More than 40 years have passed since the genial scholar John Moeser joined the Poor People's Campaign, Martin Luther King Jr.'s last organizing effort. Now Moeser is staging a campaign of his own: bringing Richmonders the facts about the region's concentrated poverty.
A senior fellow at the University of Richmond's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, Moeser has been making the rounds of civic associations, government boards and nonprofit agencies, armed with a trove of recently released U.S. Census Bureau data and research on race, poverty and geography. By June 20 he expects he'll have given his PowerPoint presentation 16 times. "A lot of people are really stunned at the stark reality," he says.
That reality includes 22 percent of people in Richmond living below the poverty line, which is an income of $21,954 for a four-person family. In five census tracts, the poverty rate exceeds 50 percent.
But a majority of the region's poor people — 54 percent — are in the region's suburbs, which may surprise some people. Between 2000 and 2009, the poverty rate has increased 42 percent in Henrico County and 23 percent in Chesterfield County.
Moeser says many people aren't aware how public policy, including slum clearing and highway construction, has shaped housing patterns, poverty rates and residents' ability to find work. "There is a combination of revulsion, of shock, of stunned silence," he says.
Moeser's interest in civil rights grew out of his boyhood in Lubbock, Texas, where he witnessed the stark disparities between the town's white areas and the unpaved, unlighted black and Hispanic neighborhoods. A member of Mayor Dwight Jones' recently convened anti-poverty commission, he's convinced that poverty is the greatest issue facing Richmond.
"If we muster the political will, we'll extend our bus lines and we'll move faster towards mixed-income neighborhoods," he says. "We'll move faster in generating living-wage jobs."