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RICHMOND, Va. — Those who arrive for the first time at the downtown workforce center usually do so in some stage of desperation. They show up expecting another orientation for another city program that will require a great deal of patience and a certain level of abasement.
Most come from the city’s north and south sides, from the east end and from the African American neighborhoods where poverty is concentrated in aging housing projects near rundown schools and where Victorian masterpieces await reclamation along streets punctuated by loitering men and gleeful children and small, proud homes. The job-seekers take the bus, which ferries them around the city more or less on time, but not into the counties where a majority of the jobs are.
The symbolism of the Center for Workforce Innovation’s buzzword name and its location are not obvious to those who walk through the doors for the first time. They come because they hear it’s a good place for job-seekers who have issues: criminal records, too little education, not enough skills. Nearly every job-seeker here could be counted among the roughly 27 percent of residents who live below the poverty line. Richmond’s poverty rate is more than double that of Virginia’s and much higher than that of the nation.
It is among the tasks of the center staff to convince these unemployed workers that, in fact, this program is not just another resume-burnishing, skills-certification jobs center in another city trying to get its people back to work. Its goal is to be the front line of a massive plan pushed by Mayor Dwight C. Jones to expand opportunity in a city with a long history of denying it to its poorest residents.
The former capital of the Confederacy began rolling out its first comprehensive antipoverty initiative this summer, and it calls upon the city to face squarely its history of racial and economic segregation. It is taking on the legacy of policies that throughout much of the 20th century systemically deprived African Americans access to the building blocks of prosperity: education, property and jobs. It is making plain the structural subtext of much of the recent public debate about race and opportunity, and who moves up the economic ladder and why.
“The first point in dealing with the city’s poverty is to acknowledge the truth that it exists,” Jones says. “Then we have to deal with the ramifications of that truth and find a strategy to change the history that we have in the city of Richmond.”
That history makes Richmond a city of paradox. Its mansion-lined grand parkway features a parade of towering monuments to Confederate leaders. Small groups of protesters wave Confederate battle flags on Saturday mornings outside the renowned Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, angry about the flag’s removal from a historic chapel.
But the city also boasts of its heritage as home to Maggie Lena Walker, an African American who became the first woman in the nation to charter a bank. The Jackson Ward neighborhood once was known as the Harlem of the South, and it bustled with middle- and upper-class African American prosperity. Richmond’s old downtown, once home to the nation’s second-largest slave-trading district, is surging with development.
The city two months ago opened its Office of Community Wealth Building, which will coordinate the initiative’s housing, education, transportation, economic development and jobs planks. It snagged as its first director Thad Williamson, a highly regarded University of Richmond associate professor of leadership studies who has been instrumental in shaping the effort.
Nothing about the Maggie L. Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Fighting Poverty is easy, Williamson says. It is, he says, “at the same time both intimately connected to Richmond’s history and a bold attempt to move beyond it.”
Jarrell Miller is aware of none of this when he walks in the front door of the workforce center in mid-August. What the 27-year-old knows is that hard times got harder and he needs a job. He arrives for a 9:30 a.m. orientation, just missing the prison inmates who come in from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. to prepare for their post-incarceration life.
Miller, a one-time high school linebacker, made the 2006 Army All-American Bowl team and played college football. Three years in, he was invited to try out with the Seattle Seahawks. But, he says, a drunk driver struck his car head on, ending that dream. He recently was laid off from his job patching roads and applied for food stamps. In exchange for $189 a month for groceries, he must keep looking for work.
“I have a lot of experience, a lot of skills, a lot of knowledge,” he says. “I want to enhance them. I want to make myself better.”
Miller arrives at the center dressed in gray pants, a black short-sleeve shirt and dress shoes, as though a job interview might happen any second. This does not escape the approving notice of Jamison Manion, the administrator in charge of the workforce center. A management and leadership consultant, Manion is blunt, funny and prone to long-windedness. He keeps a tile fresco of Don Quixote in his home office.
“You always hear how you have to meet people where they’re at,” Manion says. “I tend to think if you meet people where they are at, they’ll stay where they are. We need to build a bridge to where they need to be.”
This center is the hub of the Walker Initiative because it is the first place the administration thinks it can make a dent in the city’s poverty rate. Last month, the city had a 6.7 percent unemployment rate, again higher than the region. More than half of Richmond’s unemployed live below poverty level and nearly 40 percent of the poor who are 25 and older have less than a high school education.
The Jones administration started its pilot workforce program two years ago, and in November opened in the new building. The center provides job training and certificate programs, as well as a welding class, but it will soon begin providing each participant with a family caseworker to help with the housing, transportation and child care issues that often sabotage employment. It is also beginning the difficult work of aligning with social services, public housing, the school district, the technical school and the private sector to build a pipeline to jobs that pay at least $14.44 an hour. That’s more than Miller has ever earned.
He takes a seat in the front of the classroom where Manion gives what his staff calls the “rah-rah speech.” You are not my clients, Manion tells job-seekers. You are not my customers. I will not get you a job. “You’re going to get a job because you are the most qualified person for the job. You’re going to get a job because you deserve that job. You’re going to get a job because you earned that job.”
He tells them: “I will never believe what you say. I will only believe what you do.”
Twelve men and seven women sit before him. African Americans make up half the population in Richmond and almost 70 percent of those living in poverty. They are twice as likely as whites to live in poverty. This group is all African American and includes a 25-year-old Tanzanian refugee. He was working at a suburban hotel until his car broke down.
Including its pilot years, the center has served 779 people with various job-training and certificate programs. Some walked in one day and out the next, but still are included in the count. About half found work at average wages of about $8.50 an hour, Manion says. It’s fairly typical of workforce programs. But for a city where more than 50,000 people live in poverty, he is also fond of saying, “It’s like draining the ocean through a straw — when it’s raining.”
The eventual goal is to place at least 650 people a year in jobs that pay at least $14.44 an hour. It can be done, Manion insists. In time.
Richmond’s poverty rate is about 10 percent higher than the nation’s. The poverty rate among its children is 40 percent, and children now make up at least one-third of all those living in poverty.
The overall rate is slightly inflated by the subsistence living of college students, but Richmond’s poverty is otherwise a product of cumulative disinvestment. About 80 percent of the city’s poor live in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is at least 20 percent and more than half live in neighborhoods where the rate is at least 35 percent, Williamson says.
The unintended consequences of welfare programs, the lack of education, single-mother households, the decline of manufacturing and the rise of economic inequality all play a role as cause or symptom — or both — in the city’s poverty.
But to tackle the roots of this crisis, the mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission reported last year, Richmond must begin with the “ugly truth of history.”
The fact is, the commission said, Richmond’s poverty is the way it is, concentrated and generally isolated to its African American neighborhoods, largely because that’s how it was designed.
That acknowledgement is “absolutely unusual,” says Tracey Ross, a senior policy analyst for the progressive Center for American Progress. But, she says, it’s also necessary if the city has any hope of gaining trust and legitimacy in the communities it’s seeking to engage.
“Communities don’t forget,” she says. “Government seems to forget, but people don’t.”
The commission, which started its work in 2011, spoke directly to the memory. It outlined a long history of systemic denial of wealth and opportunity to its African American residents. Local residential segregation laws, state racial integrity laws and federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation ratings of neighborhoods, which led to red-lining and disinvestment in black neighborhoods nationwide, all played a role. Federal public housing projects, urban renewal, local zoning and the construction of a highway right through Jackson Ward created impoverished neighborhoods and then steered African Americans into them.
“Policies and programs that took out neighborhoods and forced poorer citizens into public housing are no longer in effect. Yet, the damage wrought by these programs remains visible today,” the commission report stated in a section by John Moeser, a professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University who has written extensively about this history.
Richmond is a city in the flush of reinvention. It is a college and government town finding its post-manufacturing identity in art and food, in young creatives and empty-nesters drawn to the splendor of the James River and the architectural beauty of its midtown neighborhoods. Its population topped 210,000 last year for the first time since 1986.
The mayor’s initiative asks a city moving forward again to ensure that its most impoverished neighborhoods are not left behind or swallowed by gentrification. It seeks the partnership of those same neighborhoods, which, for the reasons above, believe little of what comes from the mouths of government officials.
It requires the city to listen to its cut-off neighborhoods where children are born, raised and schooled in one long continuum of economic and academic deprivation – and then told that they have the same opportunities as everyone else.
“What’s happened in Richmond is systematic, as it was in most cities,” Jones says. “The highways, the schools, the public housing — all that stuff is the way people dealt with poverty. I think most cities know this, but I think our approach is more forthright. Poverty isn’t sexy. It doesn’t sell. When you have the tale of two cities, as most cities do, people don’t really see the poverty and they don’t really want to hear about it. It’s an uphill struggle.”
Earlier this year Jones, midway through his second term, asked for — and the council agreed to — a $3.4 million budget to begin breaking up pockets of poverty and expanding opportunity. Few of the individual steps are revolutionary, and some were adopted in other cities long ago. The difference is the explicit acknowledgment that just as the problems are intertwined, the solutions should be, too. This includes the eventual redevelopment of public housing to introduce a mix of incomes and expanding early childhood services to better prepare children for school. It is looking for a way to provide college scholarships to all Richmond Public School graduates, nearly all of whom are African American and who live in families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Richmond is looking at models adopted in cities such as Cleveland, where employee-owned cooperatives do business with city institutions – a Laundromat washing hospital linens, for example. It’s also seeding Bus Rapid Transit as way to more efficiently move people to work.
“There is a widespread understanding that a 27 percent poverty rate is a major drain on the city’s future,” Williamson says. He wrote the anti-poverty commission report and was co-chairman of the initiative’s small but exacting citizen’s advisory board, which is largely made up of those living in poverty. “There may be different levels of skepticism, but I think everyone gets it.”
Skepticism exists for good reason. Breaking up entrenched bureaucracies may be the least of the challenges. Education is the most reliable route out of poverty, and Richmond is hobbled by a struggling public school system largely abandoned by the white and black middle class. Virginia’s government structure makes it an independent city unable to share the regional resources of the wealthier counties. It cannot annex land. It cannot ferry its workers to jobs in the counties because the counties, citing expense, have consistently refused to allow the expansion of public transportation into their jurisdictions.
“Richmond can acknowledge its legacy, but affecting that legacy on its own is the harder thing to do,” says Alan Berube, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. “The surrounding counties had a role in enforcing that [racial and economic] structure.”
Williamson readily acknowledges all this.
“We can talk all day about the challenge,” he says. “But the number one challenge is not being overwhelmed by the scale so that we become paralyzed.”
At the workforce center orientation is a 46-year-old mother of two boys, ages 12 and 14. Patricia Brown was laid off from her last job working for a service that washed hotel linens. She recently reached the federally mandated five-year lifetime limit on public assistance. She says she’s still waiting for her ex to pay thousands of dollars in child support and has taken to selling plasma.
“This is probably the worst off I have been in my life,” Brown says.
She says she can’t speak to the city’s overall goal of reducing poverty except to say that there are hundreds like her, no longer eligible for welfare, poor with a job, poor without a job. Brown likes what she’s hearing from Manion, but, she says, repeating his words, it’s not enough just to say you’re going to do something. You have to do it. Words won’t feed her family.