Mayor Jones’ Ambitious Plan to Bust up Poverty

The Creighton Court housing project in the east end of Richmond. The city never built high-rise projects comparable to Chicago's infamous Cabrini-Green towers but social disintegration occurred anyway.
The Creighton Court housing project in the east end of Richmond. The city never built high-rise projects comparable to Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green towers but social disintegration occurred anyway.

by James A. Bacon

The City of Richmond is embarking upon the boldest experiment in a generation to tackle entrenched, multi-generational poverty in the Richmond region. With the hoped-for assistance of $30 million in Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds, city officials are planning to blaze a path of mixed-income re-development through the city’s east end, one of the largest concentrations of urban poverty in the state.

The East End is ringed by four public housing projects, its old commercial corridors are decaying, and its neighborhoods of single-family dwellings are pockmarked with vacant lots and uninhabitable buildings. In the thinking of Mayor Dwight C. Jones, the problems of poverty are so intractable because they are so concentrated. As Zachary Reid with the Times-Dispatch quoted Jones in a Sunday article:

“A lot of the negative things that are happening in Richmond, they’re happening because we have this concentration of poverty.” Here’s how Reid describes the vision for busting up the pockets of poverty through some $200 million in public and private investment:

Blocks and blocks of dreary public housing will give way to more livable communities: houses, townhomes and apartments in nice rows: walkable, livable, appealing in street grids typical of a city, not the dead-end cul-de-sac world of today’s Creighton Court. Kind of like the Fan, only new: a place where the young and old, the rich and the poor, can mostly happily coexist. Jobs, retail, transportation, anything else people need to live happy, hopeful lives, will be right there where the residents can get it. “The importance of decentralizing poverty is not accepting the premise that people are at their best or have the opportunity for success when there’s only one strata of society living together,” Jones said.

So begins another liberal social-engineering effort to un-do the damage created by a previous generation of liberals social engineering. At the dawn of the do-gooder era, when the New Deal began tearing down slums and erecting public housing, liberals acted on the conviction that slums created poor people, not the other way around. Provide clean, modern housing and people would take on the bourgeois habits of thrift, sobriety and self-discipline. Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way. Putting people in brand-new public housing did little to change their behavior. To the contrary, the projects only accentuated the “social disorganization” of the poor. Then, as the Great Society added layer upon layer of “anti-poverty” programs — “poverty-perpetuation” programs might be a more accurate descriptor —  out-of-wedlock births, substance abuse and crime and violence became even more endemic. But liberals didn’t see anti-poverty programs as the problem. They decided that the great sin of past housing policy was concentrating poverty. This time, they’ll get it right.

De-concentrating poverty is the new mantra. Jones does deserve credit for putting a new wrinkle on his anti-poverty initiative. He wants to change the culture of poverty — something that past federal programs have been habitually unable to accomplish. Recalling how he grew up in a mixed-income neighborhood, Jones said, “We had something to aspire to. We recognized there was more, there was a model of success, not a model of failure. People were getting up and going to work. That became a way of life for us.”

When we rebuild these areas, we’re also rebuilding lives and culture. If you’re going to live in these new places, you’re going to work. The people who are going to be moved out and move in have got to go through some changing, some acculturation, some orientation so that they’ll be ready for the new housing that we’re getting ready to put them in.

Exactly what cultural attributes does Jones envision changing? And what sanctions will he apply to those who do not comply? The programmatic aspects are pretty vague. Still, Jones’ call for a return to 1930s-era, New Deal thinking when people still were expected to work is a step forward. It will be interesting to see how Jones’ thinking plays out in practice.

Another new wrinkle is that we need a different form of urban design. Call it New Urbanism meets HUD. A key insight of the New Urbanists is that the proper design can put “eyes on the street” and create “defensible space,” in which neighborhood residents take control of the public space rather than yielding it to criminals. There might be something to this, but I suspect design considerations are a relatively minor influence. Still, it’s worth a try. If you’re going to re-design communities, it can’t hurt to design them with the goal of fostering community interaction and crime prevention.

Here’s the really big problem, as we know from innumerable experiments elsewhere to de-concentrate poverty. Middle-class people don’t want to live in proximity to poor people. Upwardly mobile poor and working class people want to escape poor people. Indeed, they are willing to pay higher rents and mortgages to do so. It’s not a race thing. This applies to middle-class blacks as well as whites. Poor families are less likely to maintain their property, more likely to engage in substance abuse, more likely to engage in violence, and more likely to be loud and disorderly. (That’s not to say that all poor people suffer from social disintegration — they’re just far more likely to. Poor people who graduate from high school, don’t have out-of-wedlock births and don’t engage in substance abuse tend not to stay poor for long.)

There is one segment of the middle class that is willing to tolerate the social disorganization of the poor — gentrifiers. But they tend not to move into brand new buildings. They are looking for aging, run-down buildings where they can put in some sweat equity and build up their net worth. Whether the gentrifiers can be drawn to the East End’s new, mixed-income corridor is a big question.

Clearly, the policy mix we’re pursuing now is not working. Whether this new approach does better, we won’t know until it plays out. Personally, I think we’re attacking the cosmetics of poverty, not the root causes.

Update: Jones’ anti-poverty initiative has been profiled by the New York Times.

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23 responses to “Mayor Jones’ Ambitious Plan to Bust up Poverty”

  1. re: ” Middle-class people don’t want to live in proximity to poor people. Upwardly mobile poor and working class people want to escape poor people. ”

    ummm…. there are lots of “poor people” living amongst many of us.

    you know this (for example) because many schools have 30, 40% of reduced or free lunch populations of students in many, many parts of RoVa outside the urban areas.

    this is true by the way for predominately white counties as well as predominately black counties.

    so there is more to this – than “poor”.

    re: social engineering failures.

    just curious – would we also classify – alternatives to prior misguided efforts – as doing nothing at all – a valid option also ? because that seems to be the attitude of those who blather about “failed social engineering” – also.

    there is no question that “warehousing” is a bad approach.

    what approach – that costs more money than that – are the opponents of “projects” willing to support?

    I’m not sure I see how you fix this – by just walking away from it which seems to be what those who oppose the “failed” stuff seem to advocate.

  2. Breckinridge Avatar

    Right on Jimbo. Treating symptoms, ignoring causes. Here is a first look, off the top of my head anti poverty program…

    1) Be aggressive about bringing middle skills jobs back into the city. Eliminate the M&T tax, expand enterprise zones — get the jobs HERE.
    2) Take that $30 million and create a world class career and technical education center, the workforce development version of Maggie Walker. Set up apprenticeship/articulation agreements with the community colleges and local employers. The message should be, finish this program and make $12.50 an hour to start and $20 an hour after five years…
    3) SHAME the racists in Henrico and Chesterfield into expanding a regional network of public transit out to where the current jobs are, jobs that inner city poor folks cannot get to without a car. Simple racism explains the lack of a regional mass transit system.
    4) REDUCE the existing social safety net so there is a clear economic benefit to getting a job.
    5) Import Chesterfield citizens to sit on Richmond juries, and watch the sentencing patterns change….no more jury nullification! People need to feel safe at all times in all places.

    The news on improved high school graduations looks good on its face, but I know how school bureaucrats game those numbers. The formula for avoiding poverty remains doing the following in the order listed — finish HS, get job, get married, have kids. Dropping out of HS, becoming dependent on public assistance, having kids out of wedlock — those are the CAUSES of poverty, not the symptoms. Public housing patterns are a symptom of poverty and treating symptoms is no cure.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Let’s “think outside the box” here as they say.

    There are too few jobs for people with few skills in Richmond. Building a technical education center (as Breckenridge suggests) will eventually lead to results. Probably.

    However, there are a lot of jobs going unfilled in North Dakota. As I hear it (on many radio commercials) employers are so desperate for workers that they will train you for mid-skilled jobs. For example, some radio ads claim that employers will help employees get a commercial driver’s license (CDL).

    Here is an article about the boom town –

    So, Mayor Jones calls officials in North Dakota and arranges for a special agreement whereby potential workers will be interviewed and vetted in Richmond and then sent to North Dakota. The goal would be for the Richmonders to work a couple of years in North Dakota – making money and building skills. Once they’re done with their “tour” – they go back to Richmond (or wherever they want) and another Richmonder is sent to replace them. Richmond might even pay for a couple of weeks of overlap for the new worker to learn the ropes.

    Upon their return to Richmond the workers have decent skills and experience and qualify for free additional technical education. However, they only qualify for this if they stay in North Dakota for a minimum amount of time (say, two years).

    Richmond gets on the job training and work experience for people who have been struggling to get into the workforce (at least, at a mid-skill level). The money in ND is sufficient for the workers to send money back to support their families (see linked article). This is not only more effective than “training only” but probably cheaper too.

    The worker gets a job with on the job training and free additional training upon return.

    North Dakota gets pre-screened workers who are motivated to put in their time in the oil fields in order to qualify for the free additional training.

    1. Heh! Heh! I like it. Very outside-the-box thinking. But I am sure there are those who would say it would be imposing an unreasonable hardship to ask people to move to N.D. for two years. Oh, the inhumanity!

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        The American Trucking Association estimated in September that there is a nationwide shortage of 30,000 drivers. The average annual salary for truck drivers is $48,000 per year. That’s more than triple the annualized Virginia minimum wage. Owner / operators have to find a way to buy a truck but they make between $95,000 and $130,000 per year.

    2. Breckinridge Avatar

      Interesting. I’ve recently heard some discussions that folks in Southside VA are disappointed because they’ve spent Tobacco Commission money to train workers and those workers have then gone to Northern VA (or North Dakota). You’ve got to get the jobs in or near Richmond and accessible to people without cars. You’ve got to link the training and the jobs, and train specifically for the jobs that are available. It is my experience (admittedly limited) that many unemployed or underemployed people really would rather work and many people who have dropped out of education too early are actually smart enough to pick it back up — if motivated. But the days of finishing 8th grade and getting a job in a mill or factory are long gone.

  4. I think Breckinridge has the right church but he’s a few pews away …

    DJ is closer.

    we’re talking about people – even those who have “graduated” in some cases having.. a 5th grade education.

    there are no good jobs for them – only low paid jobs, sometimes with predatory companies.

    All roads lead back to a 6yr old in 1st grade with just a MOM and Mom has a 5th grade education, no culture of education or .. I want to say work “ethic” but that’s probably a wrong word … but when you’re part of a generational family, descended from slaves or indentured servants – it’s a long slog out… but it must start with the young in school and it won’t happen with conventional education techniques.

    at-risk kids are harder to teach… and in urban cores with lots of poor – those schools have LOTs of at-risk – and only teachers who cannot find better places to work… the new ones just out of college or the ones that maybe are not the best sometimes. To be fair some committed ones but the task of education entire classrooms of at-risk/disadvantaged kids is an enormous challenge and perhaps that’s part of what the Mayor is getting at in trying to “disperse” the poor.

  5. we talk about child care for mom, head-start, pre-K, Federal Title 1, etc

    all of these things are critical for at risk/disadvantaged kids…

    and I have absolutely no problem with any of them being done by the private sector as long as we have performance metrics and accountability.

    but tell me which of the political party – argues against these things.. – all the time… arguing that the money is wasted and wanting to “de-fund” it.

    they don’t have any other ideas – mind you – just stop spending money on this.

    I’d be the first to admit that just spending money is no guarantee of results or success and we have ample evidence that not every “ideas” is a “good” idea much less a cost-effective idea.

    but it just seems like to me that the folks on the right, the Conservatives really think they have no dog in this hunt therefore … it’s just another “liberal”/”progressive” money-pit issue…

    It’s funny – because none other than a Conservative – George Bush fostered No Child Left Behind and others like Bob Bennett knew the challenge but now days… it seems – like most other things that the education/poverty issue has become just another wedge issue.

  6. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Interesting article and comments.

    Don’s “ship them to Siberia (according to misguided folks) to learn skills” is brilliant. Somebody should start setting up that program right now. If not in Richmond then somewhere else.

    Breckenridge’s points are well founded and hard to argue with, too.

    Perhaps Larry really picked up on the theme of where the Mayor wants to go. The part of Jim’s article starting with the Mayor “Recalling how he grew up in a mixed-income neighborhood, Jones said, “We had something to aspire to. We recognized there was more, there was a model of success, not a model of failure …” etc.

    How do you integrate the poor into mixed use communities of all economic levels to accomplish what the Mayor wants to do? Wow! That’s gonna be an exciting task, one that’s unavoidably going to be a grand experiment. So it going to be hard.

    So that brings me back to Don – his “think out of the box”.

    Perhaps early on you start by listing all the things that have gone wrong before in other such “projects, and with generational poverty generally – list all the bad things and all the missing things. Then try to incorporate ways that work to eliminate the “bad” and provide the “missing” in spades.

    Perhaps the biggest challenge here is to make the community work for non-poor folk too, because under this Mayor’s plan these non poor folks who are regular at least reasonable well off worker and home body and kid folks have a critical roll to play in helping on many levels those who are not.

    I have heard (but have not any experience to know) that the placing in an artificial way of clusters of poor amid the far more well off communities has often been problematic at best, for both groups. Whatever the case, we’ve got to keep trying potentially new good ideas like the Mayors. But likely its going to take bold out of the box thinking as Don says, and likely will be highly controversial (on all sides) if it is to have any chance for success.

    Hopefully this Mayor, given his own growing up experiences, is just the guy to start this thing up.

  7. Darrell Avatar

    Do you guys ever read anything besides this blog? So you want to spend public money to train poor people to take the jobs of people who are facing poverty because politicians came up with a grand scheme to ship jobs to poor people over in China? And if you want a case study in one of these types of affordable housing plans, well here you go.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Ahhh … well, I read quite a few things besides this blog. The US is 30,000 truckers short of demand. Truckers make just under $50,000 per year. If some of the unemployed or underemployed in Virginia can learn to be truckers then everybody comes out ahead. Maybe it’s 500 people or 1,000 or 1,500 – but it’s something.

      Solving these problems doesn’t happen with one great big brilliant idea. It happens with lots of little ideas that chip away at the problem.

      1. yes.. the problem is if you grow up with a 5th grade education … can’t get a job… and the cops nab you for dealing in drugs and you get sucked into the criminal justice system – you …. ain’t likely to be driving a truck for a living.

        Strike 1 = one parent with a 5th grade education
        Strike 2= your education is 5th grade
        Strike 3= you get caught dealing drugs and get shipped off to Criminal College

        3 strikes – you’re out – you ain’t getting no stinkin job … even a low skill job unless the company itself is crooked or benefits preditorilary by hiring vulnerable workers (undocumented or those with prison records).

  8. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Another predictable diatribe that is completely lacking in historic perspective:

    “So begins another liberal social-engineering effort to un-do the damage created by a previous generation of liberals social engineering. At the dawn of the do-gooder era, when the New Deal began tearing down slums and erecting public housing, liberals acted on the conviction that slums created poor people, not the other way around. ”

    Among the reasons why poverty is concentrated in largely African-American neighborhoods is, of course, something Bacon never admits: White Flight.

    Poor blacks had concentrated for decades in parts of Richmond. Many had been dislocated from rural areas where mechanization and other changes in agriculture forced migration. Liberal social engineers didn’t come up with that.

    In the 1950s and 1960s, highways like I-95 and the Downtown Expressway and the Powhite and I-64 hastened white flight to Henrico and CHesterfield. The old Richmond Petersburg Turnpike was planned in ways that helped destroy a good part of Jackson Ward, a once-thriving African-American community. This was NOT done by the white liberal social engineers that Bacon loves to conjure up. It was done by white bureaucrats and the ruling elite.

    True, the problems of urban poverty have not been solved and this new method of trying to bring in richer people may not work.

    But while trashing “liberals” with big “social engineering” ideas that fail, Bacon himself fails to offer any original solutions. Despite the fantasy land that Bacon often portrays, Richmond is actually poor and badly educated as recent school ratings show. The White folks moved out long ago and their schools do well. New jobs are in places like Innsbrook or in Chesterfield or Dinwiddie where Amazon just set up fulfillment centers. Not too many new jobs in the East End, though, and jobs requiring lower skill levels have been exported long ago as well.

    I truly get tired of these diatribes and many of the comments by basically a bunch of well-off, well-fed white guys of advanced years.I include myself in that category. When was the last time you actually had someone who lives in a poor inner city neighborhood write something on this blog?

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      I wonder what Jim Bacon would think of merging the City of Richmond with Henrico County. This is what Louisville did with Jefferson County. It appears to me that both the City of Louisville and Jefferson County benefited from the merger.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      Also, Peter … an interesting perspective on white flight from the Louisville / Jefferson County merger:

      The biggest opponents to the merger were black political leaders. It seems that these black politicians didn’t really want a multi-cultural society after all.

      “Now the folks who moved out of the city get to control the city”

  9. Peter asks, “When was the last time you actually had someone who lives in a poor inner city neighborhood write something on this blog?”

    The answer is never. But, then, no one from a poor, inner-city neighborhood has ever expressed an interest in doing so. I would welcome them, if they did.

    What I have done is talked to many people in the inner city, some of whom I have profiled on this blog and others of whom I have not.

  10. Jim – I bristle on your statements that endemic poverty is the result of “liberal social engineering,” but I agree (in fact it is obvious to everyone) that societal attempts to get at the problem have been only partially successful. You equate these attempts to deal with urban poverty with causing it, when there are many factors at work, including outright racism, and the activities of the (dare I say conservative) political class to isolate urban areas and protect the political, financial, and social status of the white status quo. (Gerrymandering, segregated school systems?) You seem to say that conservative impulses to protect one’s financial and social status even at the expense of others is simply human nature, and perhaps it is, but that doesn’t make those impulses inevitable or morally correct.

  11. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Good points — but you have the infamous Dillion rule here. One forgets how much busing to achieve racial balance in schools was such a hot topic maybe 40 years ago — i.e. Charlotte-Mecklenburg and a host of others.

    I don’t mean to be rude to Jim. Many of his points are valid. But to say that “liberals” are to blame for inequality is just wrong.

    “Urban renewal” as a concept got widespread support (and not just from liberals) back in the 1950s. Norfolk had plenty of slums that were bulldozed. Many residents simply moved to public housing in Portsmouth. Everyone supported the bulldozing while they built roads like the Virginia Beach expressway to help better-off whites leave the inner core.

    It wasn’t some “liberal” conspiracy, it was the way things were done back then. Hell, when I lived in Chicago, I was only a few blocks from Cabrini-Green, a now demolished hell hole.

    When I was in Cleveland, I remember sitting on a plane and listening to a guy talk about how the Veterans Administration and FHA “steered” veterans returning from WWII to buying in only certain neighborhoods and in the many outer towns all around Cleveland. If you were Slovak, you were guided here; Polish, there; Irish, here; Puerto Rican (recruited to work in the steel mills), there. Blacks were just out of luck, even if they had been officers. I don’t know if the story was true but it was a good yarn.

    I doubt that “liberal” social engineers ginned this all up. And Jim needs to remember that for decades, blacks didn’t have many choices as to where to go thanks to Jim Crow and protective covenants.

  12. I find the Conservatives viewpoint on this similar to their viewpoint on health care and other tough issues.

    Basically they diss the “lefts” approach, some of which (not all) does have a history of failure – but beyond the right using that history as a political talking point – they really have no practical solutions and many of their “solutions” are more punitive blame game stuff than pragmatic solutions.

    basically the right can and does find 50 ways from Sunday to oppose anything and the left is all too often “starry eyed” optimists who tend more towards “feel good” doo-gooder- ism …

    the right – as a group – cannot agree among themselves what to do so what comes across from them often is tantamount to do nothing… they cannot bring forth an agenda, much less a positive agenda, and even much less – a commitment to work on the problem – making changes.. until we start to see success.

  13. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    I’d like to hear more from Darrell on his points raised above.

    I got the part about the jobs shipped over overseas, but I am not sure about the projects the cited. I went to the website he referred us to but I had trouble figuring out whether these projects where successful, and now they compared to the Richmond Major’s proposal.

    Might the Sage of Norfolk enlighten us?

  14. ditto – although across the country – thinking is that concentrated “projects” are the wrong way to go and now the strategy is to disperse into settlement patterns that don’t look much different than other settlement patterns.

    the problem is – no matter what you do – if you do ANYTHING at all that involves govt to address the problem – it can and will be called “social engineering”.

    the only thing that would not be called “social engineering” would be to have no govt involvement at all…

  15. How many poor people can buy $250 grand houses? They voucher buy or rent the old houses that surround the new development. The displaced unlucky ones move to a different poor neighborhood.

    I can tell you some things about Cleveland as well. The Flats was the DMZ back in the 60s. Near west side was Eastern European, and down a bit further was Puerto Rican. Near east side was a mixture of Hillbillies and Black families. Things were fairly peaceful on the East side until the riot years. Then most Hill folk moved to the West Side. The so called suburbs had really nice brick houses owned by Jewish families. I spent some summers there helping install a new invention called copper pipe. Cleveland really started going down hill in the 70s when blue collar jobs started going away. My machinist trained uncles lost their jobs and never worked again, eventually passing away in dilapidated West side rooming houses.

    When I read stories like this I tend to be very cynical because I’ve seen these proposals before. They usually mean some politician and his cronies are going to get rich at the citizens expense. If you don’t have an economy with real jobs then I don’t care how big your ambitions are. The end result will be a forgotten town occasionally visited by historians and sage brush. That applies to Cleveland, Richmond, or some revolutionary wide spot along the James River.

  16. good comments! and I agree about the jobs but I also point out, that we had a nation, both urban and rural that was very poor during the depression.

    and rural america, including rural virginia continues to have significant numbers of poor who, even though they are on welfare and other entitlements do not live in settlements patterns like we see in the urban areas


    all things equal (and they never are) … for a kid living in concentrated poverty in Richmond, how bad could it be for him and his Mom to live in the suburbs and for him to go to a suburban school?

    of course that too..would be…. social engineering…

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