Poverty, Government, and the Bourgeois Virtues

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. Photo credit: Richmond Magazine

Unwinding historical injustices that trap African-Americans in inter-generational poverty is “the moral challenge of our time,” Mayor Levar Stoney told attendees of at an anti-poverty conclave at Virginia Union University Tuesday. Policy decisions that hurt the poor “have done more to hold the flesh and blood of our city back … than any bronze and granite has,” he said in an apparent reference to the city’s Civil War statues.

Stoney was right to re-focus the public discourse from removing statues of Confederate generals to fighting the scourge of poverty. But his lofty rhetoric raises new causes for concern. Embedded in his speech is the assumption that government can set things straight. In effect he’s saying, “The social engineers got it wrong when they created the housing projects. But trust me, this time we’ll get it right.”

Promising a “bold and courageous” budget in the future, Stoney spoke of the need to “consider some of our critical needs in housing, in public education and in poverty mitigation.” Better Housing Coalition CEO Greta Harris, co-organizer of the summit, took the opportunity to say that a “dedicated funding stream” is needed to create affordable housing opportunities and redevelop aging public housing projects.

When someone talks about addressing “critical needs” and “dedicated funding streams,” I hear “raising taxes.” When the Richmond Times-Dispatch brought up the tax issue, the mayor responded: “I’m not prepared to today to talk about any specific tax.”

I don’t want to pre-judge what Stoney has in mind, but when you’re mayor of a city, you’re likely to look to government to fix poverty. And when you run a better housing coalition, you’re likely to tout a housing program as a response to poverty. In either case, you’re likely to conflate the amelioration of the material effects of poverty with the vanquishing of poverty itself. While government anti-poverty programs do, in fact, provide shelter, food, and medical care to the poor, they do little to elevate the poor from their condition.

J.B. Bryan. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

What poor Richmonders need is more J.B. Bryan, not more government.

“I don’t want to hear stupid crap about government programs and how the city of Richmond needs to give more subsidies,” Bryan told the T-D in a Saturday profile unrelated to the housing summit. “Real wealth opportunities are to build up the disadvantaged, not tear down our examples of success.”

Bryan’s purpose in life is to put people on a path to financial stability and wealth building. As the founder of JB Bryan Financial Group Inc., the only black-owned investment advisory firm in Richmond, she preaches what she calls AfroEconomics.

She preaches self-reliance and responsibility, not dependency. She pushes for investing over spending, the importance of financial planning and having good tax strategies in place.

She talks about the damaging effects of materialism and how people can build or repair their credit, get better jobs and, most importantly, she encourages entrepreneurship and the value of sacrifices needed to run a business.

“I am on a mission to make sure anyone who crosses my path is not broke,” Bryan said. “Success is on your balance sheet, it’s not on your back — on what you wear or what you drive.”

AfroEconomics is not about division, she said. “It stands for building a better tomorrow for everyone.”

In addition to investment advice, one might say that Bryan preaches the unfashionable “bourgeois” virtues such as hard work, thrift, and saving — values that helped generations of Americans bootstrap themselves out of poverty but now are criticized in progressive circles as an ideology of oppression.

The progressive intelligensia makes much of the wealth gap between blacks and whites. “White households in the middle-income quintile … own nearly eight times as much wealth … as middle-income Black earners,” says a recent study, “The Ever-Growing Gap: Without Change, African American and Latino Families Won’t Match White Wealth for Centuries.” And the wealth gap is getting worse. By 2024, the report says, black and Latino households are projected to own less wealth, and if trends continue black wealth will hit zero by 2053.

Somehow, blacks managed to accumulate property and modest wealth (modest by white standards) during the era of Jim Crow segregation and rampant racial discrimination, but now, after a half century of civil rights and welfare statism, they’re seeing their wealth evaporate. The usual response from the progressive camp is to double down on the theory that America is riddled with institutional racism. But, as I have documented on this blog, the decline in black wealth coincides with policies, enacted with the best of intentions, to promote black home ownership and college attendance. The bursting of the sub-prime bubble decimated black wealth after the real estate bubble, and student loans are  saddling a new generation of blacks with debt peonage.

Rising from poverty in Virginia starts with becoming employable. That doesn’t require earning a four-year degree at a residential college. It can mean learning a trade or earning a skill certification at a fraction of the investment in time and tuition. Beyond getting a good job, joining the middle class entails getting married and sharing in a two-income household, having no more children than you can afford, staying sober and drug-free, sticking with budgets, avoiding debt, living beneath your means, and regularly socking away small sums into savings.

This has nothing to do with race. This is a race-free formula. And the beauty of it is that it doesn’t require government. If government wants to help, it can provide good schools and community colleges, keep taxes low, and create a positive climate for job creation.

Richmond City Councilwoman Kimberly Gray. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Much to my delight, it appears that not everyone in Richmond’s African-American community shares an unwavering faith in the power of government to address poverty. City Councilwoman Kimberly Gray was one of those attending the housing summit where Stoney spoke.

Here’s what she told the T-D: “I think [a tax increase] is the easiest out for policymakers. … Ultimately, we need to find a way to sustain this, and we can’t continue to increase taxes because we get to a point of diminishing returns.”

I am pleased to hear such thinking from Gray. As her allusion to “diminishing returns” makes clear, tackling poverty is not just about the taxes, programs and good intentions. It’s about results.

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7 responses to “Poverty, Government, and the Bourgeois Virtues

  1. Love it! One of your best posts ever. People showing you don’t need the govt, cut out the bloodsuckers.

  2. Re: ” Here’s what she told the T-D: “I think [a tax increase] is the easiest out for policymakers. … Ultimately, we need to find a way to sustain this, and we can’t continue to increase taxes because we get to a point of diminishing returns.””

    Perhaps the folks at SLEV should hear this also?

    or perhaps those folks in SW Va that need “jobs” ?

    All major programs do evolve .. the projects were a mistake but so are wholly low income neighborhoods that lead to this:

    Report: Virginia’s high-poverty schools don’t have same opportunities for students

    http://www.fredericksburg.com/news/education/report-virginia-s-high-poverty-schools-don-t-have-same/article_8f165923-f535-5fcd-b02f-48e4bcd8bb7f.html

    is this a problem of mo money or taxation or an allocation and equity issue?

  3. here’s another view of joblessness and family dysfunction in Virginia.

    Question is … does the following also apply to other parts of Virginia:

    ” Rising from poverty in Virginia starts with becoming employable. That doesn’t require earning a four-year degree at a residential college. It can mean learning a trade or earning a skill certification at a fraction of the investment in time and tuition. Beyond getting a good job, joining the middle class entails getting married and sharing in a two-income household, having no more children than you can afford, staying sober and drug-free, sticking with budgets, avoiding debt, living beneath your means, and regularly socking away small sums into savings.

    This has nothing to do with race. This is a race-free formula. And the beauty of it is that it doesn’t require government. If government wants to help, it can provide good schools and community colleges, keep taxes low, and create a positive climate for job creation.”

    So.. should the govt go help those opioid folks or should they just suck it up and be more responsible for themselves and their families?

    serious question.

  4. One would think that if government could only do one thing, providing good education and availability and access to it would be the right choice.

    However, there is a cultural element. It has to be valued. At one time virtually every family held the education of their children as the primary goal and the importance of that was driven into the children.

    That apparently is no longer the case. I am aware of companies which offer free courses and education to employees obviously struggling with their K4-K7 reading competence (the national average?) and lower math skills with nearly guaranteed wage increases as a result of completion that fail from lack of attendance. The least likely to attend – low-wage African Americans and the most illiterate.

    African Americans tell me they are mocked for working. Going to school is “Uncle Tom” yada, yada. Certainly, their experience with the awful state of discipline, facilities, and teaching competence contributes to this narrative. But the results of an effective fix would be disappointing without reversing this cultural disaffection with education.

    To the extent this is true people like Bryan will be the true successors to Martin Luther King and the vision of all achieving “the American Dream”.

    Thank you for bringing her to this BLOG.

  5. This really is a separate BLOG item but
    Serious question

    What can government or anyone else do about the opiod crisis other than what Trump has been doing recently using the bully pulpit to shame or frighten doctors who are shamefully over-prescribing and insurance companies who refuse more expensive, non-addictive drugs in favor of cheaper opiods?

    But why stop with opiods? Meth is ripping up middle America.

    People seem determined to do this and no government program appears capable of stopping or even stemming it. Perhaps this again would be best addressed not by government but in homes, churches, and whatever other avenues are the fabric of people’s culture, values, and internal governors.

    What is your solution?

  6. I wish I knew the solution to the opioid crisis. It’s terrifying.

  7. Very interesting. With half of American households lacking any retirement savings, watch the poverty class grow exponentially in the next 20 years, independent of race. Those “bourgeois values” are rather useful, in practice.

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