A year in the making, Mayor Bill Bell’s anti-poverty initiative is revving up for its test run in Northeast Central Durham, where some of the city’s toughest census blocks have scoffed at planners for decades. And while much of the initiative is same-old, same-old, other aspects reveal innovative thinking.
As one who has seen government fail time and again to make headway against generational poverty – Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society is the gold standard in that regard – I don’t hold much hope that Bell’s ambitious project will swim against the current.
Nonetheless, it’s usually better to do something instead of nothing, so let’s look at some of the proposals from the initiative’s six task forces and assign them a letter grade.
• Hotline for Census Tract 10.01 residents who need a ride to work. Next to obtaining a job, getting to it can be maddening. Grade: A
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• Financial literacy instruction. Hard to believe, but many people don’t know how to manage what little money they have. Grade: A
• Free ATM. Who’s going to pay for the green salad maker? Grade: C-
• Expand job-related services and hours at Holton Career and Resource Center on Driver Street, ground zero for poverty in North East Central Durham. This is a no-brainer. Grade A
• City-backed loans to help police officers buy houses in the area. If that’s what it takes, go for it. Grade: B+
• “Two-generation” learning for parents and pre-school kids. Real-time, simultaneous education that just might work, but who’s going to pay for it? Grade: B+
• Training neighborhood “barefoot doctors,” as the Chinese call them. Actually, they would be certified community health care specialists who help residents manage chronic diseases such as diabetes. Again, who pays for it? Grade: A
• Custodial savings accounts for youngsters entering kindergarten at Y.E. Smith Elementary School and continuing through fifth grade. Each child would get $100. Deposits by parents would be matched up to $100 a year, the accumulation to be used only for post-high school education. Grade: D
• Saturate Census Tract 10.01 residents with help on filing for the Earned Income Tax Credit. This is better than raising the minimum wage to an unrealistically high level, thus eliminating jobs instead of preserving them. Grade: A+
Why give custodial savings accounts a D? Because this is the tragedy of American compassion at work.
The money would come from private sources, and at first blush it looks like a win-win. But such a program limited to one school is inherently unfair to low-income families in other parts of Durham.
And for me, here’s the kicker: Although parents would be encouraged to donate $100 a year to their child’s (more likely, children’s) account, the program itself puts yet another remove between parents and parenting – a privately funded entitlement at risk of great variability.
Better to guide parents toward responsible financial stewardship. Helping those who can benefit from the Earned Income Tax Credit won’t bring every recipient out of poverty, but it can go a long way. Working parents with three or more children can get a federal subsidy up to $6,143 – that’s found money.
It’s also money that parents can direct toward the education of their offspring as they see fit, instead of having somebody else make decisions for them.
The EITC has been around since 1975, and its outlays are exceeded only by the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (food stamps). In fact, the Tax Policy Center estimates that in 2015 some 26 million households will receive $60 billion in lower taxes and refunds.
This program is so beneficial that State Treasurer Janet Cowell took to the streets of Census Tract 10.01 last month to help promote it. If Bill Bell’s initiative accomplishes nothing else, this alone would make it a success.
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.