By: Michael Martz; Richmond Times-Dispatch
Kiocia Wilkerson leaves for work on a GRTC bus each weekday morning at 7:17, seven minutes after loading her two children onto Richmond public school buses.
About 58 minutes later, after changing buses once, she arrives for work at the Maymont Preschool Learning Center, next to Amelia Street School where her autistic son, who will turn 5 next week, is a student.
This daily routine represents the beginnings of a transformed life for Wilkerson, a 27-year-old single mother in one of Richmond’s public housing projects. Her family is one of 18 public housing households in BLISS, or Building Lives to Independence and Self-Sufficiency, a new program under Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ ambitious anti-poverty initiative that wraps services around poor families looking for a way out.
“I actually have someone to call now,” Wilkerson said. “They actually help me work through my struggles, my barriers. They help me identify my barriers.”
The program, run by the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building, is an example of a comprehensive approach that other Virginia communities with high concentrations of poverty hope to emulate.
It also reflects a different way of looking at economic development for areas that are trying to foster a workforce with the skills for jobs in emerging industries.
“The whole idea of economic development is being re-thought,” said Jones, who attended a symposium conducted by The Aspen Institute in Washington last month on the theme “Can Inclusive Economic Development Build Better Jobs and a Stronger Regional Economy?”
“It’s not just about attracting businesses and creating jobs, but making sure that communities are prepared for the new businesses and jobs when they come,” said the mayor, who served in the House of Delegates for 15 years.
Virginia First Cities, representing Richmond and a dozen other urban areas plagued by high poverty rates, is seeking $11 million in funding from the pending biennial state budget to expand anti-poverty initiatives to bring people into the workforce.
“We have to figure out a way to lift more people out of poverty at a faster rate than people are falling into poverty,” said Thad Williamson, who has taken leave from his job as an associate professor at the University of Richmond to serve as the first director of the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building.
The challenge is particularly acute in Richmond, which a Harvard University study last year ranked as 48th-worst in the country out of almost 2,500 localities for the ability of children to advance into well-paying jobs.
Last month, The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis created a disquieting map, based on newly released census data, that documented a 27 percent increase in the number of children living in neighborhoods with poverty rates above 40 percent from 2010 through 2014, compared with the previous five-year period.
In Richmond, 24 percent of children live in neighborhoods with poverty rates above 40 percent, and 64 percent live in areas where poverty is 20 percent or higher.
The dynamic is similar but less severe in other old cities, such as Portsmouth and Norfolk, while many rural localities also have children living in neighborhoods with a high level of poverty.
A rate of 40 percent or higher is considered an area of concentrated poverty, while 20 percent is the threshold for high poverty.
“We can’t ignore the fact that this poses a real challenge to our economic future,” said Michael J. Cassidy, president and CEO of The Commonwealth Institute and a member of the mayor’s anti-poverty commission.
Cassidy and other advocates say the concentration of poverty — and the many barriers to escaping it — should be addressed by the General Assembly as part of a fast-moving economic development initiative called the Virginia Growth and Opportunity Act, or GO Virginia.
The legislation, which has passed both chambers of the assembly and could be backed by as much as $39 million in new state incentives, would establish a state framework for economic development projects created by regional collaboration.
“Poverty eradication should be part of GO Virginia,” said Kelly Harris-Braxton, executive director of Virginia First Cities.
In the Richmond area, efforts to lift people out of poverty are part of a regional effort to prepare the workforce to fill the jobs needed by industries seeking to grow here.
“Something has to be done to draw these people and their families back into the economy,” said Kelly Chopus, executive director of the Robins Foundation and a member of the organizing council for the Capital Region Collaborative, a joint effort by the Greater Richmond Chamber and the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission.
Her foundation has been part of Richmond’s community wealth-building effort, including educational initiatives that begin with early childhood. “We see this as the perfect opportunity for public-private partnership,” she said.
James J. Regimbal Jr., a fiscal consultant for Virginia First Cities, said the message behind the budget amendment is that government, private industry and nonprofit partners have to work together to address the various barriers to escaping poverty — jobs and training, education and child care, transportation and housing.
“You have to do it almost on a family-by-family level to get it to work,” Regimbal said.
Kiocia Wilkerson does not hesitate when asked her specific goals for lifting her family out of poverty.
“No. 1, get out of here,” she said of Fairfield Court, where she has lived since just before the birth of her daughter eight years ago.
Her next goal is graduating from Reynolds Community College, where she is studying for an associate’s degree in human services. She began taking classes there in 2009, studying to become a hospital lab technician, but pulled out in 2013 after her son was diagnosed with autism.
Wilkerson’s third goal is to improve the opportunities for her children’s education. “I just want the best schools for my children,” she said, citing her dissatisfaction with the overcrowded classrooms at Fairfield Elementary School, which her daughter attends.
These goals seemed out of reach before she was referred to the BLISS program in August by the director of a parenting program run by the Richmond Public Library.
“She was a real shy, closed-in young lady,” said Sandee Smith, coordinator of the program, which currently helps about 70 people in 18 households in the seven public housing communities managed by Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. “Out of all this, this young lady has done tremendously well.”
At the time, Wilkerson was struggling with a grocery job, offered few hours because of conflicts with her responsibilities as a parent. She grew up in a single-parent home in Richmond, so she knows what children miss when that parent isn’t available for them. “I had to grow up early,” she said.
Once in the program, she found the job at Maymont — five hours a day, five days a week — through interviews at the city’s Center for Workforce Innovation. The program gave her money for bus fare to get to and from work through her second paycheck.
“We needed to get working a steady amount of hours a week,” said Smith, who added that Wilkerson still is working limited hours at the grocery store.
BLISS, through a partnership with Virginia State University, helped Wilkerson return to Reynolds and redirect her studies to human services. It connected her to advocacy and support groups for parents of autistic children. It helped her communicate more effectively with Fairfield Elementary School over her concerns about her daughter’s education.
“What we do is we try to empower our families,” Smith said.
Before enrolling in the program, Wilkerson said, “I was just ready to give up on going back to school. I was ready to give up on trying to fight for my job. I was going to end up in a hard place, but could it be worse?”
“I was going through anxiety, depression,” she said. “I was alone.” Having help to meet her family’s needs and refocus her goals, she said, “It’s really picked up my motivation seriously.”
The problem for Richmond and similar communities is replicating that kind of success on a larger scale.
“The challenge is scaling it beyond one mother and her individual family to dozens of families in that particular community,” Chopus said.
Richmond is footing the entire bill for the community wealth-building initiative — $3.6 million in the current budget, Jones said. “But it doesn’t even begin to address our needs.”
The pending budget amendment — proposed by Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond, and Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth — seeks $1 million in the first year to establish offices of community wealth-building and $10 million in the second year to help fund the programs, with no more than 20 percent of available money going to any one locality.
Virginia First Cities has the ear of key members of the General Assembly budget committees but no commitment for money.
“It certainly sounds like something that deserves a real close look,” said Del. John M. O’Bannon III, R-Henrico. “The challenge is going to be finding the money.”