"We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody," said Obama in his inaugural address on Martin Luther King’s holiday. The word "poverty" was scarcely uttered during the election. Candidates of both parties constantly claimed to be champions of the middle class, but few – if any – policies were suggested that might have an impact on America’s most intractable problem.
So the announcement last Friday by Richmond's Mayor Dwight Jones of a plan to battle poverty in his city could not be timelier. After nearly two years of work by several task forces, an anti-poverty commission has released its report. “This is the first time in the history of Richmond that a comprehensive effort to address poverty holistically has ever been done,” said Dr. John Moeser of the University of Richmond, in a front page story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Nearly 50 percent of the city’s population is classified as poor, near-poor or at risk of falling into poverty, according to the report. About 35 percent of Richmond households have an income below $25,000 a year. Much of the poverty is highly concentrated – the result of policies that resisted school desegregation, constructed a highway through the black business district, denied mortgages in certain neighborhoods, and crowded several public housing projects into one small area of the city.
A key recommendation of the report is investment in workforce development programs for low-skilled, unemployed and underemployed, and the recruiting one or more major employers capable of creating large numbers of jobs. Other priorities include a regional rapid-transit system to link the unemployed with jobs in the suburbs, and redevelopment of the city’s public housing without displacing residents.
Moeser comments, “It’s one thing to write a report. The hard work is accomplishing something.” Few people deserve more credit for generating public conversation about poverty than Moeser who has been an indefatigable educator and advocate for the cause. It was partly due to his urging that the mayor launched his anti-poverty commission at a Hope in the Cities forum in April 2011. In a blog last year I reported that Hope in the Cities and the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities had trained a team of volunteer facilitators to present a DVD featuring regional census data compiled by Moeser on “the new realities of race, class, and jurisdiction.” It shows the extent to which poverty has become a metropolitan-wide challenge.
Special kudos should go to Thad Williamson, also of the University of Richmond, who teaches leadership and philosophy, politics, economics and law. Williamson has conducted several public forums with Moeser. He played a central role in the work of the commission and was charged with drafting much of the report. Richmond owes a huge debt of gratitude to these two scholars.
Moving the commission’s recommendations from paper to reality will require sustained citizen engagement. Some of the proposals will require courageous political leadership. Voters must tell elected officials that they will support policies that make it possible for large numbers of people to break out of the poverty trap. As the Mayor told a Hope in the Cities forum of community activists and volunteers, “You will be the advocates for the ideas to become a reality.”
I hope that Obama will hold fast to his convictions that “Our journey is not complete until all children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, know they are cared for.” Will Richmond show how one community can make a start?