How to Empower Low-Income Communities in Virginia

Public housing project in Richmond.

by Stephen Jordan

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to describing poverty in Virginia. Portsmouth, aka “Pistol City”, population 93,000, is six hours away from Galax, population 6,000. The housing projects of east and south Richmond are very different from the hollowed out small towns that dot Southside and coal country. Both urban and rural decay are powder kegs waiting to blow, but no one has seriously tackled them in Virginia politics for decades because the issues are so complex.

Conservatives are complicit in this problem because for too long they have allowed liberals to frame the debate and set policy. The result is that since 1964, more than 1,500 “low income apartment communities” have sprung up around the Commonwealth. They are hotbeds of drug abuse and violent crime. Rural Virginia has some of the largest concentrations of people over the age of 65, in part because young people can’t find enough good paying jobs. Democratic mayors, Democratic governors, and Democratic federal policy have predominantly shaped the current state of Virginia’s communities. It is a disgrace.

To start to develop solutions, we have to evaluate the roots of the problem. One of the things that you will notice walking around many housing projects is how isolated and in some cases, empty of outdoor life they are. They are badly designed, set away from services, and with no mixed-use opportunities for jobs close to home. If you can interview some of the residents and get to the point that they trust you, they’ll tell you there is nothing to do but sell some weed, play ball, and wait for something to change.

Another issue that’s terrible for the children is how chaotic living arrangements are. Mom might be strung out or in a clinic. Dad might be splitting time with 5-10 other baby mommas, your Aunt will give you a couch, but she’s dealing with five other kids, and Grandma is tired after commuting 45 minutes each way and working two jobs.

Everyone talks about how important access to the internet is for everything, but what if your community isn’t wired up? What if you don’t own a computer? You go to school and there are a lot of other kids in your same boat.

The lack of maintenance and clean-up is also noticeable. Why do so many people carry guns in urban poor areas? Because there are not enough police around to provide security, and when the police are around, they look at everyone like they are a criminal. Imagine 3-4 generations growing up in situations like this! Then, when you send people to prison, they join a gang for self-protection, and bring the prison culture back to the streets. It’s like poisoning a poisoned victim some more.

So what would a conservative anti-poverty agenda look like?

  1. Overhaul the public housing authority system and redesign urban poor communities to enable home ownership (taking a page from Margaret Thatcher); create jobs close to home; and improve groundskeeping, trash pick-up and other community services.
  2. Build up entrepreneurship and small business technical assistance. For example: One thing connecting many communities around the Hampton Roads area is the love of music. Many people dream of opening their own labels, getting their music out on social media. Other frequent go-to business ideas include health and wellness, fitness, personal care, retail, and restaurants and bars.
  3. Help rural communities and small towns get enhanced connectivity and access to broadband.
  4. Address the challenge of family structures head on. The current system incentivizes single-parent households. What if moms and dads had incentives to stay together? What if low-income care providers received an annual bonus or additional tax break if their children stay in school, get good grades, and stay out of trouble? What if funds attached to the children instead of to the adults?
  5. Connect businesses operating in low-income neighborhoods to large supply chains. In Virginia, large companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, the Port Authority, and many others are always looking to diversify their supply chains and bring them closer to their operations.
  6. Reimagine community policing. English Bobbies did not carry guns but they were successful anyway because they were present and seen as helpful. Currently, the lack of trust in police by many communities has been exacerbated by the national media and narratives aimed at stoking division. This has caused tremendous damage – discouraging people from joining the police and creating an “us versus them” mentality in too many places. Still, the police need to be more present, not less. Their their role and their presence needs to be re-framed and re-introduced.
  7. Ban drugs, increase drug treatment. One of the most asinine things the 2021 General Assembly did was open the door to legalize recreational marijuana. This may please young affluent youth, but more easily accessible drugs on the street will move folks down the road quicker toward harder and harder addictions. Over the past 50 years behavioral scientists have studied how much drugs and alcohol impair judgment – many folks on the streets have been literally dying to get off drugs that were introduced to them in many cases, before they were 10 years old. The opioid crisis in rural Virginia is a disaster. Instead of legalizing drugs, the General Assembly should move forcefully to adopt more drug education, interdiction, and treatment services.
  8. Increase mobile service units. Food trucks have helped to solve the problem of bringing food to people in food deserts. The Red Cross has long known the importance of bloodmobiles. Libraries, before everything went on line, used to be one of the great drivers of literacy with their bookmobiles. People in poorer areas often have longer commutes and more disruptions affecting their ability to travel. Instead of expecting folks to come to them, mobile units can help fill in some of the gaps that lower income, isolated, and vulnerable communities face.
  9. Empower school choice and distance learning tools for low income families. Children from households in the top quintile of income have an 80% chance of going to college. Children in the bottom quintile have a 17% chance. The average number of books in a low-income household is 43 and dropping. Lower income children likely to have only one choice of school and are locked into a system where there is no accountability for performance. Low-income children deserve equality of opportunity, whether alternative schools or via distance learning. If people are truly concerned about income inequality access to education is a critical issue. People with a college degree are likely to make $2 million MORE over the course of their lives than someone with just a high school degree or less.

Virginia needs to model a new approach to community development because current approaches are not working. Virginia is worse off today in terms of the War on Poverty than when Lyndon Johnson declared it sixty years ago. The current situation is fuel for resentment, rage, fear, crime, despair, unemployment, and hopelessness. Liberals have failed. Can conservatives do better?

Stephen Jordan is a member of the Kitchen Table Study Group, an initiative of the Virginia Legacy Forum.