Policy blog

Poverty and Racism Series, Introduction

(posted November and December, 2017)

Addressing Poverty and Racism in Columbia

Over the next two months, I would like to engage as many of you as possible in a community dialogue on poverty and racism. This will take place through this newsletter, in your responses to me and our ongoing individual discussions, and during upcoming Constituent Conversations at Dunn Brothers Coffee.

According to recent census data, about one-quarter of all Columbia residents live below the federal poverty level ($24,600 annual income for a family of 4). Almost one-half of children attending Columbia Public Schools qualify for free or reduced lunch because they are food-insecure at home. And poverty is directly connected with numerous other social ailments such as low educational attainment, low earning potential, a lack of health insurance, poor physical and mental health, and feelings of hopelessness - in a self-reinforcing, multi-generational vicious cycle that undermines the fabric of our entire community. What can we do to break this cycle?

And, as terrible as poverty is, it's much more prevalent for some groups than for others. Whereas about 10% of White Americans live in poverty, the proportion is close to 30% for African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos/Latinas. Here, in Columbia, White unemployment is 4% whereas Black unemployment is 12% - down from about 16% a couple of years ago. Why is “race” such a significant predictor of poverty and statistics on other social issues such as crime and punishment? And what is “race,” anyway? And how about “racism?” And “White privilege?”

These are some of the questions I'd like to discuss with you, and I hope to hear your ideas, opinions, and suggestions for addressing poverty and racism in Columbia. These are vitally important issues for local government, as we strive to create an environment that supports a high quality of life for everyone in this community. In recent years, I have become aware of deeply entrenched inequality in our society, and entered a steep learning curve about these issues and ways to correct them.

During the course of my next three newsletters, I plan to share my thoughts on poverty and racism, provide links to online resources that go much deeper, and ask for your feedback. Here is my proposed schedule:

  • Sunday, November 19: Part 1 - The Poverty Trap
  • Sunday, December 3: Part 2 - A Brief History of Race
  • Sunday, December 17: Part 3 - Beloved Community

I am not an expert in social science - just a concerned member of society who happens to have the privilege of serving on City Council for a while - and so your input is critical. With that in mind, I'd like to kick-off each of these discussions with your responses to an open-ended question. So, to get us started, please send me your thoughts on the following question before November 19:

What do you believe are the causes of poverty?

Poverty and Racism Series, Part 1: The Poverty Trap

As mentioned in my most recent newsletter, I am facilitating a series of conversations, this month and next, on the difficult topics of poverty and racism. This is the first part of that series.

The Causes of Poverty

About one-quarter of all Columbia residents live below the federal poverty level and almost one-half of children attending Columbia Public Schools qualify for free or reduced lunch. Two weeks ago, I kicked off the conversations by asking you the following question:

What do you believe are the causes of poverty?

Thanks very much to those of you who responded - here's a selection of your unedited comments:

  • "poverty is caused/defined by lack of access to resources"
  • "lack of education and work skills"
  • "minimum wage is too low to anyone except a teenager interested pocket change"
  • "people who have children when they cannot afford to take care of themselves even"
  • "Most can be helped if they stop asking for a handout and start asking for work"
  • "My dad found a job that paid $2000 a year. He drove a high risk steel truck in the mountains. He had a second grade education and mom has a 3rd grade education. This is poverty."
  • "I have come to believe that the sole source of poverty is hopelessness."
  • "People who are poor are also subjected to psychological trauma, shame, and fear"
  • "Many of the following are interrelated:
    • Not finishing high school
    • Inadequate education
    • Lack of marketable skills
    • No role model or guidance
    • Lack of goals
    • Low wages
    • Poor transportation
    • Pregnancy before completing school
    • Inadequate housing
    • Inadequate health care
    • Racism
    • Unfair justice system
    • Limited work opportunities"

"The crime is real, the drugs is real, everything is wrong"

Before I offer my thoughts, I would like to give someone who lives in poverty the opportunity to speak. Angela Whitman, a resident of Quail Drive, Columbia, attended the September 18, 2017 City Council meeting and waited patiently until after midnight for the opportunity to address us during "Open Comments" at the end of the meeting. Please spend the next few minutes listening to what she had to say:


Angela lives in "one of the worst neighborhoods in Columbia, Missouri" where "the crime is real, the drugs is real, everything is wrong." She worked for Columbia Public Schools in the 1990s and raised her children in Columbia; she went away to Ferguson and, when she came back, she found that the only place she could afford to live was "in that poor community," with inadequate street lighting, an absence of sidewalks and parks, and nothing for the children to do. Angela went on to say, "We don't have to have a lot of crime - if those kids had something to do, we'd be better off," but "Somebody forgot about us."

I will return to the causes of poverty, shortly. But, first, I want to focus on Angela's suggestions/requests for changes that will improve the situation in her neighborhood - things like street lighting, sidewalks, parks, and something for the kids to do! I am pleased to report that the Department of Utilities immediately went out to Quail Drive and replaced the street lights with brighter LED bulbs, improving safety for Angela and her neighbors. And, as part of a "social equity" focus in our new Strategic Plan (adopted in 2015), we identified three neighborhoods of poverty and made adjustments to our budget priorities to improve City services and projects in those areas.

While these are still early days, the strategic focus on these neighborhoods seems to be working. Since early 2016, the Columbia Police Department has implemented a community-oriented policing pilot program in the three neighborhoods, meaning that specially-trained patrol officers have been given the time and resources to get to know and build trust with residents, business-owners, community leaders, and school-kids. In the first year of the program, the officers recorded about 6,000 positive interactions in the three neighborhoods and saw some remarkable declines in crime (shots fired down 38%, robbery down 53%, aggravated assault down 50%, and many others).

Other strategic neighborhood activities include community barbecues, installation of basketball hoops, and prioritization of infrastructure improvements such as sidewalks and parks in these areas. And the community engagement process that was used to identify these projects, has created opportunities for neighborhood leaders to be heard - these include Angela Whitman, who has been an energetic participant in the process even though Quail Drive lies outside these neighborhoods.

A Focus on Social Equity

My purpose in discussing the Strategic Plan is not to give the City a "pat on the back," but to encourage more of a focus on social equity as a strategy for addressing poverty. We seem to have a system in which poor families become concentrated in specific areas with few resources, and it is not surprising that this system leads to a reinforcing cycle of crime, hopelessness, and more poverty. We need to break this cycle and one strategy is to improve public services and infrastructure, exactly as Angela requested.

This still leaves the question about the causes of poverty unanswered - and in some ways, it may be unanswerable. Referring back to your comments at the start of this newsletter, just about everyone agrees that these social ailments - poverty, low educational attainment, low earning potential, a lack of health insurance, poor physical and mental health, feelings of hopelessness, criminal behavior, arrest and incarceration, exclusion from social services, more poverty - form numerous, intersecting and self-reinforcing vicious cycles. Once you slip into "the poverty trap," it's extremely hard to get out!

The fact that these vicious cycles trap people in poverty may give us a clue about the causes of poverty. We have a socio-economic system that reinforces success - those of us with the privilege of being born into economic security and receiving a quality education then go into well-paid careers, have good health care, live in more expensive neighborhoods, develop social networks with other well-off individuals, adopt similar political persuasions, and support public policies that reward success. At the same time, an opposite reinforcing spiral punishes failure - over and over again.

Maybe this is what Nelson Mandela meant when he said "Poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings."

"Poverty is not natural"

I tend to agree with Mr. Mandela.

The idea that poverty is natural and cannot be eradicated stems from a belief that certain individuals possess innate flaws that make it impossible for them to contribute positively to society. However, the vast majority of poor people are decent, hard-working, compassionate individuals with qualities and talents that could benefit us all. They endure unfortunate circumstances that are usually beyond their control, they don't have access to economic resources many of us take for granted, and they are doing the best they possibly can.

For example, people with physical or mental disabilities and the family members who care for them make up a large proportion of those living in poverty. And, among those who are able-bodied and working age, more than 50% have worked within the last year and more than 25% are working full-time, according to the Center for Poverty Research. The problem is not that people will not work - it's that they cannot work, they cannot find work, or they cannot find work that pays enough to get them out of poverty.

Poverty is like a vortex or whirlpool that tends to suck people down, making it almost impossible to escape. Millions of Americans are living on the edge of poverty so that one unfortunate event - someone loses their job, suffers an illness or injury without having health insurance, becomes a victim of crime - is all it takes to cause them to slip into that vicious cycle. The friends and family of poor people are other poor people, and so the economic gap widens.

I believe poverty is man-made in the sense that our public policies, social networks, and cultural beliefs have created this vicious cycle, and tend to reinforce it. Schools in poor communities are poorly funded because taxes are lower, so those children are less well educated; when poor families suffer an economic hardship, there's no-one in their social group who can help them out, as there is for a well-off family; myths about "Welfare Queens" and "the lazy poor" tend to harden public opinion against efforts to address the problem.

Poverty is a structural problem, and we can solve it by changing some of these structural components of our society.

Changing the Structure

The United States is consistently among the most generous nations in the world. In 2014, individual Americans donated about $250 billion to charities, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics.

But, while charities work tremendously hard to relieve the suffering of poverty, many of their actions amount to giving hand-outs that help people get through another day or another year, but do nothing to change the structures that generate and perpetuate poverty. In order to dismantle these structures and create an economic environment in which everyone can thrive, I believe we need systemic change, and that will require a national conversation and a deeper understanding of the ways public policy and social culture impact society.

This has been a long newsletter, so I will wrap up with a list of possible strategies and links to further resources:

Head Start: According to Darin Preis, Executive Director of Central Missouri Community Action, this federally-funded early childhood education program is starting to demonstrate success in breaking the cycle of generational poverty.

Health Care for All: Every developed country in the world, except the United States, provides universal health care coverage to all of its citizens through some form of taxpayer-funded national insurance program. Not only do these systems fight poverty by ensuring everyone receives prevention and treatment services, but they also produce better outcomes and cost less!

Mixed-Income Housing: Residential zoning policy has divided the rich from the poor, and this division works relentlessly to concentrate poverty in certain neighborhoods. However, research shows that, when poor kids move to middle-class neighborhoods, they perform better in school and have better economic outcomes.

Universal Basic Income: An experiment in the strategy of providing a living stipend to every citizen suggests it will increase entrepreneurship. Mark Zuckerberg agrees.

In conclusion, I feel that there is no single cause of poverty. Instead, it emerges from a complex system that allows both success and failure, but then rewards success and punishes failure. What are your thoughts?

Next time, we will talk about race and racism. To get us started, please send me your responses to the following question:

What do you understand by “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “equity?”

Poverty and Racism Series, Part 2: A Brief History of Race

This is the second in a three-part conversation about poverty and racism.

In my November 19 newsletter, I presented your thoughts about the causes of poverty, and responded by discussing some of my own. Poverty and other mutually-reinforcing social ailments appear to emerge from a complex social, economic, and cultural system that allows both success and failure, but then rewards success and punishes failure ... severely. Based on my individual exchanges with many of you over the last two weeks, it seems we all tend to agree with this general conclusion.

Today, I want to dig deeper into poverty statistics, and you don't have to dig very far to notice that poverty and other negative social outcomes are much more prevalent for some groups than for others. Whereas about 10% of White Americans live in poverty, the proportion is close to 30% for African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos/Latinas. Here, in Columbia, White unemployment is 4% whereas Black unemployment is 12% - down from about 16% a couple of years ago, and it was this statistic that drove the development of the City of Columbia's 2016-19 Strategic Plan.

The City has responded to these alarming racial disparities (as have many other institutions, organizations and communities) by focusing on "diversity," "inclusion," and "equity." These are critical concepts in any discussion of poverty and racism, and I'm very grateful to dozens of you for sending me your definitions and personal understanding of each of these terms. A little later in this newsletter, I will present a selection of your remarks and discuss diversity, inclusion, and equity in more depth.

But I want to start by asking "Why is “race” such a significant predictor of poverty in the US?" and, before that, "What is “race,” anyway?"

What is Race?

In 2014 while visiting Pittsburgh for a conference, I spent a couple of spare hours in a museum. While I cannot remember the name of the museum, I recall vividly an exhibit about "Race" that shattered a lot of assumptions I had lived with all my life.

Growing up in England, all of my relatives and most of my friends were White, Anglo-Saxon. At high school and college, I met Indians, Pakistanis, and Chinese, whose families had moved to Britain within the previous generation or two. I was aware of "West Indians" from the Caribbean islands, but did not really know any members of this group, personally - I also remember noticing that these immigrants tended to perform more menial, poorly-paid jobs and be less well represented in further education than Asians.

Without ever giving the matter a lot of thought, I held on to the vague notion that "race" was a scientific system for classifying different groups of human beings that had evolved in different parts of the world. When I moved to the United States, I encountered Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans and saw a similar hierarchical system with people of different races occupying different stations in life. I assumed that these disparate outcomes had something to do with biology or genetics, and that each group of people naturally gravitated to its own social and economic status, with a few notable exceptions.

That afternoon in the Pittsburgh museum, I learned how wrong I was! The exhibit included credible research reports demonstrating that there is no scientific basis for the classification of "races" that is so common in non-scientific circles. There is no gene or other characteristic that can be used to distinguish members of one race from those of another, or infer anything about the intellectual capacity, willingness to work hard, or morality of different races. Further, the exhibit provided compelling historical evidence that our concept of "race" is, in truth, a social, economic, and political construct designed by White Europeans to disproportionately channel advantages and opportunities to White people.

Starting 400 years ago with the International Slave Trade and continuing to the present day, "race" has existed and flourished as a concept in the minds of human beings (White, Black, and everyone else). Continually reinforced through cultural imagery and self-perpetuating prejudice, we fail to recognize that racial hierarchies were designed to justify exploitation and unequal access to power and wealth. The very idea of "race" is nothing more than an excuse for using brute force to benefit the dominant group.

The most compelling presentation of this startling truth I am aware of is the three-hour PBS educational program, "RACE - The Power of an Illusion" - I encourage you to check it out.

Why Does Race Predict Poverty?

Despite the fact that "race" is nothing more than a social construct, it has enormous consequences in the real world. For example, your life trajectory is likely to be very different, depending on whether you were born "Black" or "White" in the United States of America.

According to the Pew Research Center, the 2014 median household income for Whites was $71,300 compared to $43,300 for Blacks. This means that the typical Black worker earns about 60 cents for every dollar earned by the typical White worker.

I was not particularly surprised by this level of income disparity, but I was truly shocked when I learned that White households have about 13 times the median accumulated wealth of Black households - $144,200 versus $11,200. Yes, the typical Black family has just 8 cents of wealth for every dollar of wealth owned by the typical White family, and more than one in four Black households have zero or negative net worth versus fewer than one in ten White households.

And, while educational achievement correlates with higher income and wealth for Black families, it does nothing to narrow the racial gap. White households headed by someone with a college degree have a median wealth of $301,300 compared with college-educated Black households, which have a median wealth of $26,300 - about 9 cents on the dollar!

If the extent of racial wealth disparity is surprising to you, you're not alone. A Yale University research team asked people to estimate these disparities and concluded that "Americans, and higher-income Whites in particular, vastly overestimate progress toward economic equality between Blacks and Whites."

So what caused such extreme wealth disparity and why are so many of us oblivious to it?

History, if we care to study it, teaches us that most of the wealth currently enjoyed by many White families was created as a result of specific federal government policies and private sector practices in the decades following the second World War - policies and procedures that simultaneously denied the same opportunity to Blacks and most other minority races.

The primary driver of discrimination was a federal housing policy that injected vast public subsidies into new housing for Whites, and real estate practices such as "red-lining," "racial exclusion covenants," and housing market propaganda that preyed on the fears of Whites - a general fear of the "otherness" of Blacks, augmented by the economic fear of their property losing value if neighborhoods became integrated. "White flight" to the new suburbs, loss of the tax base in inner cities, and disastrous public housing projects created a self-perpetuating cycle of housing segregation and wealth disparity.

"How the Racial Wealth Gap Was Created" is a 30-minute segment from the "RACE - The Power of an Illusion" series - I urge you to devote half an hour to watching this video.

Federal transportation policy contributed to this process with a massive public spending program of its own (the Interstate Highway System) and discriminatory practices implemented primarily by local officials and communities. As writer Tim Wise describes in this National League of Cities panel discussion (10' - 15'), not only did the Interstates enable the new, White middle class to commute to jobs in the city and then drive back to their segregated suburbs, but decisions about where to build the highways were driven by racial and economic prejudice.

I had the opportunity this summer to visit the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, MN, which was a thriving African-American residential and business district in the 1950s, until it was destroyed to make way for Interstate 94. According to local non-profit organization, "ReconnectRondo," more than 600 African-American homes, businesses, and institutions were demolished.

Similar acts of targeted destruction took place all across the country. For example, in this National Public Radio interview, former Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx describes the African-American neighborhood in Charlotte, NC where he grew up, which was devastated by the construction of I-77 and I-85.

Author Richard Rothstein relates that the chief lobbyist behind the federal highway bill - a man named Alfred Johnson who was also executive director of the American Association State Highway Officials - once stated (and I'm quoting here), "City officials expressed the view in the mid 1950s that the urban interstates would give them a good opportunity to get rid of the local nigger town." I apologize to those of who you are offended by that word, but that's what he said and it's important to understand the ways powerful local officials thought and acted during that time.

My purpose in writing about this period of American history is not to assign blame or evoke guilt among White people - it is to present important, accurate information that has been forgotten and ignored in our thinking about race and poverty. Accumulated wealth is critical to surviving in the middle class, and it is undeniable that institutional and structural forces in the middle of the last century made sure that wealth accumulation was only available to Whites.

This is what is meant by "systemic racism."

Systemic or Structural Racism

Most of us are familiar with individual racism, which might range from the use of racial slurs to horrific acts of violence such as Dylan Roof's murder of nine African Americans in a Charleston, SC church.

But, as described in the previous section, there's another form of racism which is more difficult to see, and which cannot be directly attributed to individuals. Often referred to as "systemic racism" or "structural racism," discriminatory federal policies in conjunction with prejudicial local government implementation and private-sector practices create a very un-level playing field. And that un-level playing field is where our competitive economic system which allows success and failure, but severely punishes failure, is played out.

Systemic racism creates the environment for economic injustice, but individual racism sustains that environment and is strengthened by the outcomes of that environment - yet another self-reinforcing vicious cycle. Without a clear understanding of how unfair the system is and has been historically, we make inaccurate interpretations of the world around us, and those misinterpretations feed the prejudices that sustain the unfair system. The Equal Justice Initiative, a civil rights organization led by Bryan Stevenson who spoke at the University of Missouri last year, discusses several distinct forms of systemic racism, with well-defined chronologies and transitions.

1. Slavery

Shortly after learning about "race" in that Pittsburgh museum, and while spending time with my family in England, I visited the recently-opened International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. Built on the Albert Docks - the precise location from which thousands of slave ships were launched - the museum documents two and a half centuries of British participation in the international slave trade.

Extraordinary fortunes were made by bankers, capitalists, and shipping magnates in the "triangle voyages" from (1) the trade in British manufactured goods with colonists in West Africa, (2) the capture, enslavement, transportation and eventual sale of African native people in the Americas (the infamous "Middle Passage"), and (3) the shipping of sugar, rum, and exotic spices from the West Indies back home.

For 250 years, slavery was the critical component in a very successful economic development project for Britain. Those same economic development benefits continued to flow to New World colonists, who needed large quantities of cheap labor to sustain their high quality of life, long after British abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

2. Racial Terrorism and "Jim Crow" Laws

When the Emancipation Proclamation put an end to legalized slavery in America in 1863, systemic racism re-emerged in the South in the form of racial terrorism and illegal, discriminatory practices that were tolerated, supported, and even enforced by local officials.

It's hard to over-estimate the appalling and terrifying impact lynchings must have had on Black communities throughout the South. In 2004, University of Missouri Professor of English Doug Hunt researched and published the story of the 1923 lynching of James T. Scott in Columbia, in an essay titled "A Course in Applied Lynching." Hunt's publication of this story led eventually to a 2011 public ceremony, acknowledging Scott's innocence of the crime of which he was accused and placing a proper gravestone on his unmarked grave in a corner of the Columbia cemetery. The ceremony - led by Rev. Clyde Ruffin, pastor of Columbia's Second Missionary Baptist Church, where Scott had been a member - was extremely moving for me, as I'm sure it was for many of you who also participated. More recently, a historical marker has been placed on the MKT Trail at the site of the lynching.

The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4,000 lynchings in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950. In another curious "time and place" coincidence, I found myself staying in a hotel next door but one to the Equal Justice Initiative office, while on business in Montgomery, AL earlier this year. I was fortunate to receive a guided tour of their educational exhibition and learn about their National Memorial to Victims of Lynching, which will open in downtown Montgomery in April, 2018.

During this same 100 years, "Jim Crow" laws in the South and the post-war federal housing and transportation policies described earlier served as additional structural and systemic barriers to opportunity for Blacks in America.

3. Mass Incarceration

When the Voting Rights Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1965, systemic racism transformed itself again.

The era of mass incarceration of poor and minority Americans, which continues essentially unabated to the present day, is well documented by Michelle Alexander in her landmark book, The New Jim Crow.

I will simply list a few statistics:

  • Black men are more than six times more likely to be incarcerated than White men.
  • African Americans make up about 13% of the nation's population, but constitute 28% of all arrests, and 40% of those incarcerated in jails and prisons.
  • African Americans are arrested at rates 2.5 times higher than Whites and are 87% more likely to be subject to pretrial incarceration.
  • One of every three Black boys born in 2001 will go to jail or prison if current trends continue.

Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity

In order to overcome injustice and create a society/community in which everyone can thrive, I believe two things need to happen:

  1. There must be widespread understanding and acknowledgement of the history of race and racism;
  2. Institutions and organizations must embrace diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Thanks to those of you who sent me your understanding of those important terms. Here's a sampling of your remarks:

  • "The three words are intertwined - we cannot have either inclusion or equity until we first define diversity"
  • "Diversity celebrates similarities, as well as differences"
  • "Diversity - we are each one unique. there is no one exactly like anyone else - not just in terms of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, but intelligence, education, income, profession or manual job or unable to find work"
  • "Look at what diversity is doing to Europe. With wave after wave of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe is undergoing a massive cultural change, ... which will basically wipe out the white race and culture in Europe in another 2-3 decades - letting untold number of migrants stream into your nation is a death blow, just ask the Native Americans, if you can find any. Or the Aztecs ..."
  • "My studies of the adoption of “diversity” ... indicated that it is a euphemism that allows speakers/writers to avoid tougher forms of difference such as race"
  • "Inclusion is appreciating and respecting those distinctive characteristics each member of the community adds to our institution."
  • "Inclusion goes beyond numerical diversity ... [it] is the creation of a climate where all feel valued and appreciated, where there is substantive interaction between and among groups"
  • "Inclusion - embracing diversity with empathy, trying to open hearts as individuals and as community to provide help and opportunity for everyone"
  • "Equity - FAIRNESS - not the same as equality ... equity means giving everyone a fair chance"
  • "Equity means different/fair treatment to arrive at comparable outcomes"
  • "Equity is important in our legal system, in terms of special education, affirmative action, gender equity, etc. But it raises more hackles from people who believe the country is based on equal/same treatment."
  • "Diversity, inclusion, equality? All "politically correct" words of finesse. We need to all sit down together, walk a mile in each other's shoes, and get real. Are we ready for that? I don't think so. The black community wants to segregate itself with a Black Culture Center and with whole blocks of blacks in "our black community" but, at the same time, does not accept a friend of another race, because the skin color happens to be different."
  • "Equity- having a big enough piece of the pie to thrive regardless of diverse backgrounds"

I deeply appreciate your engagement in these conversations. I will just add one thought of my own - while I agree that everyone should have "a big enough piece of the pie," I do not believe that "the pie" is fixed and finite. I do not believe that giving someone a larger "piece of the pie" means that someone else has to give up something. By ensuring that everyone can thrive we expand our capacity as a society, and as a community, and we all benefit.

Let's continue this discussion at my next Constituent Conversations on Sunday, December 17 and through my next newsletter. To help me prepare, please send me your responses to the following question:

What should the City Council be doing to increase diversity, inclusion, and equity, and address poverty and racism?

Poverty and Racism Series, Part 3: Beloved Community

It has been a pleasure and an honor to converse with so many of you (more than 200 since early November) on these difficult social issues of poverty and racism.

In case you are new to the discussion, here are my previous newsletters in the series, which include dozens of constituents' observations and opinions:

Today, I plan to move forward from the problems of poverty and racism in our society to real solutions - particularly, strategies and policies we can implement or (at least) influence together, as voters and policy-makers in the City of Columbia - and I have titled this idea, "Beloved Community."

But first, I want to present, without comment, a selection of your responses to the December 3 discussion of race and racism:

  • The concept of “race” is not real … one good definition of racism is the belief in the idea of race
  • I really don't think that the idea of race was originally started consciously by a group that wanted to exploit others. As I read history and autobiographies of people of different cultures, what I see is a more organic beginning, born of fear and ignorance.
  • I do think one of the causes of racism is related to poverty, but it seems you may have left out a main indicator of poverty - single-parent head of households.
  • In the world of racism, the blacks have contributed to their problem and you didn't mention this at all.
  • The Blacks moved north and the whites (mostly liberals, read Star Parker) changed their circumstances when they could and in large part tore the black families apart with their welfare regulations.
  • People should not be ashamed of having assumed that race is genetic or natural or whatever, based on their interpretation of the reality around them, which has been influenced by racist structures (such as the racially restricted housing covenants and other mid-20th century legal structures) and racist cultural tropes – but they should be ashamed if they continue believing that, in the face of the scientific and social-scientific evidence.
  • My uncle was … mayor of Ferguson, a union man, and a die hard democrat. And, I think it's fair to say, he was probably also a racist. No, he did not overtly put non-whites down, but his actions did nothing to quell the problems that his city so obviously faced. He probably denied there was a problem.
  • I recently ran across this excellent and fascinating old video of a classroom experiment where children were discriminated against by having to wear a collar that designated them as blue-eyed or brown-eyed.

Beloved Community

In 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King described a powerful and compelling global vision, in which all people would share in the wealth of the earth.

Naming it "Beloved Community," King developed this vision over numerous speeches throughout the remainder of his life. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness would not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice would be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes would be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust would triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice would prevail over war.

Personally, I cannot imagine a better vision for the world, the United States of America, or Columbia, Missouri, and I suspect many of you will agree with me - although some will disagree and I respect those opinions (consistent with the Beloved Community framework). Therefore, as I reflect on our discussions over the last two months, and try to focus on specific actions to take to address poverty and racism in Columbia, Beloved Community is the vision I am striving for. I encourage each of you to develop your personal vision and let me know what that is.

Whether your vision is Beloved Community, something similar, or something quite different, I want your ideas for moving forward - thank you so much to those of you who have already provided your specific suggestions, summarized here:

  • I think our best chance is with children. Babies are not born with personal bias or prejudice...they learn it.
  • Curriculum that addresses these issues, starting at the very beginning...daycare, preschool, kindergarten, and continuing throughout a child's public or private education.
  • I have often thought that students should be required to stay in school until eighteen, and that just might help a bit in halting cultural poverty and racism.
  • One effort I would like to see on the part of the city is a further collaboration with the Columbia Public School System to increase the kind and quality of education obtained by African American and Latino students.
  • For those young people from disadvantaged family, the city should create job trainings, or encourage job providers to give one.
  • I'm hopeful that the boost in the economy will help drive money into sectors of the population that have been left behind over the last 20 years.
  • Instead of the city council approving plans for greater high risers for students and hotels, approval of plans for affordable housing and small loans for minorities to rehab houses and start businesses would be a start.
  • One of my daughters ... was working with High school drop outs. Through ongoing conversations she learned several things that I feel are important. First, that most of the young black girls didn't think they could do anything to change their lives. Second, that they didn't know how to use the systems that could help them change. ... They needed a ”bridge” to help them get a library card, to register to vote, and other things that are available as part of our community.
  • When I started to get to know various homeless people, and to read the stories of homeless people around the country, my eyes were opened in a new way. I had had a lot of assumptions about the homeless, and when those were shattered, I found I had much more compassion for those who have lost their homes. I think in the same way our community could be helped by getting to know the life stories of many of the people in our community, to see real people instead of just the outer color, to hear what they deal with instead of assuming we know.
  • I think you are doing what exactly the city councilmen should do - open dialogue and discussion.

I agree with all of these suggestions, and I'm pleased to report that some of them are already happening, although most of them need more political support to really gain traction. In the remainder of this newsletter I will summarize a few institutional initiatives which have been launched in Columbia during the last 2-3 years and then describe some of the more specific public policy changes I believe should become priorities.

City of Columbia Strategic Plan

The City's "social equity" focused 2016-19 Strategic Plan has been discussed elsewhere in this series.

I like the Strategic Plan for several reasons:

  • In identifying a limited number of target neighborhoods (now, four), the plan recognizes that the problem is too large and too complex to be tackled with one program;
  • By adjusting budget priorities to improve City investment in these neighborhoods of poverty, the plan acknowledges that the existing "status quo" was fundamentally inequitable;
  • Through intentional and sustained community engagement activities, the plan helps the City to understand neighborhood needs and empower neighborhood leaders;
  • In giving police officers a leading role in community engagement, the plan demonstrates the benefits of community-oriented policing;
  • By measuring key indicators, the plan enables us to evaluate what's working and what's not.

The 2017 Strategic Plan Annual Report was released recently and it is clear that we are making real progress on our stated goal to strengthen our community so all individuals thrive.

As one example, the City has created a "Minority and Women-Owned Businesses Directory" and held several training workshops and "Contractors Expos" to expand the diversity of firms hired by the City and other institutions and businesses for contract work.

Boone Impact Group and Boone Indicators Dashboard

The Boone Impact Group (BIG) is a collaboration among Boone County, the City of Columbia, and Heart of Missouri United Way. BIG coordinates the work of local social service funders and stakeholders, using a "collective impact model" to identify resource gaps, help providers maximize their effectiveness, prevent duplication of services, and align the strengths and abilities of institutions and organizations to tackle challenging social issues together.

To assist in their efforts to reduce economic and social disparities in Boone County, BIG works to convene the community around the issues. For example, the group partnered with community stakeholders and national experts last year to organize the Homelessness Summit, which helped build a shared understanding of the real issues behind homelessness and led to community goals and strategies. As a result of this event, along with the earlier Affordable Housing Symposium, the community has adopted a "Housing First" model and created the Columbia Community Land Trust.

Other examples of these "collective impact" programs include the Cradle to Career Alliance (Education), the Live Well Boone County Community Health Improvement Plan (Health), and "convergence projects" in which independent agencies focused on mental health, criminal justice, and homelessness recognize that their different social issues often relate to a single root cause, and so they all come together to actually solve the problem instead of staying in their siloes and just responding to the symptoms.

In order to inform and align planning efforts, resource investment, performance management and progress monitoring, BIG is working with the University of Missouri Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis (OCEDA) and other data experts to develop the Boone Indicators Dashboard (BID). In designing this "data warehouse," OCEDA has incorporated the most reliable data available for Boone County populations and issues into an easily accessible and visual display system that informs stakeholders and the general public about health, education, housing, and socio-economic "community indicators."

Columbia Public Schools Home-Grown Teachers Program

One of my favorite new initiatives addressing social and racial disparities in Columbia is the "Home-Grown Teachers Program" or "EdX Internship Program" as it is now known (I prefer the original name).

The result of a collaboration involving Columbia Public Schools (CPS), the Worley Street Round Table, the University of Missouri, Columbia College, and Stephens College, goals of the program are to "grow" the school teachers of tomorrow and help CPS develop a professional staff that reflects the racial diversity of the community. To do this, high-school students with an interest in a teaching career can apply for paid EdX internships, which will give them the opportunity to observe and work with professional educators during summer school. Interns will develop:

  • Effective teaching strategies
  • Classroom management strategies
  • Interpersonal relationship skills
  • Student assessment techniques

Following successful completion of the program, interns are eligible for full-ride scholarships to study education and receive teacher training at MU, Columbia, or Stephens. The elegant "loop" is closed when/if the students return to Columbia Public Schools as teaching professionals, so they can model their success for the next group of students.

Not only does this program address the shortage of minority school teachers, it is a beautiful example of Columbia's resources being re-investing in the community. Along the same lines and for the same reasons, I have proposed the idea of a "Home-Grown Police Officers' Program."

University of Missouri Inclusive Excellence Framework

Another exciting initiative is the "Inclusive Excellence Framework," being promoted by MU Vice Chancellor for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity, Kevin McDonald.

The framework has been developed and practiced in institutions of higher education for many years. In this context, "Inclusive Excellence" rejects the concept of a racial hierarchy and embraces the fact (well established in research) that diverse groups are more creative, better problem-solvers, and achieve higher levels of excellence than non-diverse groups. From this foundation, the Association of American College and Universities advanced an operational definition of Inclusive Excellence which consists of four primary elements:

  1. A focus on student intellectual and social development;
  2. A purposeful development and utilization of organizational resources to enhance student learning;
  3. Attention to the cultural differences learners bring to the educational experience and that enhance the enterprise;
  4. A welcoming community that engages all of its diversity.

In addition to implementing this framework at MU, Kevin and his team are working with Diversity Awareness Partnership to adapt these ideas for the business community and beyond. He recently gave a presentation to the Columbia City Council and I am interested in the City adopting Inclusive Excellence as the framework for our next Strategic Plan.

Specific Personal Initiatives

In the following sections, I will discuss some specific policy issues I am currently working on, which address poverty and racism. Please let me know whether you support these ideas.

Community Policing

Over the last 2 years, I have written extensively about my vision for Columbia to adopt a community-oriented policing philosophy and implement a city-wide community-oriented policing program.

I was disappointed in July when the proposal (put forward by Mike Trapp and myself) for a "Community Engagement Process about Policing," failed to gain community support. However, since then, the NAACP has hosted several well-attended public forums at which a diverse group of community residents have engaged with the Mayor, Council members, City Manager, and Police Chief in open and honest discussions about community policing and racial profiling, leading to several specific recommendations.

As a result, I am now confident that Columbia will embrace community-oriented policing in the near future, and I am working with Council colleagues towards that goal.

Equity and the Cost of Growth

I have also written extensively about the massive public subsidies given to new development in this community, which disproportionately harm Columbia's poorest residents.

In 2014, I conducted an analysis of ten years of data (2004-2014), which showed that more than $50 million of tax-payers' and rate-payers' money had been used to build infrastructure for new housing and commercial buildings in Columbia. My analysis just looked at the capacity expansion projects in the water, sewer, storm-water, electric, and road systems - had fire, police, parks, and schools also been included, the total would have been in excess of $100 million.

Columbia has been growing at about 2% per year for decades, meaning we are adding 500 to 1,000 new homes every year, along with a proportional number of commercial and industrial buildings. Obviously, if we have a sewer treatment plant that has been designed for 10,000 homes and we're adding 1,000 new homes every year, the plant will have to be expanded pretty soon and it is perfectly fair, reasonable, and logical for that incremental cost to be recovered from the new development that is driving the expansion. When I conducted my study in 2014, the City was only recovering about 25% of that cost in our "sewer system equity connection fee" (a one-time fee that is charged to new development at the time a building permit is issued). I'm happy to report that we have increased that connection fee since then, and it now recovers about 75% of the cost.

However, we do not have an electric system equity connection fee. New development hooks up to our electrical grid - forcing the City to expand the capacity of our electric transmission and distribution networks, build brand new substations, and install new transformers - at no charge. And yet, according to Utilities Department data, the City spends about $6.5 million annually - more than $500,000 per month - on electric utility projects that are built for the sole purpose of expanding the system for new customers. Since we do not currently have a system equity connection fee for the electric utility, this entire cost is being paid by our 40,000 existing customers - on average, every household in Columbia is paying more than $12 per month to subsidize new development. For the 30,000 Columbia residents living below the federal poverty level ($24,600 annual income for a family of 4), that $12 per month is an enormous and unfair burden that traps people in poverty.

And yet, the Columbia Board of Realtors (CBOR) opposes the adoption of an electric system equity connection fee - please take a few minutes to read CBOR's recent letter to City Council and my response to CBOR.

Inclusionary Housing Policy

Columbia's extreme shortage of affordable homes is an enormous barrier to families getting out of poverty.

More than 12,000 rental households in Columbia (about 57% of all renters) and about 3,500 owner-occupied households (23%) are "cost-burdened" by 30% or more. Because at least 30% of their income goes to housing and utilities, these families and individuals are in a fragile economic situation and at high risk of becoming homeless. Unfortunately, the housing market is unable to provide affordable housing and so it is left to government to address this problem.

Last year, we established the Columbia Community Land Trust (CCLT), which uses federal grants and other sources to purchase land, partners with non-profit developers (such as Jobpoint, Habitat for Humanity, and CMCA), and then sells the homes to qualified low-income purchasers while retaining ownership of the land. While this approach creates permanently affordable homes, the CCLT is very limited in the number of homes it can construct each year.

A more productive strategy for creating affordable housing would be to adopt an "Inclusionary Housing Policy." Cities that have implemented this type of policy have seen significant increases in their stock of affordable housing because the affordable homes are built by private-sector developers as a result of incentives or code requirement. For example, at least 10% of the homes in a project of 20 homes or more must be sold or rented at affordable rates, according to federal area median income formulas.

Another tremendous benefit of inclusionary housing is that it results in mixed-income and mixed-wealth neighborhoods, which has been shown to reduce socio-economic inequities.

Public Transportation

Columbia's public transportation program is desperately under-funded. Compared with other college towns, we invest between 20-30% per capita in our transit operating budget. As a result, our level of service (frequency, hours of service, coverage of routes, etc.) is so poor that the only people using the bus system are those with no other choice!

However, if we could increase the budget such that most people lived within a 5-minute walk of a bus stop, such that buses were coming every 15-20 minutes and operated 7 days a week and late into the evening, then we would see a significant increase in ridership as taking the bus would become much more attractive for many people.

Improving public transportation in Columbia would enable low-income families to access work, education, health care, and other services more easily and more affordably. Since the average cost of owning and operating a car in the US is more than $8,000 per year according to an analysis by AAA, it would also enable some families to save a lot of money by reducing the number of cars they own.

I do not believe we can realistically increase taxes for public transportation at this time, so we need to look at re-allocating existing revenue. With Columbia currently spending tens of millions of dollars on unnecessary highway expansion projects, such as the proposed widening of Forum Boulevard, I feel we have the opportunity to invest in a more economical and efficient transportation system.

What do you think?

Lynching Memorial

In Montgomery, AL, the Equal Justice Initiative is building a National Memorial to the Victims of Lynching. As part of this project, counties that have experienced racial lynchings will be able to claim their monuments and install them in the courthouse square as an educational exhibit and an acknowledgement of a dark past.

I believe Boone County should claim our monument in memory of James T. Scott and other possible victims. This action would have an immensely positive, healing effect in our community.


Over the last two months, we have discussed the causes of poverty, the history of racism, and some possible strategies for creating a Beloved Community.

Poverty and racism are consequences of power imbalances. Therefore, we need a strong, highly-engaged democracy that reflects the values of most people and imposes reasonable limitations on what people can do. We need to resist extreme wealth disparity and build an economic environment that emphasizes cooperation rather than competition. In America today, we have a system that lavishly rewards people for "climbing the ladder" (and kicking other folks down at the same time) and cruelly punishes those who cannot make progress up the ladder or fall off. This motivates human beings to behave in a self-interested and often unethical way, believing that they're doing what they are supposed to do, within the system - and, in the not-too-distant past, unethical behavior in pursuit of wealth and power extended to the enslavement of entire peoples.

So what should we do, moving forward? In the area of racism, we need to understand the terrible harm that African Americans, Native Americans, and others have suffered, acknowledge the continuing economic impacts of that racist past, and find ways to "level the playing field" so that everyone can thrive. In the area of poverty, we want a society in which everyone is able to achieve financial independence and security - while it's clear we cannot leave that to the “free market,” I do not believe cash handouts to people in poverty are the answer because that fosters dependency. Overall, I prefer the intermediate strategy of creating a supportive external environment (Medicare for all, a universal basic income, children's trust fund, good public education, good public transportation, etc.) which will empower people to build their own capacity.

Happy Holidays.


Previous policy blog posts

Policy blog posts (2013-2018)