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.

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5 responses to “How to Dismantle the Poverty-Industrial Complex

  1. Yes, refreshing. However, a tough row to hoe.

    Evidence based decision making. Translation – gut the information technology backbone in Richmond and replace with competent systems that collect and protect data in a logical accessible way. Then, provide the analytical tools required to make some sense of that data. Then, act according to the data. The issue is that could take years and hundreds of millions of dollars. While this would be a huge step forward members of the political opposition will undoubtedly complain about all that spending on “fancy new computers” instead of … (insert per project here).

    Anti-poverty marketing research. This is the weakest of the four planks. Marketing is usually undertaken by corporations to convince customers to adopt their product or service instead of the competition’s. Given the coercive monopoly that gub’mint holds over the people this is largely unnecessary. However, if the point was market research (instead of marketing research) it might have some merit. I am always amazed at how myopic Virginia’s elected officials can be. They rarely seem interested in what others have tried and what has worked and what has not. Finding examples of people who have risen out of poverty and understanding why that happened is very useful.

    Regional anti-poverty commitments. Absolutely. One size never fits all. In this case I assume Mr. Buckner is speaking for the Richmond region rather than presaging what the new mayor will do. The mayor has a geographically contained problem. I doubt he needs to divide the City of Richmond into geographic regions although … that is largely what Anthony Williams did to spark the renaissance of Washington, DC.

    Impact investing. I am dubious. Gub’mint seems to always lose when it comes to those “special side deals” it does with business. How is the Redskins summer practice idea going? The better answer might be to spend gub’mint money but spend it wisely. Better mass transit, better airports, even … yes, sports centers can make a big difference if done properly.

    Here are two more ideas:

    Involve outsiders. Let’s face it – from 1970 onwards Richmond has dramatically underperformed other southern cities like Nashville, Austin and Charlotte. Convene a board of advisors with people who have successfully built cities from sleepy to powerhouse. Find Anthony Williams. Get his advice.

    Annexation. At 62.5 sq mi of land the City of Richmond is too small. Kick The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond in the ass. It’s time they ended their “temporary” 30 years and counting study project on annexation. Annexation is a logical process for all concerned. The city expands where the population density indicates an urban environment exists. The county doesn’t have to live in the netherworld of sort of, kind of urban, sort of kind of suburban and (in some cases) sort of, kind of rural.

    • However, if the point was market research (instead of marketing research) it might have some merit.

      In fact, Buckner used the term “market” research, not “marketing” research. That was my mis-statement. I have corrected the text accordingly.

  2. As usual.. the narrative is screwed up…

    First we’ll tackle the right wing trope always trotted out:

    ” 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.”

    Below is a list of Republican Mayors… show me something “better” from them that demonstrates that the GOP knows how to do it better or control the blathering better:

    Will Sessions Virginia Beach, VA 452,745
    Tomás Regalado Miami, FL 441,003
    Richard J. Berry Albuquerque, NM 559,121
    Mick Cornett Oklahoma City, OK 631,346
    Lenny Curry Jacksonville, FL 868,031
    Lee Brand Fresno, CA 520,052
    Kevin Faulconer San Diego, CA 1,394,928
    John Suthers Colorado Springs, CO 456,568
    John Giles[2] Mesa, AZ 471,825
    Jeff Longwell Wichita, KS 389,965
    Jean Stothert Omaha, NE 443,885
    G. T. Bynum Tulsa, OK 403,505
    Betsy Price Fort Worth, TX 833,319

    I’d be THRILLED to hear the better plan from the GOP instead of these childish excuses about how the other guys do it wrong and we’d do it better.

    show me some beef! Surely out of the thousands of places there are a GOP “solution” that we’d advocated for – to replace those terrible Dem solutions, eh?

    Second – This may be a nice guy but he’s saying words that are long on generalities and short to non-extent on how progress would be measured.

    Just to be clear – a LOT of the anti-poverty programs ARE regional … actually State and Federal so which ones is he talking about that are not regional and need to be?

  3. re: ” that over the years have done little to reverse the scourge of inter-generational poverty and despair. ”

    that’s a patently false statement. There are more than a few who believe that without the entitlement supports we DO have that the generational poor in this country would end up like the poverty-stricken in 3rd world countries – even developing countries where there are entire sections of city that are slums inhabited by people whose kids get no education and the kids beg on the streets for food and money.

    the position of Conservatives like Bacon on this issue seems to be that ALL the generational poverty across this country is the result of failed “liberal” policies even though there are States and Cities that are run by Conservatives. Ditto with the “failed” schools – i.e. they are all run by “liberals” – all of them apparently.

    And that nowhere in the entire country is their Conservative leadership that could implement their “better” ideas on generational poverty and failed schools.

    The problem is – you almost never hear of their “plan” other than to cut the entitlements because obviously they’re “not working”… beyond that … what?

    schools? yep.. bad teachers and bad parents … bad public schools.. send those kids to de-facto private schools with no standards and no accountability.. that will “fix” the problem because in reality the problem is that public schools dO have standards and are forced to report results ..so the solution is to have schools that don’t have to report results. Bingo – the problem goes away! And in fact, this fix is apparently supported by Conservatives who want schools left to the localities to decide what to teach… and oh by the way – get rid of those dang high stakes tests also!

    First we have inner city generational poor… now we have rural and factory-closed towns and counties with generational poor.

    it’s the fault of “liberals”.. make no mistake! Conservatives KNOW in order to help these folks who need to cut Medical and Education because obviously it’s “not” working!

  4. Any organization tends, over time, to move much of its focus from solving or, at least, addressing its original mission and duties to preserving itself. Employees also tend to put effort at keeping their jobs and, indeed, growing them. This is, IMO, human nature.

    In the private sector, absent an impenetrable monopoly, market pressures tend to put limits on an entity’s ability to do this. Competition limits the ability of an organization to be inefficient. Real customer needs must be addressed effectively and efficiently. In the old Bell System days, every person reaching the executive director level received a company car. When I reached that level back in the early 1990s, the perk was gone. I bet now very few people at Verizon or AT&T get company cars.

    Right here at BR we often complain about the monopoly status of Dominion Energy and how that makes it expensive and inefficient. Competition limits the ability of an organization to engage in inefficient self preservation.

    But few government agencies are subject to any competition. They tend to engage in self-preservation and job protection. Fairfax County has, for example, increased class sizes many times while preserving separate IT and HR departments for public schools and county departments. The Schools have tolerated principals who make offers to prospective teachers months after nearby school districts.

    Of course, the sizable social services bureaucracy needs social problems and “victims” to keep their jobs. Do they purposely screw up? Probably not. But would they fight alternative solutions to reduce their caseloads? Most likely yes.

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