Buckner: Tear down Richmond's poverty-industrial complex (Richmond Times Dispatch)

By Marland Buckner

The Richmond City Council’s recent budget deliberations showcase the urgent need for new approaches to the greatest threat to a thriving Richmond: poverty.

We know the problems well: distressed public housing; educators struggling to teach the 40 percent of Richmond children living in poverty; a legacy of School Board/city administration collaboration that would be comical were the results not so tragic; a justice system that incents recidivism, not reformation.

These problems form the foundation of Richmond’s poverty-industrial complex.

Fortunately, Richmond has the assets necessary to confront this threat: motivated colleges, universities, and hospital systems; engaged businesses and philanthropists; non-profits populated by relentless anti-poverty warriors; and a results-focused mayor whose Education Compact and Office of Community Wealth Building (OCWB) are aggressively pursuing the integration of city services to support households seeking self-sufficiency.

During recent budget deliberations the City Council debated, though thankfully did not pass, significant cuts to the OCWB to fund increased police and firefighter salaries. The council’s unwillingness to consider new revenues sufficient to meet both needs created an absurd choice between funding salaries of OCWB caseworkers — those tasked with supporting citizens seeking pathways out of poverty — or raising the pay of those who respond to circumstances poverty often creates.

Such unnecessary tradeoffs do nothing to dismantle our poverty-industrial complex. Here, however, are four steps that can.

(1) Embrace data-informed, evidence-based decision making.

Evidence-based decision-making means embracing the tough, costly work associated with evaluating city programs. This in turn requires technology tools and training to ensure that city employees can generate actionable intelligence for decision makers. But a legacy of either willful ignorance or staggering incompetence has left our new administration with technology firmly planted in the 20th Century. The council should work with the mayor’s office to attract national resources like Bloomberg Philanthropies’ ”What Works Cities” initiative and others to tackle this urgent problem.

(2) Conduct anti-poverty market research.

Businesses rarely succeed by failing to pay attention to customers. 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.

Fortunately, the OCWB, led by Reginald Gordon, is taking a different approach. Gordon argues that good policy requires listening to and understanding the actual barriers faced by people for whom the policy is designed. The City Council should partner with the OCWB and develop policies designed to remove such barriers.

(3) Pursue regional anti-poverty commitments.

The rapid rise of poverty in neighboring jurisdictions over the last decade makes regional cooperation particularly urgent. Regional leaders should agree to annual numeric anti-poverty targets, and they should create integrated support systems to share data and allocate resources more efficiently.

This would discourage adoption of “zero-sum game” policies where one jurisdiction’s numbers improve at the expense of others’. Some of our most effective non-profits already work effectively across jurisdictions; why not our elected officials?

(4) Make Richmond a model city for impact investing.

We cannot tax, spend, or cut our way to helping households achieve self-sufficiency. Paying for the steps outlined above demands policy innovation beyond simply asking, “which taxes do we raise or what services must be cut?” One such innovation is called impact investing.

Impact investments seek to generate financial returns by solving social problems. This approach has been adopted by philanthropy, businesses, and governments globally including by Virginia Community Capital, our best-in-class Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). Banks such as U.S. Trust and Goldman Sachs are creating structures to leverage billions of private dollars to support these efforts.

Sometimes called “social impact bonds,” or “pay for success” contracts, impact investments use private dollars to fund social programs that, if successful, create economic value. This shifts costs from the public to the private sector, freeing up dollars for other public sector uses. Leveraging the Virginia Impact Investing Forum and Richmond’s top-tier financial services talent, our elected leaders should strive to make Richmond a model city for impact investing.

When it comes to fighting poverty, there is nothing wrong with Richmond that cannot be fixed by what is right with Richmond.

By thinking more creatively, acting far more collaboratively, and executing decisively, we can tear down Richmond’s poverty-industrial complex and help all our citizens thrive.

Marland Buckner is co-founder & principal of MB2 Solutions, a Richmond-based public policy strategy firm with offices in Washington, D.C. He previously served on Mayor Stoney’s transition team. The views expressed here are entirely his own. He can be reached at mbuckner@mbsq.net.