income Housing with Mixed-Income Housing?

The Highland Grove mixed-income community. Photo credit: Richmond Free-Press

The premise behind public housing is that “market failure” fails to supply enough decent and affordable housing for poor people. Government must intervene in the housing marketplace not only with subsidies but as a real estate developer to fill the gap. What government succeeded in creating all too often — from Chicago’s infamous Pruitt Igoe towers to Richmond’s public housing courts — is concentrated poverty, crime and social dysfunction. Learning from past disasters, the public housing sector now sees the solution as diluting poverty by bundling low-income housing with middle-class housing under the rubric of “mixed-income” development.

Ironically, the consequence of implementing this philosophy in Richmond is less low-income housing and more middle-income housing.

The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority has decided not to replace 22 of the 60 public housing units in Dove Court that were bulldozed in 2008 in order to make way for a a mixed-income community called Highland Grove. Reports the Richmond Free-Press: Continue reading