Richmond Tackles Poverty with a Two-Generation Lens

By Jodie Levin-Epstein and Lauren French

Dwight C. Jones, mayor of Richmond, Virginia, is facing a $20 million dollar budget gap, but he believes that gap is no excuse to avoid working to address a pressing problem: the city’s poverty. Richmond is part of a vanguard of cities, including New York and Philadelphia, which are assessing the scope of the issue and identifying steps to take, even in the face of tight city budgets. While state governments have received attention for seeking solutions to poverty, less attention has been paid to those efforts being made at the city level. In Richmond, the city plans to apply a two-generation lens to addressing poverty in the coming years.

Mayor Jones’ fight against poverty began in 2011 when he established the Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission. Made up of local community leaders, clergy, and academics, the Commission’s task was to conduct analysis on the causes of high poverty in the city and make recommendations for comprehensive policy solutions. The Commission released a final report in January 2013 and called for the next step to be the development of an action plan that would translate the recommendations into a three year strategy in each area. The Commission, now called the Maggie L. Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Fighting Poverty, has finalized the action plan and recently submitted it to the Mayor. Before Mayor Jones got to see it, however, a Citizens’ Advisory Board tasked with holding the city government accountable for the report’s implementation reviewed the plan. One half of the Board’s membership consists of people living at or near poverty, in an effort to assure that the voices of low-income residents were being heard and incorporated.

“In Richmond, we are moving on two tracks,” explained Thad Williamson, associate professor at the University of Richmond and co-chair of the Initiative. “One is to demonstrably lift families out of poverty; the other is to achieve structural changes in our systems including transportation, housing, and education. The tracks work in tandem to build genuine ladders to economic security.”

To lift families out of poverty, “the leading wedge” of the Walker Initiative is workforce development. At a January 22, 2014 meeting, Jones and his team received a workforce development action plan that goes beyond the traditional help of just finding a job.  Instead, it is guided by the idea that “Just getting residents a job will not succeed if attention is not paid to the total picture, including housing, child care, transportation, and youth development needs.”  Further, “this approach treats the family as the unit of analysis.”  The total picture builds upon traditional workforce development agency help in finding a job with action around such family needs  as child carea  two generation approach. These workforce development tasks are assigned to the city’s Center for Workforce Innovation (CWI). 

Among the structural changes that will get early attention are increased capacities to tackle adolescent transition. Strategies recommended by the action plan include a number of supports: middle school wrap-around services, as well as year-round academic support; a youth worker professional development institute; and the expansion of an existing Mayor’s Youth Academy so it can serve younger children and operate year round.

Mayor Jones has reiterated his commitment to moving forward with the Initiative, and the importance of incremental change, even with a $20 million budget gap. “It’s like a rolling snowball,” he explained. “We’ll pick up momentum as the ball goes down the hill. It didn’t happen overnight, it’s not going to change overnight.”