Wednesday, August 29, 2007

For She’s a Jolly Good County

Years, perhaps decades, ago, while I was sojourning in northern Virginia, the District of Columbia had a sex problem. Well, it wasn’t exactly a sex problem; it really was a problem with too many women selling sex a few short blocks from the White House. (I am not implying that being close to the White House created a good market for these women. I assume it was merely a coincidence.) Anyhow, the newspapers wrote a story about it and the Chief of Police decided that these working women could no longer be tolerated along 14th Street. So, on one glorious night, hundreds of police officers took time off from protecting the city from serious crime and dedicated their efforts to freeing the city from vice. Countless women of the night were arrested and carted off. The next day the police put all the offending women in trucks, drove them across the 14th Street Bridge and released them in Arlington. And for one brief shining moment the District of Columbia had no prostitution problem.

This story popped into my head this morning while I was reading the news on page one of the Times-Dispatch. It wasn’t the story about LandAmerica cutting eleven hundred jobs, which is pretty bad news. It wasn’t the story about speed bumps and traffic circles, which isn’t news at all. It was the headline that read “Hanover boasts lowest poverty rate for its size.” The story was contained in the first paragraph, one sentence long: “New census figures released yesterday listed Hanover County with the lowest poverty rate in the nation among counties of its population.”

At first I was giddy with joy. Our neighbor, only a few miles away, had apparently fixed its poverty problem. This was great news indeed, especially after last week’s depressing cover story in Style Weekly, which suggested that Richmond Public Schools can never succeed because of the city’s high concentration of poverty. Hey, if Hanover County has such a low poverty rate they must be doing something that we can copy in Richmond. So what is it they are doing?

I read the article again. There wasn’t any clear explanation for how Hanover had achieved this great feat. The director of the county’s Department of Social Services was surprised by the low poverty rate. She had expected it to be twice as high. But she did make it clear that this low poverty rate didn’t mean that her job was unneeded. There are “many other residents who can’t make their mortgage, car, and day-care payments without [our] assistance.”

Hey, that’s it! The director of Social Services has been making so many assistance payments to residents of Hanover County that they no longer qualify as poor. Now they are merely strapped for cash. Hanover’s solution is easy. Give money to poor people and they will no longer be poor. Why hadn’t we in Richmond thought of it? How simple! We can eliminate our poverty problem by simply giving out more money.

But, wait! The next paragraph suggests that maybe Hanover didn’t do the obvious. It says that development in Hanover County has concentrated on single-family housing, which attracts married families. As everybody knows poverty is lowest among married families and highest among households headed by single women. (And you thought that the marriage amendment was stupid!) The article quoted a demographer (if you know your classical languages, you may understand what such a person does) as suggesting that Hanover had a lower rate of poverty because it was “family concentrated.”

So now things are making more sense. Hanover has less poverty because it has become unfriendly to the poor. It simply provides them with no affordable housing. They can’t live in Hanover if there is no place for them to live.

But would Hanover County be so Machiavellian? Would it deliberately control its zoning and development processes to exclude affordable housing for the less-affluent? Would government officials act this way in the 21st Century?

Wait! Isn’t this the same Hanover County that has Robert Setliff as the Chair of its county Board of Supervisors? Isn’t Setliff the person who was quoted in last week’s Style as saying that the problems of Richmond’s public schools is “none of [Hanover County’s] business,” and sees no value in regional cooperation? Is it so far-fetched that the leaders of such a county would avoid the problems that come with poverty by making sure that poor people stay in Richmond where they belong? Are they any different than the D.C. police who dealt with prostitution by trying to make it Arlington’s problem?

So, the next time you’re driving north and see a “Welcome to Hanover County” sign be sure to read the fine print that says “unless you’re poor.” Then read the engraving on Hanover’s statue of liberty:

Send us your wealthy and your white,
Your middle class we urge from you to flee,
Your wretched refuse we don’t want,
Keep your homeless and your weak,
Across the Chickahominy they can’t cross.

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