Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

Motels as Housing of Last Resort

Flagship Inn, Petersburg

Two Sundays ago the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a disturbing special report on poverty and housing insecurity along the Jefferson Davis Highway in Chesterfield County. Hundreds of people live in shabby motels, paying $200 or more per week to live in conditions almost as deplorable as Richmond’s public housing projects. These hotels, the housing equivalent of pawn shops and payday lenders, serve the poor and the desperate who have nowhere else to turn. It is depressing to think that people live this way.

People pay huge sums — $200 per week translates into more than $800 per month, enough to rent a nice, two-room apartment in a decent neighborhood — to dwell amidst deplorable conditions. Many hotel rooms have roaches, bedbugs and other insect infestations. The article cites leaking sewage, mold, mice droppings, and inoperable door locks. Conditions sound similar to those of the public housing projects — without the same level of crime.

The plight of some of the residents is truly pitiable. Latisha Ragland, a single mother with three children, lives in the Flagship Inn in Petersburg. The 39-year-old had most of her right leg amputated because of complications from diabetes and high blood pressure. She receives dialysis three times a week, and is waiting for a kidney transplant. She receives $735 a month in disabilities benefits but spends $220 a week for rent. Any unexpected expense is devastating. Stressful insecurity adds to the misery of her circumstances.

It seems absurd that someone must pay the equivalent of nearly $950 per month in rent (4.3 weeks per month x $220) for a literally lousy hotel room. The article prompts the question of why tenants have to pay so much. Are people like Ragland being exploited by greedy motel landlords?

That’s hard to say because landlords would not talk to the reporters. The lawyer for one responded, “There’s plenty of other hotels. Obviously, it’s not that bad or she would leave.” That’s not much of an answer.

But there are hints in the special report as to why the rents are so high. People who live in hotel rooms come only when they can’t find housing anywhere else. Other than living in a tent in the woods, this is truly housing of last resort. Who are these people? For the most part, they live hand-to-mouth and have terrible credit. Who would pay $950 per month if they could qualify to rent their own apartment?

Evidently, some tenants fail to pay their rent. Consider the predicament of the landlord. Anyone who stays at a motel for longer than 90 days has rights under the Landlord-Tentant Act. Landlords can evict clients for non-payment only after giving them a reprieve to allow them to come up with the money, and only after a court proceeding. Sometimes unpaid rent can accumulate to substantial sums.

The T-D cites the situation of Trimaine Reed, living at the America’s Best Value Inn, who took the motel to court after living with cockroaches for three years. In return, the motel tried to remove her for failing to pay $4,016 in rent. The judge ruled against her, she claimed, because she had forgotten the paperwork laying out her defense.

The larger point is not whether Reed was fairly or unfairly evicted. The point is that motel owners are dealing with clients with terrible credit quality who frequently fail to pay their rent. Motel owners either eat the lost rent or attorneys to collect it in court. In either case, they bear a substantial cost which must be compensated for by charging what seems to be unconscionably high rents. The situation is directly analogous to payday lenders who charge what seem to be unconscionably high interest rates to clients with a high propensity for default.

What is to be done? How does society at large deal with the heart-breaking stories of people who live in these motels? Cracking down on the motels does not seem to be a viable option. Driving the motels out of business will leave the tenants with no place to live. Some say Chesterfield County should encourage more affordable housing by requiring developers to add affordable-housing units as a condition of development. That’s fine if you’re OK with wealth transfers from the middle-class to a lucky few who qualify for those apartments; regardless, the lucky few won’t come from the ranks of the motel people because landlords would accept only lower-income tenants with the very best credit. Another option mentioned by the T-D is to create rental subsidy program funded in part by the county. That’s fine if you’re OK with tapping middle-class taxpayers.

None of the traditional remedies look good. But let me throw out an idea. There does seem to be an opportunity to create a charity-based enterprise. Because of their poor credit, motel tenants are paying outrageous sums for terrible living conditions. Address the credit issue, and a charitable entity can get the motel people into better housing at lower rents. Perhaps a charitable enterprise could bundle a couple hundred of these people, in effect pooling the risk and functioning as a co-signor so tenants can qualify for better housing under more favorable terms. Inevitably, some clients would default and the charitable entity would have to eat some bad debt, so it would be necessary to inject some charitable capital or public housing funds to maintain solvency. But in theory, tenants will be at lower risk of falling behind on their rent because they will be paying a significantly smaller percentage of their income. It’s an idea worth noodling.

Public Housing Vs. Private Housing, Round Two

A couple of weeks ago, I published a post, “Your Taxpayer Dollars at Work: Stuffing Poor People into Hideous Housing,” trying to put the $150 million maintenance backlog at the Richmond Redevelopment Housing Authority into context. I noted that the RRHA’s $65 million budget, spread over 4,000 public housing units, amounts to $16,250 per unit per year, which would buy luxury digs in the private rental market. That seemed like an outrageous amount of money, I wrote. However, I made it clear to readers that I needed to vet my “back-of-the-envelope calculation” before drawing any authoritative conclusions.

It’s a good thing I added that disclaimer because, in fact, I did omit relevant information. Hang with me because this gets a bit involved. The Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an unsigned editorial citing my numbers, unfortunately without noting my caveats. RRHA CEO T.K. Somanath took justifiable umbrage at my suggestion that for the money it spent, the authority could put housing project residents into a posh apartment in Richmond’s Manchester neighborhood. In point of fact, he said, the RRHA spends only $30 million maintaining its public housing project. The rest of the budget is dedicated to real estate and community development projects.

Somanath chastised the T-D for “parroting the grossly inaccurate musings of libertarian blogger Jim Bacon,” although he did acknowledge that my piece had contained the aforementioned caveats. The T-D reprinted Somanath’s letter and responded, as appropriate, that he was “quite right. We’re grateful for the additional context, and we should have included it in the original piece.”

But Somanath doesn’t get off the hook so easily. Let’s take a closer at the numbers.

The figures at right come from the RHHA’s 2014 annual report. (The numbers in the 2015 annual report are not as detailed, and the 2016 annual report has not been published yet.) The heading atop the column refers to the “Total Low-Rent Housing Fund Group,” which, if I am not mistaken, refers to public housing.

Thus, we can see that the RRHA spent $31.2 million in 2014 on Richmond’s public housing projects. Of that amount, “operation and project cost” amounted to $28.4 million. Averaged over the 4,000 housing units, it cost about $7,100 a year per unit to operate and maintain Richmond’s public housing. Please note: That’s just to operate and maintain the properties.

To make an apples-to-apples comparison between the cost of public housing and the cost of private-sector housing, we would have to include the capital cost of purchasing land and making improvements equivalent to the public housing units.

We can get a sense of the capital cost by looking at the City of Richmond assessments. I looked up the assessments for Mosby Court, South Mosby, North Mosby, Whitcomb Court, and Creighton Court, accounting for 1,501 apartments all told. (If I had all day, I’d dig up assessments for the other public housing units, but this is a blog — I don’t have all day.) The land and improvements for those properties totaled $47.4 million, averaging $31,600 per unit. If assessments are similar for the other public housing projects, that extrapolates to a value of about $126 million for the entire portfolio of public housing projects.

Now, let’s say the RRHA tried to replicate its public housing portfolio from scratch, selling $126 million in 30-year municipal bonds paying a 3% yield to purchase the land and build the apartments. That would amount to an average financing cost of $1,525 per unit per year. Add that cost to RHHA’s “operations and project cost, and you get a total annual cost of $8,625 per year, or $718 per month per unit.

What can you rent in the private housing market for $718 or less per month? Well, you can rent a two-bedroom, one-bath, 800-square-foot apartment at Nottingham Green for $645. You can rent a two-bedroom, one bath, 795-square-foot apartment at Village South Townhomes for $629. You can rent two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments at The James on W. Bacon Street (cool, huh?) for $709. The James includes a pool, fitness center, water, heat, cable and air conditioning!

You pick:

Mosby Court

or…

The James

I’m sure these comparisons could be refined. I made three requests, one by email and two by telephone, to interview Somanath and make sure I was using the RHHA numbers correctly. He never responded. If he doesn’t like these numbers, I gave him every chance to shape this article. If he changes his mind, I would welcome his input after the fact.

The disparity between public housing and private housing may not be as great as I conjectured in my original article, but it is still significant. And, to return to the point of my previous post, the original justification for public housing in the 1930s was that government needed to address the “market failure” of private builders. If the private sector couldn’t provide affordable housing for the poor and working class, government needed to step in. From the evidence provided here, it still appears that the private sector can provide superior housing in the Richmond region at a lower rental price.

My point is not to condemn the RHHA. I’m sure RHHA employees are doing the best job within the constraints they are working under. The point is that public housing projects are a failed model for sheltering low-income Americans. The logical solution is to get government out of the business of owning and operating low-income housing. Tear down the projects, let the private sector re-develop the land, and empower the poor through vouchers to seek their own accommodations.

How Computer Games Are Sapping the Initiative of Young Men and Shrinking the Workforce

We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the young male slacker, disinterested in looking for work and holed up in his parents’ basement, wiling away the time surfing the Web or playing computer games. Many of us have observed such behavior in our own homes. (I’m not mentioning any names.)

Now four economists writing for the National Bureau of Economic Research have quantified how computer gaming has led to a decline in workforce participation.

Writing in “Leisure Luxuries and the Labor Supply of Young Men,” Mark Aquiar, Mark Bils, Kerwin Kofi Charles, and Erik Hurst start with the observation that younger men, ages 21 to 30, have experienced a larger decline in hours worked over the past 15 years than women and older men.

Time-use studies show a dramatic shift since 2004 in the amount of time that 21- to 30-year-olds have devoted to leisure — video gaming and recreational computer activities in particular. On average, the age cohort dedicated 2.3 hours more to leisure activities in 2012-2015 than in 2004-2007. Of that increase, recreational computing and video gaming accounted for 82% of the increase.

The big question: Are young men spending more time playing computer games because they are working less? Or are they working less because they are playing computer games more?

The authors argue that the declining cost of computer and gaming hardware, along with a revolution in online gaming, made gaming late in the decade of the 2000s more appealing to young men.

This chart shows how between 2009 and 2010, the employment rate for young men plunged much more than for those over 30.

Examining the data, the authors rule out differential changes in wages for the shift. Changes in real hourly wages for men with less than 16 years of education tracks that of their elders almost exactly. Rather, in the tradeoff between gaming/video watching and other daily activities (eating, sleeping, personal care; working, job searching, home chores, child care and education), leisure became more attractive. On average, young men spent more time with computers and less time on other things, because they found gaming to be so much more enjoyable.

To some degree, this behavior is subsidized indirectly by parents. In 2000, 23%  of  younger men and 34% of less educated younger men lived with a close relative, the authors write. By 2015, 35% of all younger men, and 49% of those with less education, lived with a close relative.

Young men found this working-less/freeloading-on-parents arrangement to be largely satisfactory, according to happiness responses in the federal General Social Survey. Write the authors:

The happiness of younger non-college men actually increased by 7 percentage points since the early 2000s, from 81 to 88 percent. So, in conjunction with a steep decline in employment, reported satisfaction has increased for these younger men. … Among non-college younger men, both the employed and non-employed exhibit increases in happiness. This pattern stands in stark contract to that for older workers.

After crunching a large volume of numbers and running them through indecipherable equations, the authors estimate that the computer-recreation revolution, by increasing the value of leisure, accounts for 23 to 46 percent of the decline in market work for younger me during the 2000s. “Innovations to computer and gaming leisure may have dynamic effects on labor supply. It is possible that individuals develop a habit (or addiction) for such activities.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Yes, computer gaming and web surfing can be addictive — especially for young men, who seem to be wired differently than women or older men. If you’re down on your luck and can’t find work, it’s easy to get lost in World of Warcraft instead of looking for a job or earning workforce credentials — especially if Mom and Dad are covering the room and board. Some people seek escapism through alcohol and drugs, others through computer games. I’m willing to bet that the underlying brain chemistry — triggering the release of dopamine — is the same. I know from personal experience that it’s entirely possible to blink your eyes and shake your  head, and realize, “holy mackerel, it’s three o’clock in the morning!”

In the ongoing debate over joblessness and income inequality, it is helpful to understand that what many people assume to be a problem of structural rigidities in the economy reflects, in fact, in part a sociological problem. Many young men — enough to affect the workforce participation numbers — would rather spend their time playing games than getting serious about earning a living.

Your Taxpayer Dollars at Work: Stuffing Poor People into Hideous Housing

Mosby Court, one of Richmond’s infamous public housing projects. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which provides public housing to about 10,000 Richmond residents, faces a $150 million backlog in repairs for its 4,000 housing units, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “At some point you’re going to have very serious health and safety problems,” agency CEO T.K. Somanath told the authority’s board last week.

The authority is considering converting its six public housing projects from traditional federally funded public housing into the Section 8 housing choice voucher program, which would net the agency $7.5 million a year to apply toward property maintenance and large-scale redevelopment.

The authority has about $750 per unit annually for repairs and upkeep, reports the Times-Dispatch. A May 2016 physical needs assessment found the agency needed nearly $19,000 per unit to make all necessary fixes.

One obvious question is, why did the RRHA short-change maintenance so severely over the years? Were administrative costs bloated? Were other costs out of control? Did the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) cut financial support? Could RRHA have charged tenants more rent? The reasons are not clear, either from the T-D‘s reporting or from RDHA documents.

But there’s an even more fundamental question. The entire justification of having the government build and administer public housing is that government can do the job more inexpensively than the private sector. But can it?

RRHA’s budget is about $65 million a year, and it operates 4,000 housing units per year — housing units built decades ago, the original cost of which is almost fully amortized. That averages out to $16,250 per unit per year — $1,350 per month.

Think about that: You can rent new, two-bedroom apartments between 900 and 1,000 square feet in the Manchester neighborhood south of the James River for between $1,100 and $1,300 a month. They come equipped with hardwood floors, microwaves, washer-dryers, and some look like the photo at right:

Here’s the really amazing thing: The private-sector rental units are not fully amortized. Landlords have to pay the financing costs! Yet somehow they can provide quality apartments for less than it costs RRHA just to operate and maintain its disastrous public housing projects.

I’m sure I’m leaving stuff out — the RRHA pays utilities, and I expect that Manchester landlords do not — and I’m sure a fair comparison wouldn’t be as devastatingly bad as the numbers I have presented. This is a back-of-the-envelope calculation, and I would need to vet the figures with RRHA officials before drawing authoritative conclusions. But I suspect that no tweaking of the numbers would change the fact that public housing is a catastrophically failed financial model — and that doesn’t even include the social cost of packing poor people together in isolated, crime-ridden communities.

Surely it would be far better, as the RRHA requests, to convert all public housing to Section 8 vouchers. Going one step further, it likewise would be better to empty the projects, tear them down, let the private sector redevelop them, and get government out of the rental housing business altogether.

Update: Somaneth informs me that only $30 million of the RRHA’s $65 million budget goes to managing public housing. The rest goes to real-estate and community development programs. Thirty million dollars translate into an average expenditure of $625 per unit, which paints a very different picture than the one I describe above. I will have more to say about this in a future post.

Sustaining the Biggest Public Nuisance in Richmond

Mosby Court, public housing project in Richmond

Republished from Cranky’s Blog.

Not satisfied at maintaining the largest public nuisance in Richmond – the one that just led to the shooting death of a State Policeman – the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RHHA) now proposes to do nothing realistic about it:

  • Fencing and gates. RRHA says this remedy is “largely . . . impractical.” I guess killing policemen is more “practical.”
  • Parking stickers and IDs. Not a bad idea, but worthless until they have the off-duty cops in place to catch the trespassers.
  • Empowerment programs. So, the problem largely is male visitors and they are going to “empower” the tenant girlfriends who are harboring those males? Please! The remedy is to evict those girlfriends.
  • Summer programs for the kids. Good thing to do but unrelated to the visiting male problem.

This is not rocket science, folks:

  • The feds tell us “(1) that effective property management can have a major impact on the health of a community, and (2) that accessible, legitimate techniques can be used to stop the spread of drug activity on rental property.”
  • Indeed, as to drugs (and certainly as to other crime), nuisance abatement is the sole tactic that has been shown scientifically to reduce crime in residential places. The DOJ monograph says: “With the evidence available we are relatively certain that holding private landlords accountable for drug dealing on their property by threatening abatement reduces drug related crimes.” Whether as to drug activity or other disorder, the landlord is the only entity that can make the physical changes to the property, evict the troublesome tenants, hire the security, control the access, and enforce the lease terms necessary to make the property safe.

Yet, RRHA, aside from the fences they have rejected, is not talking about what we know can help here:

  • Lights;
  • Cameras;
  • Access control;
  • Off-duty cops on patrol;
  • Rigorous trespass enforcement; and
  • Rigorous lease enforcement (i.e., eviction of the girlfriend who harbors the disorder)

As to that last point, the HUD lease [at Para. 25] contains the necessary provisions. These include eviction for, inter alia:

  • Drug related criminal activity engaged in  on or near the premises by any tenant, household member, or guest; and
  • Criminal activity by a tenant, any member of the tenant’s household, a guest or another person under the tenant’s control that threatens the health, safety or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other residents or by persons residing in the immediate vicinity.

Yet, when I spoke with them about this (in the distant past), they said

  • Legal Aid makes it difficult to do anything;
  • The judges are reluctant to enforce the lease;
  • It would be “onerous” to ask RRHA staff to follow up on all offense reports and calls for service; and
  • Given the quality of the people who live in subsidized housing, RRHA can’t be expected to do much better.

To judge from their response to the current murder rate, and the shooting of the policeman by a trespasser who was living at RRHA, their indifferent attitude and the soft bigotry of their low expectations have not improved.

It is clear that RRHA is not serious about controlling its property. City Council is quiescent. The Commonwealth’s Attorney is not prosecuting the RRHA Board for maintaining the nuisance. Your tax dollars at “work.”

The Scourge of Rootless, Predatory Males

Travis A. Ball

Last week 27-year-old Travis A. Ball allegedly shot and killed Virginia State Police Special Agent Michael T. Walter in an apparently unprovoked attack in the Mosby Court public housing project. The murder was the seventh homicide and one of about 20 shootings to take place in the troubled housing project so far this year.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch has done commendable work fleshing out the circumstances of the murder and the background of the alleged killer, but a bigger story remains to be told. The crime gives us a window into the pathology of 21st-century American poverty. Through the story of Travis Ball we can gain insight not only into the social breakdown of inner-city African-Americans in public housing but the spreading social dysfunction among the poor of all races and ethnic groups.

The tip-off appears in Robert Zullo’s article in the T-D today: In his arrest warrant, Ball had listed as his address a home on the 1900 block of Redd Street in Mosby Court. But he had been banned from the property in 2016, and his name was registered on a 4,000-person list of people ineligible to live there. Shortly after that ban, according to a second T-D article, an emergency protective order was issued for the mother of one of Ball’s children. Court records show that Ball had engaged in several acts of domestic violence. The T-D articles indicate that he had two children with one woman, and hint that he may have fathered a child with a different woman.

Think about this: Mosby Court maintains a list of some 4,000 individuals who are banned from living in housing project of only 458 units. That is an astonishing number. The T-D reporting does not give us a profile of these people, but I would be willing to wager that the list is comprised overwhelmingly of men, like Ball, and that the vast majority have been blackballed for violent behavior on the project premises.

The problem is that the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RHHA) has no effective means of enforcing the list.

“The manpower that’s required, it’s hard to knock on doors on a daily basis,” said RRHA CEO T.K. Somanath. “Neighbors sometimes let us know, and we have our property management [and] maintenance folks inspecting these properties periodically. There are ways to find out if people are not abiding by the lease [which] causes these violations, and we take action.”

The housing authority disbanded its own seven-member police force in 2014 due to budget pressures and the conviction that residents would be better served if the agency deployed its resources consistent with its core mission of providing housing services. It is not clear from the article whether or not the RHHA police were used to enforce the banishment list. Whatever the case, there is no effective enforcement mechanism now.

I am entering the realm of conjecture here, and I advance the following observations not as fact but as operating hypotheses to be confirmed or rejected through follow-up reporting. The RHHA, according to its website, manages and maintains 12 housing developments for low-income families, seven developments for the low-income elderly and the disabled. The low-income housing, I suspect, are dominated by households of single mothers with one or more children. The number of households with married spouses and children approaches zero.

I conjecture the existence of a large floating population of under-employed, unmarried men in low-income communities — be they like Mosby Court or a rural trailer park — who lead a largely parasitical existence. They attach themselves to women as sexual partners, moving into their apartments, eating their food, and contributing only sporadically to the maintenance of the household. These relationships are typically unstable, fraught with domestic violence and child abuse. Men move from woman to woman, impregnating them with no concern for the welfare of the children. Sometimes they establish meaningful relationships with their biological children; often they do not. Nonpayment of child support is endemic. Often, women don’t even know for certain who the fathers are.

I further conjecture that the existence of this population of unattached males explains another widespread and unexplained phenomenon: that of childhood hunger. Low-income families have no trouble obtaining food stamps. Why are children going hungry? Why must school districts maintain breakfast and lunch programs? Why do charities provide children with backpacks of food to take home during weekends? Is it possible that many household food budgets are being stretched by the necessity to feed an adult male whose presence is entirely “off the books”?

The prevalence of unattached, freeloading and often violent males, I submit, is one of the great unacknowledged scourges of poverty in the United States today. Though poor themselves, many of these males are predators and they add immeasurably to the horror of poverty. They prey among the weak in their midst, inflicting routine domestic violence that never makes it into the newspapers (unless a murder occurs). They commandeer the limited resources of the women they live with, often resulting in the abuse and neglect of the women’s children — especially if the children are not their own.

It is not politically correct to portray 21-century American poverty in this way. Progressives are committed to the idea that the pathologies of poverty are the result of endemic injustices such as racism, income inequality, poor schools, and insufficient economic opportunity. Read the academic literature and the politicians’ press releases and you see nothing about the growing population of rootless, predatory males. Unless we acknowledge the realities of poverty, how can we ever hope to combat it?

Let me be 100% clear. Although I am extrapolating from an inner-city housing project, this problem is not unique to African-Americans. Rootless males are prevalent among poor whites, Hispanics and American Indians. (See my post about Jesse Lee Herald, a 27-year-old white man in Shenandoah County who had fathered seven children by six different women.)

This is one of the great untold stories of the United States today. But because of our politically blinkered thinking, we cannot see it.

Elite Universities and Socioeconomic Diversity


Over on Cranky’s Blog, it appears that John Butcher, like me, has little better to do this Memorial Day weekend than to ruminate upon the implications of a recent New York Times op-ed piece written by columnist David Leonhardt. Lamenting the paucity of smart kids from poor schools admitted to the nation’s elite universities, Leonhardt attributes much of the decline to cuts in state support, which forces universities to raise tuition, which in turn makes makes it harder for poor kids to attend. (I previously addressed Leonhardt’s column here.)

Leonhardt believes that the decline of poor kids in elite schools represents a closing off of the nation’s meritocracy. But an alternative way of looking at the picture is that elite schools admit the smartest kids, and that the smartest kids (as defined by SAT scores, which predicts academic success in a higher-education context) tend to be found among poor households in significantly smaller numbers. There is a social problem, but it isn’t elite university admission policies. The question isn’t why elite universities are failing poor kids. It’s why K-12 systems are failing them.

In his op-ed, Leonhardt presents a chart that shows the percentage of Pell Grant students at 20 elite public universities. The University of of Virginia and Virginia Tech are second and third lowest.

Cranky responds to these data points this way: “Those low numbers are not a problem unless one thinks that these schools should dilute their brands by admitting less qualified students.”

That is a tremendously important point. Read Cranky’s post to follow his logic and view the data supporting it. In the end, he concludes that a much more interesting question than Leonhardt’s is why poor kids graduate from college at much lower rates. And that brings us to the dismal quality of academic preparation offered by many high schools, as evidence by an article in today’s Washington Post profiling a Washington, D.C., public high school, Ballou High School.

Teacher turnover in schools serving lower-income populations — 25% at Ballou this year — is a perennial scourge. At Ballou, departing teachers cited frustration with large classes of students who were far behind academically, lacked the foundation to be successful, and often disrupted class. School administrators provided little backup to enforce order. As full-time teachers dropped out, temps and substitutes filled in. Instruction became disjointed and incomplete. Even motivated students suffered.

“Students simply roam the halls because they know that there is no one present in their assigned classroom to provide them with an education,” wrote a music teacher. “Many of them have simply lost hope.”

The Post described the situation of 11th-grader Dwight Harris:

 Harris said that since his teacher left, he hasn’t learned much in algebra. Substitutes have told him and his classmates to fill out worksheets, he said, which they answer by Googling the problems.

Many times, Harris said, he stays in the room for 10 minutes, long enough for the sub to mark him present. “I have no idea what my grade is right now,” he said, “but I think I’ll pass the class.”

Admittedly, Ballou is an extreme example of dysfunction, severe even by inner city standards. But problems like social promotion, disruptive students, disorderly classrooms, demoralized teachers, and excessive reliance upon temporary and substitute teachers are endemic. Students may be natively intelligent but it is a stretch to think that someone like Dwight Harris, no matter how bright and motivated, can graduate from such an environment as academically prepared as his peers at functional high schools.

Virginia high schools are graduating a higher percentage of students than ever. Consequently, a higher percentage of young Virginians, especially from poor households, are looking at college as the next step in their career progression. But are they academically prepared for college-level work? I’m persuaded that many are not.

To circle back to Cranky’s point, UVa could compromise its admission standards in order to appeal to the egalitarian sensitivities of David Leonhardt. But would that be a good idea?

At present, lower-income kids at the University of Virginia graduate at almost the same rate as rich kids, as can be seen in the graph at the top of the post. (The gap is wider at Virginia Tech, comparable to that of Virginia four-year institutions as a whole.) In other words, poor kids who gain admission to UVa deserve to be there. They are not displacing other students who could benefit more from a UVa education.

What if UVa began relaxing standards to admit more poor students? Would the poor students wind up better off than if they had attended a different university for which they were academically prepared? Or would they drop out at higher percentages after taking out big loans and saddling themselves with debt? Even from the perspective of the poor kids — to say nothing of kids who would be displaced — it could well be counter-productive to ask UVa or other elite universities to compromise their standards.

The problems of poor kids can be traced back to high school, and from high school back to middle and elementary schools, and from there to poverty-ridden environments at home. That’s the real issue, not a lack of socioeconomic diversity at elite institutions.

How Do We Respond to Declining Economic Diversity in Elite Universities?

Writing in the New York Times earlier this week, columnist David Leonhardt expresses his dismay at the decline in state funding for higher education, the resulting surge in tuition, and the slide in economic diversity at the nation’s top public universities. “The declines in state funding are stunning,” he says. “It’s as if our society were deliberately trying to restrict opportunities and worsen income inequality.”

Source: New York Times. Click for legible image.

Judging by the data he presents, Virginia is no exception to the rule. A chart showing twenty “top public universities” includes the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. They are second and third from the bottom ranked by the percentage of Pell Grant recipients. (Federal Pell Grants go to students from lower-income families.) Leonardt’s op-ed also displays graphics showing state funding cuts for higher education since 2008. While Virginia isn’t among the worst of the bunch, it’s isn’t one of the better ones either.

“The net result, to put it bluntly, is bad for the country,” says Leonhardt. “Top state universities are displacing impressive low-income students, who have often overcome troubled neighborhoods and high schools. Many of those students then enroll instead in colleges with fewer resources and higher dropout rates. In the process, the higher-education system becomes a bit less meritocratic.”

Bacon’s bottom line. Leonhardt’s op-ed casts the local higher-ed issues that we’ve been examining here in Bacon’s Rebellion in a national light. Misery loves company. I suppose it’s some comfort to know that what we’re experiencing here in Virginia is part of a national trend, not something uniquely perverse to the Old Dominion.

Why would this trend be national in scope? Clearly, the slashing of state aid to higher ed must be viewed in the context of stagnant state budget revenues nationally, caused primarily slow economic growth, and by the crowding out of state General Funds by Medicaid expenditures. State legislatures find it easier to cut higher-ed spending because colleges and universities — unlike, say, public schools, prisons and state police — have the means to make up the difference by raising tution.

Unless President Trump’s economic policies usher in a new era of growth and prosperity (I’ll let you judge the likelihood of that happening), state budgets will remain chronically stressed. As the population ages, Medicaid expenditures will continue to increase. As Baby Boomer teachers, policemen, and state employees retire en mass, many states will meet a fiscal reckoning in the not-too-distant future as the reality of massively under-funded pension liabilities hits home.

In other words, states’ cruel fiscal choices will not get any easier. State legislatures will continue to nibble away, year by year, at the amount of state support they provide public colleges and universities.

“This country should … be investing more of its resources in education,” writes Leonhardt.

Spending more money is always the answer for some people. Given that such people never advocating spending less on anything, that choice leads ineluctably to higher taxes. Great — educate the middle class. Then run it off with higher taxes.

Here in Virginia and across the nation, we need to challenge conventional thinking about how to provide citizens with the knowledge and skills they need to function in a 21st century society. Perhaps we should re-examine the assumption that a four-year college education is the best path of upward social mobility for lower-income people. So many jobs today require technical training, not a college education. Should lower-income students be encouraged to drop out of the labor market for four years, and rack up debt in the process, in order to enter a four-year institution that the odds say are 50/50 they will never complete?

Instead of spending more on higher education — we spend plenty already — perhaps we should be spending money differently.

Hat tip: Steve Haner.

How to Dismantle the Poverty-Industrial Complex

Marland Buckner

Marland Buckner

Richmond’s new mayor is young, energetic and bursting with ideas. At 36 years old, the James Madison University-educated Levar Stoney represents a new generation of African-American political leadership. He has one foot in the minority community and one in the creative class. His top priority to date has been to restore competence to a city administration plagued by corruption and ineptitude. Now there are signs that he may entertain refreshing ways of thinking about how to deal with poverty.

The traditional Democrat Party urban machine approach has been to spend more money on all manner of government “programs” and “urban renewal” projects that over the years have done little to reverse the scourge of inter-generational poverty and despair. Judging by an op-ed in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch by Marland Buckner, who served on Stoney’s transition team, City Hall may be open to rethinking that paradigm.

Buckner, co-founder of MB² Solutions, a public policy strategy firm, writes of a “poverty-industrial complex” that encompasses the public housing sector, public schools, and the criminal justice system. It’s not clear exactly how he thinks these institutions have failed the poor, but he advocates four strategies that can help dismantle it.

Evidence-based decision-making. “Evidence-based decision-making,” writes Buckner, “means embracing the tough, costly work associated with evaluating city programs. This is turn requires technology tools and training to ensure that city employees can generate actionable intelligence for decision makers.” Unfortunately, he adds, the city administration is equipped with “technology firmly planted in the 20th century.”

Anti-poverty market research. “Businesses rarely succeed by failing to pay attention to customers,” Buckner says. “The same holds true in anti-poverty policy making. When well-intended programs are built without sufficient attention to what people seeking to lift themselves from poverty actually need, results fall short and disappointment abounds.”

Regional anti-poverty commitments. The Richmond region should pursue anti-poverty programs on a regional basis.

Impact investing. “We cannot tax, spend, or cut our way to helping households achieve self-sufficiency.” Tackling poverty, Buckner says, “demands policy innovation beyond simply asking, “which taxes do we raise or what services must be cut?” He sees impact investing as an alternative — using private dollars to fund social programs that, if successful, create economic value.

The idea of impact investing is appealing, but I would like to see more concrete examples. The only ones that come immediately to mind are not terribly encouraging, such as the privatization of public housing projects by non-profit entities. Still, Buckner is thinking differently, rather than wedding himself to a failed status quo.

Of the four strategies, evidence-based decision-making strikes me as the most important. A couple of weeks ago, I highlighted an example of how the Richmond city jail is using social-scientific analysis to guide its implementation of programs to reduce recidivism. If Stoney accomplishes just two things — restoring competent financial management to city government and instituting evidence-based decision-making — his tenure will be a success. Hopefully, Marland Buckner still has the mayor’s ear.

Running in Neutral: a K-12 and Higher Ed Scandal

If a student hasn’t graduated from college within six years, the odds of completing a degree are extremely low.

In this month’s issue of Atlantic, Nick Ehrmann writes a perceptive article, “Solving the Mystery of Underachievement: Why work hard enough to earn an A when a D will suffice for college admission?” He tells the story of an intelligent African-American lad who was groomed to attend college — and ended up dropping out after the first semester. The article goes to the heart of one of the most pressing issues in American higher education today: the high rate of college drop-outs.

Literally millions of young Americans, disproportionately minorities, borrow money, attend a few semesters, and then drop out, never acquiring the college credential that will allow them to pay off their debt. A primary goal of Virginia higher education policy today is to reduce the number of these college drop-outs, who are all-too-prevalent in the state, as elsewhere in the country. The “retention” rate is a key metric used to measure the performance of Virginia’s public colleges and universities. (See the chart above.)

In my commentaries on the subject, I have assumed that dropping out of college could be explained by one of two factors: (1) poverty, or (2) lack of academic preparedness. True enough, poor kids can qualify for tens of thousands of dollars in Pell grants, federal loans and institutional financial aid. But that assistance rarely covers all costs, and students from lower-income families typically have to work part-time jobs, or even drop out for a semester or two to find the extra money. Once a student drops out, he or she is at higher risk of never re-enrolling. The other problem is that lower-income kids tend to come from lower-income neighborhoods, which tend to have poorer schools. The inadequate academic preparation makes it difficult to keep up with college-level work. Discouraged and demoralized, students question what they’re doing in college at all.

Ehrmann’s article suggests a third reason why kids drop out of college — the phenomenon of “running in neutral.” The article, I believe, is so important that I will summarize its contents in detail, highlighting what I deem to be key insights. But don’t settle for the Bacon’s Digest version — read the full essay yourself.

Enrollment in higher education is reaching record-high levels, just a hair below 70% of all high school graduates. But being “eligible” for higher education does not mean that students are academically prepared, writes Ehrmann. He knows from first-hand experience teaching kids in Washington, D.C. He mentored one young man, Travis Hill, who showed flashes of brilliance, and kept tabs on him through the years.

In the fifth grade, Travis was admitted into a scholarship program through the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, which guaranteed that any participating student who graduated from high school would receive a college scholarship. The idea was that removing financial obstacles to college enrollment would encourage students to achieve. “Travis, like many of his classmates,” writes Ehrmann, believed there was ‘no doubt’ he would graduate from high school and enroll in college. He did graduate, and he did enroll in Lincoln University, a historically black university in Pennsylvania. But he dropped out after a semester. Why?

In Ehrmann’s view, there are two schools of thought. One is the “culture of poverty” theory in which “low-effort syndrome” or cultural adaptations like a prejudice against “acting white” prevent young people from living up to their potential. The other is the “structural barriers” theory that emphasizes how poverty, institutional racism, segregation and lack of adequate health care stack the deck against poor, minority students.

Writes Ehrmann:

The problem is that neither story is completely right. Over the course of a decade … I witnessed a significant number of students develop a sophisticated logic of underachievement that challenged the popular accounts for how inequality in higher education is created and sustained. For many students, their pursuit of long-term educational success was grounded and strategic. Educated in environments that measured academic success primarily by enrolling in college — not necessarily graduating with a degree — they developed strategies to achieve that goal with minimal effort in school.

Travis made no effort to make As and Bs. To the contrary, he skated by with the minimum passing grades. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I work hard when I want to work hard, and that’s what a lot of people can’t do. Some people might not look at it as a skill, but to me it’s a skill.”

That message was inadvertently reinforced from other directions. During his freshman and sophomore years on overnight campus trips sponsored by his high school’s college-placement office, Travis learned that “a couple hundred” colleges and universities across the United States would offer him admission. “Everyone was telling me I could get into college with my grades,” he confided. “I don’t remember exactly how or when I heard it, but that message was seeping into my brain. If I got straight Cs, admissions would be a breeze.”

Every marking period, Travis let his grades slip, When midterm grades were sent home, his grades were typically Cs, Ds and Fs. His mother and stepfather got on his case, and he promised to get his act together. In the final weeks of the term, he approached his teachers one by one and exhibited greater effort in class. His strategem: “Just go to the teacher and act like you care.” Continue reading