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Poor Politics

Solving the poverty problem requires leadership from those who are truly interested in constructive, community-wide action — not critics seemingly more interested in rehashing old political scores.

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More than a quarter of Richmond city residents, and 38 percent of children younger than 18, now live in poverty. Concentrated poverty has been entrenched in the city for generations.

Moral condemnation of this fact is a good starting point. We all should be disturbed and outraged. But moralizing apart from action gets you nowhere.

To make the most of what Richmond can do both to reduce poverty and soften its burden will require developing a serious policy strategy. Such a strategy needs to be based on solid research, creative thinking and learning from other cities’ successful initiatives. It also needs to be accompanied by a serious civic and political strategy aimed at getting input, commitment and follow-through from the entire community, including people as varied as business leaders and public-housing residents.

One would never know from Paul Goldman’s critique of Mayor Dwight Jones that the mayor has embarked on just such an initiative this year with the formation of the city’s first-ever anti-poverty commission.

It is charged with developing a bold but realistic agenda for reducing poverty and improving the lives of Richmond’s many low-income residents. Members include business leaders, professors, nonprofit and community development leaders, religious leaders, grass-roots activists, elected officials and appointed city and state officials — in short, a cross section of community members who are deeply committed to this issue and bring substantial experience and knowledge to the table.

The commission’s work began this summer with several framing discussions. Topics included the historic role of public policy decisions in creating and perpetuating concentrated poverty in Richmond, how state and federal entitlement programs impact Richmond residents, how poverty should be defined and understood, and the nature and extent of poverty in Richmond compared to our suburban and statewide neighbors.

Most recently, Jones as well as Chesterfield County Administrator Jay Stegmaier participated in a focused, intense discussion of transportation issues in the Richmond region and how they contribute to urban poverty. The discussion followed a presentation by Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution at a commission meeting last month. He provided a methodical but devastating explanation of how the failure of the region’s public transportation network to extend to suburban jobs harms low-income Richmond residents.

The meat of the commission’s work is now ongoing in committees. These committees are focused on education and work-force development, asset building, job creation, policy and legislation, transportation and regionalism, and how land-use policy can contribute to healthy and inclusive communities. By December, the committees are expected to provide an interim report to the mayor.

The Richmond effort mirrors that of numerous other cities nationwide that have launched similar efforts, such as Nashville, Tenn., and Savannah and Athens, Ga. In each case, anti-poverty commissions have identified crucial strategies and specific actions, then worked to implement those actions. Importantly, identifying a coherent strategy and engaging community partners strengthens a city’s ability to attract and mobilize the resources, private and public, needed for seriously addressing poverty.

The mayor’s anti-poverty initiative is no secret. The commission has received numerous mentions in the major media outlets locally, and commission meetings are open to the public. The fact that Goldman did not mention the initiative is a red flag that his aim was to score political points, not to contribute to a constructive discussion on what the city can do to tackle poverty or provide a balanced assessment of the Jones administration.

To be sure, no one can be certain yet just how successful this initiative will prove. Coming up with a realistic strategy that can gain traction in this economic and political climate is a daunting proposition. If the city is ever to succeed at reducing poverty, it will surely require a concerted strategy of just this kind. It won’t happen as a result of a mayor ranting and raving or settling for clichéd symbolic politics.

Taking cheap shots at politicians is easy work; figuring out what to do about an entrenched problem and how to mobilize support and resources to carry out that strategy is not. If Richmond is ever going to move beyond the legacies of a traumatic past, it is going to take a community-wide effort. It’s also going to require that the voices of those truly interested in constructive, community-wide action — not those of critics seemingly more interested in rehashing old political scores — drive the civic discussion.

We certainly need moral urgency, but we also need an understanding that organizing a major response requires time and patience. Effective urban leadership is not about hogging the headlines. Richmond has had mayors who were good at that but did not accomplish anything of lasting value with respect to poverty.

Rather, effective urban leadership is about mobilizing civic capacity and a shared strategy to solve shared problems. Magic wands are not available for that task, and while impassioned speeches always have a place — they only get you so far.

The Jones administration gets that. The mayor understands that what is needed is a comprehensive strategy, methodically devised, that tackles multiple interrelated problems. Further, the administration has the courage to acknowledge that it doesn’t have all the answers, and needs to draw in the views, voices and expertise of the wider community in forging a realistic strategy. Rectifying Richmond’s historic injustices and taking constructive steps toward a markedly better future ultimately will require mobilizing the community, from top to bottom and bottom to top, on behalf of serious, constructive change. The work of the anti-poverty commission is a crucial first step in that process.

Yes, this approach is a departure from the conventional decades-old playbook of Richmond politics — and thank goodness. Wherever one stands politically and whatever the size of one’s pocketbook, this is an initiative that every Richmonder should support. S

Thad Williamson, an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond, is a member of the mayor’s anti-poverty commission.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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