New Neighborhood Data Offers Clues without Conclusions

A map used by the Seattle Housing Authority identifies neighborhoods, shaded in purple, where housing officials and researchers believe that poor children have particularly good odds of rising out of poverty.  Credit:  Seattle Housing Authority

Seattle    Flying into Seattle I had in my hands an article about neighborhoods in Seattle and how they influenced, and perhaps determined, the future of children raised in those neighborhoods.  The article was based on Census data tracked assiduously by Bureau statisticians and researchers from Brown and Harvard Universities.  When we think about predictive data, Seattle’s Amazon is also hard to avoid since the sites attempt to anticipate what you might possible buy from what you have bought in the past in an exercise that also seems fated.   Certainly, we could all agreed that this was just coincidence.

The same might be said of this huge data reveal.

The data seems invaluable.  Following children for years, particularly those born between 1978 and 1983 and tracking them from the census tracks they inhabited then to where they are now, including in one April Fools Day snapshot of time, the data crunchers were able to map with precision the neighborhoods where lower income children had the prospects of bettering their parents with higher income and possibly escaping poverty.

The article in the New York Times wasn’t really about Seattle of course or Charlotte, North Carolina, the other city that they highlighted.  This was also coincidence, though unlikely random.  Housing authority officials were quoted in both cities.  Using the data there seemed to be a plan to issue Section 8 vouchers that would attempt to place families with children in these seemingly better neighborhoods.  The value of the rent vouchers would have to be topped off though, because many of these neighborhoods with better schools and services were more expensive or post-gentrification, we might say.  The article didn’t mention that this HUD pilot of increasing voucher value to market rate in order not to ghettoize the placement of families is one of the programs that Trump’s HUD Secretary Ben Carson has tried to suspend and terminate.

Despite mentioning that in some census tracks federal and other programs have spent literally half-a-billion dollars, ostensibly to improve their prospects in bettering the conditions of lower income families, there’s no data that verifies that figure, other than saying community block grants and major housing developments had underpinned the expenditures.  I couldn’t read that without wondering whether those monies had been usurped for market rate, mixed-income developments or other wild developer re-purposing of CDBG monies from their intended use for lower income families to building castles in the sky for politicians and their donors.  The examples of both are legion!

The mystery that was at the heart of the data is still unsolved.  Why would the outcomes for moving forward be so different only a block away in the same school districts and with similar demographic characteristics?  Additionally, given the waiting list for housing vouchers in cities throughout the country, clearly there is no anti-poverty plan that would move everyone into these neighborhoods that have managed to stand up taller, so what does the data say about how to make existing neighborhoods better?  I don’t even want to mention that as more lower income families would be moved in, what would keep the higher income families from moving out?

There’s something going on here.  The data will surely help set a baseline, but until we know more and then do more in these neighborhoods to create change, we’re left with lots of clues, but no sure conclusions.

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How Many Rural Electric Cooperatives Can Stand the Glare?

New Orleans      In 2016 after an exhaustive research project on all of the rural electric cooperatives in the twelve Southern states ACORN and the Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center published two reports on our website, as well as in two issues of Social Policy.  One looked at the lack of diversity and absence of any governance accountability in the cooperatives and the other looked at some of the same issues in employment as well as the pay and benefits board members and their executives were giving themselves.  Despite circulating the reports to the cooperatives, state legislators, media outlets, Congressional delegations, and regulatory agencies, it was amazing how we were stonewalled.

Finally, some of the walls around this amazingly insular but significant rural economic and employment institution are beginning to show signs of crumbling as reporters and even some regulators stumble over their featherbedding and self-dealing particularly.  We’ve cited earlier the work of Avery Wilks at the State in Columbia, South Carolina, and his series largely about director financial abuses in that state.  The Advocate papers in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, particularly David Mitchell, have also begun to take a harder look at some of these issues as well, partially because the issues at DEMCO, which has tried to unsuccessfully rebrand from its name as Dixie Electric Membership Corporation, has been catching fire from elected regulators of the Public Service Commission.

The CEO of DEMCO was forced to resign short months before he was officially retiring for failure to reimburse the cooperative for a decade for a $14,000 generator installed at his house.   Reporters have also headlined the fact that employees enjoyed staying at the beach condo of a contractor for the cooperative.  They have also mined the audits DEMCO was forced to have done for other pieces on board members pay and perks.

In hearings, four of the commissioners jumped on the rural electric cooperatives with both feet over their compensation and financial practices.  They have now vowed to scrutinize the sweetheart compensation arrangements between board members and managers, which is at the heart of the second of ACORN and the LNRTC’s reports.  They swear that they will take this into consideration when asked to review rate increase requests from the cooperatives in the future, which is also good to hear.  We’ll once again try to put the reports in their hands to see if they will also finally look at the fact that so much of the representation of the ostensibly democratic body is stuck in the 1950s where race and gender are concerned.

An arch-conservative political science professor at LSU who writes a column for The Advocate sees political intrigue here on the part of the commissioners.  He believes this is obfuscation meant to cover their loss of a boondoggle involving exporting energy from Oklahoma windfarms.  He is correct in hitting them for denying the Claiborne Electric Cooperative the ability to extend internet service in its service areas, which is widely seen around the country as fully appropriate for cooperatives.  For the rest, its mainly more of his usual conspiracy-tinted offering.

For our part we have to believe the PSC is finally doing the right thing, even if for the wrong reasons, if it finally puts an end to the logrolling and self-dealing, anti-democratic practices of cooperative boards.  We’ll really cheer if they also finally address the self-perpetuating practices undemocratic boards have of keeping themselves in and women and minorities out.

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