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Reality Check

These Richmond citizens are asking tough questions about the city’s poverty. Will anyone listen?

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Mayor Dwight Jones launched his war on poverty as only the general of a bureaucracy can — with a commission. In the face of a decades-long catastrophe, its establishment in 2011 did little to inspire confidence that anything productive would follow. But the commission proved thorough, laying out the roots and scale of the problem in one of the few city reports that can be called a must-read.

In February 2013, the Mayor's Anti-Poverty Commission handed off its comprehensive recommendations to its offspring, the Maggie L. Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Fighting Poverty. The Walker Initiative and its task forces were to take the recommendations and build an exit strategy from poverty — with costs attached — for the coming fiscal year's city budget.

The whole thing made a splash on the front page of The New York Times.

Last week, the mayor presented a budget that incorporates the Walker Initiative's first-year priorities, carving out $3.3 million for early childhood education, housing, work-force and transportation development. It also supports the creation of a city department to coordinate the overall effort.

But in the space between the task forces and the mayor's office, a unique gathering of volunteers is carrying out a special mandate. And if you have your doubts about whether this anti-poverty plan will amount to anything lasting, meet the citizens' advisory board of the Walker Initiative.

Half of the board members live in poverty. Of those who don't, most work with people caught in the bind of what it means to be low-income or working poor or teetering some place in between. The plea made to the board was straightforward: Use your insights, your community knowledge, your own struggles — and give the task forces a reality check.

The citizens' advisory board is a small group. Only seven people regularly attend the meetings, fewer than the 15 hoped for. Recruitment proved difficult, but the poor generally aren't inclined to look with trust upon anything government says or does.

"My big issue is the redevelopment of public housing. I’m not opposed to redevelopment, but it’s the human redevelopment that’s missing, that’s always missing. Yeah, let’s have the best soup kitchen and ride the Bus Rapid Transit. But to where, to what jobs?" — Lillie A. Estes - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • "My big issue is the redevelopment of public housing. I’m not opposed to redevelopment, but it’s the human redevelopment that’s missing, that’s always missing. Yeah, let’s have the best soup kitchen and ride the Bus Rapid Transit. But to where, to what jobs?" — Lillie A. Estes

If your family lived in Richmond neighborhoods first segregated by state and local government in the name of "racial integrity," and then redlined by the federal government and later plowed under for an interstate that city leaders ignored the will of voters to build, you aren't inclined to believe government is acting in your best interest.

And if your displaced family was shunted into public housing and you now live among the thousands crammed and isolated within North Side or East End neighborhoods, you tend not to believe a word that falls from the mouth of any politician who says, "We are here to help you to the promised land of economic stability."

Which is to say most of the members of the citizens' advisory board walk through the door of every meeting with conflicted emotions. About whether this effort will amount to more than words. About whether anyone will listen to what they have to say. About whether they are simply props. Hope is always doing battle with doubt.

The work of the board is far from done, but to see poverty in the city through the lens of its members — and their interaction with the task forces — is to better understand a few of the challenges ahead.
First, Richmond's roughly 27 percent poverty rate — nationally the rate is 15 percent — cannot be boiled down to a matter of individual failings and ineffective government programs.

"The problem we have is so multilayered and so complex," citizens' advisory board member Albert Walker says. "It has a historical complexity, a political complexity and a policy complexity that I didn't even realize."

Second, the administration has been consumed by its plan to redevelop Shockoe Bottom around a new baseball stadium — a plan it says will be of future benefit to the poor. But the responsibility for crafting a more direct anti-poverty strategy largely has fallen to the Initiative — volunteers operating outside of, but still dependent upon a notoriously inefficient city bureaucracy. Some advisory board and task force members worry all the attention to the Shockoe Bottom plan has sucked momentum from the anti-poverty initiative.

Finally, a hard battle for hearts and minds lies ahead. Persuading people the Walker Initiative will reduce poverty in a sustainable way vital to this city's well being is going to make selling a ballpark look easy.

 

"There is pervasive apathy in the community. I don’t know if it’s born of hopelessness or the lack of education or something else. I think it’s just that individuals tend to feel isolated." — Roual Mason - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • "There is pervasive apathy in the community. I don’t know if it’s born of hopelessness or the lack of education or something else. I think it’s just that individuals tend to feel isolated." — Roual Mason

The education of the citizens' advisory board begins in early September in a conference room at UR Downtown, the University of Richmond's Broad Street satellite. Thad Williamson, an associate professor of leadership studies at the university, brings a documentary.

Williamson was primary author of the Anti-Poverty Commission report issued last year and serves as co-chairman of the Walker Initiative. His co-chairwoman is City Council Vice President Ellen Robertson, whose district holds 10,000 people living in poverty, more than twice as many as in any other council district in the city.

Robertson and Williamson created the advisory board and it is they — with support from city staffer Carla Childs — who will hold it together. They view it as correcting an earlier oversight: the failure to include any significant number of people facing day-to-day poverty on the 47-member Anti-Poverty Commission in 2011.

Robertson and Williamson say they know they're inviting the toughest critics to the room. "People in poverty have a reason not to trust us," Robertson says.

The board will not have time to bond in the avalanche of material the task forces are about to roll out to them for vetting. Tiny as the group is, its members don't come to know everyone well. They become "the preacher," and "the smart guy who doesn't talk much" and "the woman who works in education."

But on this night, the documentary about middle-class families falling into financial ruin during the recession provokes intense discussion about the stigma and grip of poverty and what the loss of manufacturing jobs has wrought.

"There's this talk about being on the lowest rung of the economic ladder," board member and longtime community strategist Lillie A. Estes, 54, says. She also was a member of the Anti-Poverty Commission. "I'm not even on the ladder. I'm on the ground."

"There is a lot of apathy and hopelessness and it's difficult to overcome," board Roual Mason, 48, says. Mason has a master's degree in philosophy from Temple University. He's been chronically unemployed or underemployed. "We have to get poor people to take an interest in their own fate."

"What we are dealing with in Richmond is not having it and losing it," Robertson says. "It's never having it, at all."

She tells the group that as they hear from the task forces, "We need to look at policies that may have good intentions, but don't work, those closed doors that make it impossible for people to get out of poverty. It will be our job to find the holes in the strategy."

Board member Duron Chavis, then working as a Department of Social Services food stamp case worker, raises an issue he'll bring up repeatedly: What kind of teeth does a volunteer board have?

"Who are the people who actually have the power to say 'yes or no' to this?" he asks. "Have they felt the sting of poverty? I'm not saying they don't have empathy, but when it's not even in the conceivable future that you'll be on the fringes of poverty, how do we get the message out? How do we get past, 'Oh, well, we don't have the money in the budget?' Do you go home and find your lights cut off because you can't pay the bill?

"Are we really all in this together for real?"

 

"This strategy about what to do about poverty has to be both top down and bottom up. If you exclude the bottom and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do for y’all poor people,’ it has limited viability." — Duron Chavis - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • "This strategy about what to do about poverty has to be both top down and bottom up. If you exclude the bottom and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do for y’all poor people,’ it has limited viability." — Duron Chavis

The common definition of poverty is antiquated and based upon food budgets. The modern, but still not widely used supplemental definition calculates the added value of food stamps, subsidized housing, child care and other taxpayer-subsidized benefits.

The end result of both varies. In the South, the modern measure slightly reduces the poverty rate, according to the 2013 Anti-Poverty Commission report. Roughly speaking, today a family of three living on less than $1,650 a month is considered to be living in poverty.

Richmond has a 26.7 percent poverty rate, the highest in the region. Exclude undergraduate college students and the rate drops to 24.3 percent. Count only children 17 and younger and it goes up to more than 40 percent.

It's the highest in the region for all the complex reasons to which Albert Walker alluded. Historical politics and policy conspired, first in the name of segregation, to concentrate people in certain parts of the city and then to systematically deprive them of equitable access to quality education, well-paying jobs and the ability to accrue wealth — largely through home ownership. Modern land use, transportation and education policies and the separate city-county government system hold that inheritance of deprivation in place.

In a city that is 50 percent black, the population of the city's housing projects is 98-percent black.

"Virtually all the public housing is concentrated in the city, and a rational outsider would say the thing to do is a well-thought-out, gradual, respectful process of redevelopment in which some of the public housing goes to the counties, right?" Williamson says. "Well, that's off the table for the counties."

"People are so used to handouts, but we don’t want a handout anymore. We want to grow from within. That’s what leads to the path of stability." — Chanel Bea - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • "People are so used to handouts, but we don’t want a handout anymore. We want to grow from within. That’s what leads to the path of stability." — Chanel Bea

So are bus lines that would carry city workers to suburban jobs, and a combined city-county school system to alleviate the profoundly segregated Richmond Public Schools, where three in four students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch.

John Moeser, a senior fellow at UR's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and head of the Walker Initiative's economic development task force, tells board members: "The worst thing we ever did was put all the poor together and isolate them."

In Gilpin, where Estes lives. And in Fairfield, where board member Chanel Bea lives. The average annual income in both of these public housing communities hovers between $8,500 and $8,800.

The board members who live in the flux of poverty come with a complicated relationship to their new roles as representatives of the larger community of the poor. No one wants to be reduced in the public mind to his or her economic value to society, a paper doll that someone else dresses up in judgment. "I don't want to be a poster child for poverty," Estes says.

Nor, they say, do they intend to be used as rubber stamps. All of the board members say they believe Jones truly means what he says about trying to reduce poverty and increase opportunity.

"How he goes about it is a horse of a different color," Estes says. "If you have the best interests of people at heart, but don't have boots on the ground, how do you help them keep the faith that what you are doing is in their best interest? How do you encourage them to have hope?"

The mayor held a press conference in February 2013 to announce the creation of the Walker Initiative and its citizens' advisory board. "At least half of its membership is living in or near poverty," he said. "This will not be a gilded, ivory tower group."

It did not escape Estes or Bea that no one invited the board.

 

"Most people don’t choose to be poor. It’s not like, ‘Oh, if they only work harder.’ No, it’s like ‘They don’t have opportunity.’" — Albert Walker - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • "Most people don’t choose to be poor. It’s not like, ‘Oh, if they only work harder.’ No, it’s like ‘They don’t have opportunity.’" — Albert Walker

They race through various recommendations, peppering the task forces with questions.

Economic development suggests starting employee-owned cooperative businesses such as Laundromats or greenhouses to serve colleges and hospitals. The board asks: How do employees become owners? How do you determine what businesses will be sustainable?

Housing recommends no forced relocation in future public housing redevelopment. The board is all for that, but how do you guarantee it?

Education is enthusiastic about privately funded Promise scholarships to fill the financial aid gap and allow students in Richmond Public Schools to go to college. Sounds great, the board says, but are RPS students prepared to succeed in college?

"That Promise scholarship will be one of the best tools to lower the poverty level," says board member Twandra Lomax-Brown, 48, a family consumer science educator for the city of Richmond through the Virginia Corporate Extension program. "Kids who never thought they could go to college could have that opportunity."

The members of the citizens' advisory board want to know how progress will be measured, how programs will be evaluated. They ask repeatedly why the school system, a huge part of the equation, isn't at the table.

They challenge assumptions that everyone wants to go to college and wants to buy a house and that a $150,000 consultant who doesn't know Richmond is the best way to go for just about anything. (And they'll win a concession there.)

But the "regional" transportation system outrages the board most. Several of the members are bus riders. They're stunned to learn that Chesterfield County owns 50 percent GRTC and has a say in where routes go — or don't go. One place they don't go is into Chesterfield County. Where jobs are.

"People who don’t live in poverty don’t know how crushing it can be, but I think the more people hear about it, the more they want to do about it." — Rev. Bollin “Bo” Millner Jr. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • "People who don’t live in poverty don’t know how crushing it can be, but I think the more people hear about it, the more they want to do about it." — Rev. Bollin “Bo” Millner Jr.

"Even today, I'm like, 'This is crazy.' Especially when you know that on every level, transportation is critical to economic development." Walker says. He's a community academic liaison for Virginia Commonwealth University's Center on Society and Health. "Not only is it unjust. It's criminal. I shouldn't say, criminal, but, yeah, it is criminal. You can clearly see where the job hubs are, and you are systematically keeping people at a disadvantage."

"Racism and economic discrimination drove this bus off this cliff and we have a duty to address that," Estes says.

Yes, the board members say, people are responsible for their choices. But don't underestimate the way in which concentrated, isolated poverty constricts the range of those choices, the way it dims horizons to the here-and-now. "It's arrested development," Estes says. "It's whatever kind of metaphor you want to use that means it ain't right, and there ain't no correct way to dig yourself out of manure. You get yourself out of manure the best way you can, and then when you get up out of that manure, you worry about right and wrong."

Estes elaborates later: "I'm saying that accountability and responsibility go across the board. It's not just only poor people who should be held accountable."

In the end, the advisory board forwards task-force budget recommendations to start a trust fund for affordable housing, to provide more and better-quality child care, to kick in money to trigger a grant that would further regional transportation planning and to study the feasibility of the Promise scholarships.

The Initiative also asks for a new city department to coordinate and oversee the myriad strands of the plan. But the hub of the strategy lies in expanding the role of the downtown Center for Workforce Innovation so that the unemployed are trained for existing jobs and their families are given priority access to housing, child care, transportation and other support services.

The Initiative asked for $4.6 million. The mayor agreed to put $3.3 million in his budget, noting that the city already spends $194 million on various programs and social services that address poverty. City Council will hold a public hearing on the budget in April.

 

"This is not something that we are going to immediately fix. It’s going to take stages. We start with jobs in the initial phase and go from there." — Twandra Lomax-Brown - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • "This is not something that we are going to immediately fix. It’s going to take stages. We start with jobs in the initial phase and go from there." — Twandra Lomax-Brown

The mayor doesn't just need to win those in poverty. Board member Bollin Millner Jr., rector of Grace & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, says his congregation, by and large, doesn't confront poverty daily, but is concerned by it and wants to be part of the solution. But there's also skepticism, he says, and members want to know "that this is actually going to work."

"It's like Lucy with the football," he says. "We've taken a run at this a whole bunch of times and every single time Lucy pulls the football away. I don't know how many times we can take a run at this and not have better results."

For the Walker Initiative to take root, to continue beyond the Jones administration, community buy-in is necessary. Some members of the task forces and the citizens' advisory board say they fear the mayor is eroding the trust he needs by pushing the Shockoe Bottom plan. A corporate-backed redevelopment plan centering on a ballpark in a historic slave-trading district speaks to the long-held historical grievances of neighborhood displacement. This time, the argument goes, instead of black neighborhoods being erased, black history, American history, will be.

The mayor has sought to connect the Shockoe Bottom plan to the city's anti-poverty strategy in the public mind. He says the redevelopment would create jobs and expand the city's tax base, creating streams of money to support the strategy proposed by the Walker Initiative.

That's true on its face. But if that was his plan all along, note some members of the board and task forces, he never let the Initiative know.

"Why didn't they present it to us?" says Chavis, an outspoken critic of the Shockoe plan. "Why weren't we briefed about it? Why aren't we reviewing it? All this stuff, it just seems real political. I don't have a problem with that, but I don't like being used to offer legitimacy to chicanery."

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Initiative co-chairs Williamson and Robertson asked the members of the citizens' advisory board to bring their skepticism and experiences. And they have. A group that was never as large as it was intended to be, as it needed to be, has become a proxy for much larger communities. They sit as representatives of the 4,200 people waiting to get into public housing. They stand for the more than 9,600 people who already live in public housing communities, some of which are in worse condition than others, but all carrying an air of decades of city neglect in the dirt patches that pass for front yards, in the falling-apart stairs, in the neighborhood school where every time it rains, the buckets come out. They stand for the mom in Fairfield who lands a part-time job and then before she can find her feet, sees her rent go up and her food stamps cut and so ends up deeper in the hole than she was before she started working. They speak for those who ride the bus just past the city borders and then walk along the unpaved shoulders of busy roads to get to work or to go shopping. Welcome to the county. You figure out how to get here and we'll take your sales tax.

They debate the proposals before them, not as much as they'd like, not in as much depth as they'd like, but they are able to change the conversation here and there.

No one sitting on the board or the task forces believes reducing poverty can be comprehensively addressed without changes in how the larger metro area operates and in state and federal policy. Business, foundations and nonprofits all need to be on board, they say.

But they also say the Walker Initiative's strategy is a good start. Next come larger community outreach, metrics for success and giving the advisory board more stability and power.

"We can make minor alterations to make things a little more fair and a little more humane," board member Mason says. "We can change some things for some people."

Even that won't be easy. "There has been so much isolation for so long that it's all many people know," Bea says. "And if it's all you know, then there is a complacency, there's a comfort level and there is real fear."

Chavis, who briefly left the board in frustration, is returning. There's no giving up, he says.

"You can't be pessimistic," he says. "But your optimism is locked in a box of hope that the haves of our city realize the poverty problem is their problem too. That the health of the entire city, our city, is stifled by a 26-percent poverty rate.

"And the answer can't be those who have doing for those who have not. It can't be, 'Here's a program that we have designed for you poor person and all you have to do is go through it,' because that's not sustainable. It has to be all of us working together because we are all in this together.'" S

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