Last Tuesday, I went to a presentation, an update on how poverty in the region has changed since 2010, and how the city of Richmond is addressing it.
Five years ago this month, John Moeser, about whom I have written, gave a similar presentation, “unpacking” census data to look at poverty through the lens of race and political power. He said directly that which tends to be skirted: that poverty in the city generally afflicts African-Americans; that this has been intentional; that what we see today is largely the consequence of lending, housing, transportation, education and zoning policies intended not only to isolate African-Americans, but to systematically deprive them of opportunities to access good jobs, schools, housing, transportation – all the tools needed to build wealth.
This is a historical fact, true in many cities. It’s a fact not entirely accepted, particularly by those who see poverty, whether it be situational or of the entrenched generational kind, as a matter of individual choice. That view tends both to shame the poor and neglect how poverty narrows the range of available choices.
At any rate, one can draw a direct line from Moeser’s work and its active support by two mighty nonprofits in the city — Hope in the Cities and the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, (which organized the forum five years ago and last week’s update) — to Mayor Dwight C. Jones' Anti-Poverty Commission to the Maggie L. Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Creating Wealth to the creation in 2014 of the Mayor’s Office of Community Wealth Building. The office is the strategic hub of a comprehensive effort to restore to those living in poverty that which long has been denied: opportunity. It may be the first of its kind in the nation.
The City Council, at the mayor’s urging, agreed earlier this year to make the Community Wealth Building office its own brand new agency, which was “kind of a big deal,” as its head, Thad Williamson, puts it. The goal was to protect it and its mission once Jones, its chief patron, leaves office.
It was my intention today to spend some time on the numbers, which I won’t do except to offer this baseline: One in four Richmonders, about one in 10 Henricoans, and roughly one in 14 Chesterfield County residents, live in poverty. (The poverty level used by the U.S. Census for a family of four is $24,230 – or $12,316 for an individual under 65.) Poverty in Henrico increased the most from 2010 to 2014. Raise the income threshold to $45,000, where a family is getting by but at risk of falling into poverty should it be struck by divorce or a lost job or a major health crisis, and the situation is more dire. Roughly one-third of the families in Chesterfield and Henrico, and one half of the families in Richmond, walk the edge of just-making-it.
A slide from a recent Hope in the Cities presentation on poverty in Richmond and the surrounding areas. (Photo courtesy John Moeser)
“And that’s shocking,” Moeser says. “That’s remarkable, and I’m afraid that so often we pay attention to those officials declared poor, but if we do that, we are overlooking a huge proportion of citizens who are facing financial hardship. And what of those families earning $35,000? It’s rough. It’s barbaric.”
It was one of the more thought-provoking comments. So, too, was the mayor’s observation: “If we could start from scratch today, people would be horrified at the idea of creating a region where people are separated by race and class. No one today would create a region in which almost all the public housing is packed into one part of one jurisdiction. No one would create a region in which jobs are spread out, but the bus lines barely stretch beyond the capital city.”
And Williamson’s: “It is a question: What causes poverty and, conversely, what causes wealth? You hear it said — and it’s not wrong — that education is the single biggest thing. And the school system is the single biggest agency in town touching families in poverty. It’s indisputable, right? But ultimately, poverty is about money. That education has to pay off with a job at the end of it … In my opinion, almost nothing would help the schools succeed more than having a significant number of parents in our highest-poverty schools have jobs and steady employment.”
I intended, too, today to touch on what the Mayor’s Office of Community Wealth Building has been doing over the last two years, but that also will have to wait. What stays with me from Tuesday’s gathering is a moment.
Williamson is a University of Richmond associate professor of leadership studies. He was a leading voice of the Anti-Poverty Commission, and the co-chairman of the Walker Initiative. He took a leave of absence from UR to lead the Office of Community Wealth Building, and so he may be called a newly-minted bureaucrat.
Williamson asked: “It is a question: What causes poverty and, conversely, what causes wealth? You hear it said — and it’s not wrong — that education is the single biggest thing. ... But ultimately, poverty is about money. That education has to pay off with a job at the end of it …" (Photo by Rob Corcoran)
During his presentation, he came to a slide depicting the organization of his staff. To everyone’s surprise, including, no doubt, his own, he began to cry. After a few seconds, he said, “I love my staff.” It took him a few more moments to compose himself.
And this is what I want to leave you with today. This small baring of the heart of an exhausted professor-turned-city employee. Because it reveals something about this effort to alleviate poverty and offer opportunity, and what that effort demands.
Much skepticism about the initiative exists. I’ll generalize and say it tends to come from those who distrust government and/or the poor and/or Mayor Jones.
Skepticism is warranted. The effort should be scrutinized and will be. But I have followed and written about the anti-poverty initiative for almost three years. I have spent many hours talking to people involved in it, covering the meetings of the residents in poverty who help guide the office, and interviewing those being helped by its efforts. This is not a cadre of do-gooders armed only with good intentions and a small city-funded budget. They are among some of the region’s brightest, most creative and dedicated residents. (Carrie Coyner, vice-chairwoman of the Chesterfield County School Board, spoke last Tuesday. So, too, did the Henrico Board of Supervisors' Tyrone Nelson.) They are city workers deeply invested in Richmond. They are the minds of the nonprofit, business, educational and faith communities — all turned toward the task ahead. They disagree with each other — at times, heatedly — but they do so without losing sight of a most fundamental understanding: that this region will not achieve its potential when 40 percent of the children of its capital city cannot achieve theirs.
Williamson said during his presentation that there are many opportunities for others to help.
“Peter Paul [Development Center] put out a call just last week,” he said. "They are one of the most respected organizations in the city, and yet they don’t have enough people to mentor the kids in their program. That’s a slam dunk. Why isn’t that happening?”
Employers can seek workers though the city’s job training programs, and businesses and residents can help build a network of employment referrals. But what is needed most, he said, is an understanding of the financial challenges under which Richmond operates, including the state school funding formula. Pressure, he said, also must be brought to bear on the state and federal governments.
Despite the constraints, Williamson told the room, it is possible to reduce child poverty by half in 15 years — or by 7,500 kids — to get 1,000 people in poverty a year through job training and into work that pays a sustainable wage, to make sure children have access to quality early childhood education and then graduate from high school in greater numbers with enough financial aid to go to college, to bring businesses into the neighborhoods starved for investment, and to extend bus lines to jobs now out of reach.
“It takes a lot of patience and good will and persistence,” he said. “And the politics of shame will not get it done.”
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