Spotlight Exclusives

Restructuring Municipal Budgets to Fight Poverty

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In Richmond, Virginia, we are witnessing a troubling trend. Over one in four residents live in poverty, and many more live just above the poverty line or are at risk of falling into poverty. In response to this community crisis, I appointed an Anti-Poverty Commission to review this problem and offer recommendations.

What they came back with was inspiring. We found that we can make a measurable impact if we focus our anti-poverty strategies on upgrading our workers۪ skills, expanding employment opportunities, boosting academic achievement, and enhancing public housing. And we know that we can afford many of these initiatives, even in a time of fiscal stress, by leveraging outside funding, improving coordination, refocusing existing programs, and finding savings that reduce our residents۪ cost of living.

The Commission made clear that we can significantly reduce povertyfor example, permanently moving 5,000 adults into full-time employment could cut Richmond۪s poverty rate by over 20 percent. To achieve tangible progress, the Commission established five major recommendations:

•    Target workforce development strategies toward low-skilled and long-term unemployed and underemployed residents, which can be integrated with economic development strategies.

•    Recruit or develop one or more major employers capable of creating hundreds of jobs accessible to underemployed Richmond residents.

•    Create a regional transit system to make thousands more jobs accessible to metropolitan Richmond residents through effective public transportation that links the regional economy together.

•    Develop an effective educational pipeline that prepares Richmond Public Schools graduates for either college or the workforce.

•    Redevelop much of the city۪s public housing stock without involuntarily displacing residents, with the aim of improving the physical and social environment of public housing residents.

These recommendations will require substantial investments to implement, but the key is to do more with what we have. We believe that, if we can establish a focused strategy to guide the investment of these dollars, we can maximize the use of existing local, state, and federal  funds to fight poverty more effectively.

With this approach, we prepared our budget with an eye toward the things we could and would do to help mitigate poverty in our city, while also upholding our central responsibility to provide core municipal services.

One area ripe for reform was the Richmond water system. We are proposing to cut the base rate for these services to make them more affordable for our residents. We are also migrating to an approach that will help with our water conservation efforts.  Additionally, we are establishing a new assistance program that will help pay water and wastewater bills for qualified low-income households.

In transportation, we are working to develop a pilot program for van pooling, which will help transport our residents to jobs and address issues of inadequate transportation. Other efforts include augmenting funding to support health resource centers in our public housing complexes, as well as continuing on our trajectory to transform public housing models and deconcentrate poverty.

While we are doing what we can within the confines of our budget, the Anti-Poverty Commission rightly noted that the city government has limited resources and capacity.  This means that collaboration will be essential in our fight against poverty.

One example of this kind of collaboration is our new Adolescent Transition Initiative. Working together
with our school system and other community agencies, our goal is to launch a major community effort to strengthen support systems and opportunities for children ages 11-15 who are making the critical transition from middle childhood to the high school years. We want to reduce the number of children who are falling behind socially and academically. This initiative will connect teenagers to real-world experiences through extracurricular activities and mentoring relationships with trusted adults.

Another example is in the area of workforce development. We are preparing to fund a new pilot project through our existing Workforce Pipeline program. Through this pilot, we will combine the efforts of our workforce development program and the state Virginia Initiative for Employment, not Welfare (VIEW) job program, which serves Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients.  Our new, combined program will provide training for job readiness, focusing on jobs with sufficiently high wages to lift people out of poverty and promote economic stability.

These initiatives are just a precursor to programs we hope to invest in more heavily going forward. We intend to stay focused and to be held accountable to our citizens through the creation of a permanent Citizens Advisory Commission on Poverty Policy. By working together and being smart about finances, we can begin to move our city towards the path of economic prosperity.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Dwight C. Jones is the mayor of Richmond, Virginia.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

Click here to hear Mayor Jones and other local leaders discuss the subject of city task forces on poverty, part of Spotlight‘s Fall 2012 “Cities Promote Opportunity” audio conference series.

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