Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Poverty and Reapportionment

I started writing this back in April but ran out of steam. Now that Mayor Jones’ redistricting committee has completed its reports and redistricting proposals, it is time for me to fully address this issue.

Written in April

The mayor of our fair city has appointed a committee to provide input into the once-in-ten-years reapportionment process that Richmond is currently engaged in. The mayor’s committee is in addition to the committee that the City Council has appointed to aid it in redistricting. According to an article in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, Mayor Dwight Jones wants the city to consider residents living in poverty as well as the increased number of Hispanics and other minorities before it redraws voter district boundaries this year. Jones says redistricting must involve 2 groups.

The nine districts existing in the City of Richmond were created by Section 30, Article II of the Richmond City Code. They were created under the authority of section 24.2-304.1.B of the Virginia Code, which provides:

“If the members [of the governing body] are elected from districts or wards . . . the districts or wards shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as is practicable, representation in proportion to the population of the district or ward.”

With respect to reapportionment, the state law provides:

“In 1971 and every ten years thereafter, the governing body of each such locality shall reapportion the representation among the districts or wards, including, if the governing body deems it appropriate, increasing or diminishing the number of such districts or wards, in order to give, as nearly as is practicable, representation on the basis of population.”

So, in reapportioning the city’s nine districts, the City Council needs to come up with districts that are contiguous and compact and give the residents of the city representation base on population.

It would seem to this maven that the nine members of the City Council, assisted by their existing committee, would be able to carry out the mandates of the state law. Why do we need this new committee? Mayor Jones explained it in these words,

“We have basically looked at redistricting through a black-white lens, but this [2010] census requires us to broaden our view and look at it through a multicultural, multiracial lens. Seventeen-thousand five-hundred people will be left out of the discussion if we do it that way.”

Written today

The mayor’s committee has (apparently) finished its task. It submitted a report, a separate document of recommendations and specific reapportionment plans. (The report and recommendations were printed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and you can find them at report and at recommendations ). Surprisingly to this maven, it made no reapportionment recommendations concerning the Hispanic community, which I thought was the mayor’s real concern in appointing the committee. However, the committee made significant recommendations about reapportionment and the poor, including specific redistricting proposals. I will get to those shortly, but first. . .

Even someone who is a newcomer to Richmond like this maven (under Richmond standards I would have to live into my 100s to lose the designation “newcomer”) knows that Richmond has a poverty problem. Recent census data indicates that 22.1 % of Richmond’s population lives in poverty. (According to federal standards, the poverty threshold for a family of 4 is $21,954 per year in family income. For individuals, the threshold is $11,161 in annual income). This poverty population is concentrated densely in a few areas of the city because, in part, of decisions we have made about where to locate public housing projects and where to locate interstate highways. In its report the mayor’s committee reported the poverty populations of the city’s nine City Council districts, which I rearrange to list by poverty level:

6th District…….41%
5th District….…31%
7th District….…29%
8th District…….28%
2nd District……24%
9th District…….18%
3rd District…...14.5%
1st District..…...8%
4th District…....5%

These numbers represent the percentage of the residents of these districts who have annual incomes at or below the federal poverty levels.

In its report the committee discusses the interaction between poverty and politics in the city. Based on this discussion, it sets out two basic principals in its document accompanying the report:

First, the committee recommends that council districts should be “internally diverse and politically competitive,” so as to have meaningful elections that the voters will actually participate in.

I am certainly in favor of competitive elections. I think it is very bad for the health of the city (or of the Commonwealth) for any candidate to run with no, or only token, opposition. In our 2008 city elections, 3 candidates for the City Council and 3 candidates for the School Board ran with no opposition on the ballot. It would be nice to end this kind of election. But I do not see how this problem can be fixed by reapportionment. People live where they want or, in some cases, are required to live. Neighborhoods are established by the patterns of home purchase or apartment rental. You can’t create artificial communities by drawing district lines zigzagging across the city. Moreover, creating “internally diverse and politically competitive” districts by gerrymandering may violate the state law I quoted above that requires districts to be “contiguous and compact.”

Second, the committee argues that “poverty should be sufficiently disbursed across districts such that a majority of districts have poverty rates close to or exceeding the citywide average.”

The committee gives four rationales for this principal:

“First, distributing poverty across districts expresses the idea and the reality that poverty is a shared problem for the city as a whole, not just an issue affecting a few neighborhoods or areas of the city.”

This is a symbolic rationale. I think that anybody who lives in the City of Richmond and who gets news from the Times-Dispatch or our weekly newspapers or television or radio or the Internet knows that Richmond has a poverty problem. Unfortunately, if there is no visible poverty in their neighborhood, most residents are not going to consider poverty to be an issue that affects them. Gerrymandering poor people to distribute them across districts will have no real affect on people’s perceptions.

“Second, if poverty is indeed to be addressed as a major policy priority over the next decade, it is crucial that a strong majority of Council and School Board members have a direct stake in the issue.”

This argument is counter intuitive. Generally, when we want to increase the political clout of a minority group we try to concentrate them in a small number of districts. The committee recognizes this fact in the portion of its report and recommendations that deals with the city’s Hispanic population. This strategy is the basis of majority-minority districts—we create districts in which a minority group constitutes a majority of the residents to assure they can elect a candidate of their choice. If we applied the committee’s rationale, we would conclude that African Americans in the Commonwealth would be better served if we reapportioned the state so they are a small presence in all districts rather than a majority or near-majority in one or two. I fear that dispersing poor people by reapportionment will weaken rather than strengthen their political influence.

It also does not recognize the fact that numbers of people in a district does not necessarily translate into votes. If a “strong majority” of City Council or the School Board is going to have a “direct stake” in the poverty issue, the individual members need to know that failing to deal with this issue will cost them reelection. The unfortunate fact, which the committee recognizes in its report, is that poor people seem to turn out to vote at a fairly low rate. The committee looks at rates of registration and voter turnout rates in reaching this conclusion. Instead I look at the total number of people voting in our 2008 mayoral election in the city’s two districts with the least number of poor and compare them with the number voting in the four with the highest concentrations of poverty. I chose the mayoral election because the candidates and the issues were the same across the city. I chose to look at the actual number of people voting because that number deals both with registration percentage and turnout. What did this maven find?

District………………Poverty Rate……………..Votes Cast

Although the numbers do not show an exact correlation, it is clear that fewer people voted in the districts with the highest poverty rates as compared with those with the lowest rates. The question that the committee did not answer is whether a poverty population of 20% in a district is high enough to give the incumbent in that district a “direct stake” in the poverty issue.

“Third, having a majority of members who are invested in poverty increases the potential leverage of low-income residents and supportive organizations when they engage in advocacy; they can make their case to many elected officials, not a small number.”

This rationale is merely an extension of the previous one. And the same points I made above relate here. Further, these two arguments are based on the assumption that elected officials will only be “invested” in the issue of poverty if there are election consequences for them. I am not sure that this assumption is true for all elected officials.

“Fourth, distributing poverty widely is an equal public services issue, insofar as direct attention from council members and school board members to neighborhoods or blocks experiencing severe problems is an important public service.”

This rationale is based on the assumption that it is the job of a councilperson or a board member to obtain public services for their constituents. Both the City Council and the School Board are legislative bodies. The functions of a legislative body are to set public policy through the enactment of legislation—ordinances in the case of the City Council, policies in the case of the School Board—and to oversee the operations of the city’s administrative offices. Gaining public services is not part of the job. In fact, it creates inequality in delivery of city or school services depending on the influence of one’s elected officials. During the administration of Mayor Douglas Wilder, the administration made it clear that citizens must obtain city services by contacting the proper person in the administration not through their councilperson. I have no reason to assume that the policy is different under Mayor Dwight Jones.

Because I do not think the committee’s recommendations will be beneficial, and in fact may be counterproductive, I will not spend any time on evaluating its three specific reapportionment plans.

1 comment:

Milanos said...

Good post!