We’re changing to our new template now where we have weekly updates and weekly conversations to make sure I’m readily accessible and can connect you to the people who can answer your questions if I can’t. I’d like to start with a quick overview of COVID.
Reviewing the cases at the Department of Health, you’ll see we now have a percent positive rate of less than 10%. All of the health experts say we want that number to be at 10% or below, and the state of Virginia is there. The death rate continues to fall, and I’m so happy with those numbers. It is a good reason to keep phasing back into opening the economy fully. There is little to no reason to not open the economy, because a person’s financial health is as important as their physical health.
We got a press release yesterday saying what we think K-12 education might look like. It was not incredibly clear. I’ve not had time to review the entire 126 page document, but I’ve looked at some of the resources. We received an email from the Superintendent of Schools, and I’m going to sort through that. I’ll have more information to give you next Wednesday when we talk about education and COVID. There’s a lot to talk about, and a lot of you have kids dealing with this.
In my weekly focus groups, I’ve had teachers ask what they’re supposed to do if their school is on a different schedule than their own children. I’m going to find out what information we have from the information we’ve already been given, and I’m going to ask all your questions to the state to fill in the holes in our information. And as always, push them to continue opening the economy on a predictable schedule.
What does phase three look like for the economy?
We are in phase two, and we have been since last Friday. We know what that means, 50 or less in groups, limited capacity in restaurants and outside venues. We’re looking to see what phase three will look like, but we don’t know when that will happen yet. This goes back to needing predictability. Schools and businesses need to know what to expect. It would be very helpful for the Governor to provide some information about when that is likely to happen, even understanding that some things can disrupt that. We will definitely keep you informed.
We don’t know what phase three will look like, but we can assume it would be 100% capacity at restaurants, but we’re not sure.
I’d really like to talk about the things we have in common, coming out from the protests and riots from the past few weeks as we struggle as a culture to make sure there’s equality, respect and security for all. I think this is a universal value. We need to make sure that anyone who breaks the law is held accountable, but we also need to make sure there’s a way that we can challenge our systems and what we have in place to make sure we absolutely stamp out any inequality in how our system works. There will be people who unfortunately hold biases, and I hope those people work to overcome those. But separately we need to make sure our systems work so everyone has equal opportunity.
If you’ve been listening for a while you know that I like to find out what we have in common, and find ways we can achieve our goals. First, I would suggest the system we have in place is really set up to help people survive, but not thrive. Most of the safety nets we have in terms of government programs help people survive, but don't help them get out of poverty, they don’t help people reach the American Dream. When looking at the two variables that help families develop wealth and have that security is in purchasing a home, and getting a good education. Now we have evidence that shows what helps people get out of poverty, and a lot of data that shows that our programs are failing. To review zip code data, if you are born in one zip code in Richmond, you are predestined to die sooner, more impoverished and with less opportunity than others in another zip code. We should be leveling the field for where everyone starts, and I don’t think our systems do that. This is what we are all about as a noble pursuit in America, everyone has a fair chance at success.
For me, this is personal because the social determinants of health are the things that are happening in our society that determine whether or not someone is healthy, or population health. Those are things like health, safety, and job and economic opportunity. These things don’t sound like health, but they are. It’s very hard to have access to that dream if you don’t have those basic social determinants of health. While we have a system in place where people are helped to survive, I’d like to see a system where it drives the absent social determinants of health and gives people the opportunity to thrive.
There is a lot of room for us to do this together. Many times at the General Assembly, someone will say that they like an idea, but there isn’t any money, so nothing happens. However, I believe there are two ways to make things happen. You can have money that you can invest, and I’d like to make sure that all the money we are already investing is used to achieve our goals of helping everyone thrive. On the other hand, is innovation. Companies in the private sector learn how to innovate when they don’t have capital, and that is how they succeed. Having worked with state employees for a long time, there are a lot of innovators there, but the system of employment for employees doesn’t value that. I’d love to see innovation bonuses for employees. That is what the private sector does. I’d love to do that for employees so we support innovation and we have everyone thriving in society so we’ll have more money to make things better. It’s not just about money, it’s about innovation too. When we look at political arguments, there’s very little innovation. There are essentially predetermined outcomes, and then nothing happens.
I also want to point out that a lot of great things are already happening. One is the Circles of Ashland. These are individuals who are really trying to thrive, but they are so disadvantaged. The way our system is set up, if you make a little bit more than a certain level, you can no longer get any support from systems like Medicaid. This difference in income is not enough to be able to buy healthcare separately, or to get a job that pays enough to supply benefits in addition to your pay. So, it disincentivizes people to build a work resume and to find something to self-actualize because they can’t sustain their family above the cut off. The cost of healthcare makes it so that they can’t afford to do it. We disincentivize with that system.
The same is true with housing. If someone is receiving support for housing, they have to give back 30% of anything they make, which is stated in the contract. But, if they get a second job, or do something to better themselves, they have to pay 30% of that income too. The system is designed to not give people a chance. The Circles of Ashland support these individuals, giving them education, and connecting them to resources. I would love to see the state of Virginia do a better job of connecting people who are trying to overcome poverty with resources and systems to support them while they do that. That is the systematic change I’d like to see.
One example from the Circles of Ashland, there was a woman there who was raising her family. She worked for the Department of Social Services. She was trying to make it work with the income that she had, she had taken in family members, and she couldn't get a Department of Social Services transfer from Chesterfield to Hanover, where she lived. We helped her with that, because it was so important for her to not have to commute so much so she can take care of her family. There are so many ways to innovate to make people’s lives better without necessarily having lots of money to change things.
What are some of the suggestions that we have that are fruitful?
One is to have a step process for how we actually offer Medicaid to make sure people can still have an income and have healthcare. This is a reasonable thing to do. Some of this is already in place, but people don’t know how to access it.
Another avenue involves supportive housing, and access to mental health help. We are sharing data to help make efficiencies within the state work better. Buying a home and getting an education are the two major ways to overcome poverty. There is a lot of room to make improvements in education. We’ve already done the literacy lab. We know that if someone is not reading at a third grade level by the third grade, they’re unlikely to graduate high school, they’re unlikely to enter the job market or escape poverty. We put a literacy lab in Richmond, in Henrico, Petersburg and in Northern Virginia. This is to ensure that kids in school who are challenged at the third grade level get there. This has helped 2,000 kids in Virginia already. That was very inexpensive because it was a private-public partnership and we got the job done. I’d like to see that all over Virginia. There are also the Leading Men Fellows, that brings in men to help them foster relationships with kids and helps put them on a pathway to become a teacher. This is how we connect people to success.
I also want to touch on law enforcement. Henrico and Hanover are two of the areas that have invested in crisis intervention. CIT is a collaborative group in the county that has teams of mental health and substance use support systems, advocacy groups, Henrico police and fire to help make sure that when there is a crisis, to try and prevent that crisis from happening through de-escalation. We have community policing. It was so great going around with Renaldo Arjona, who is a community police officer, and he showed us how fostering relationships with the community helped us to make sure that there was a solid base relationship with people to make sure things don’t escalate. I think those programs are great, and I’d like to see them across the whole state.
There is also a lot we can do with the police force with body cams. To my knowledge, most police departments are using body cams, and I support that, for full independent review and full accountability. If you’re doing the wrong thing and you’re a police officer you should be held accountable just like anybody else would be. This is in response to a lot of the emails we’ve been receiving, and I’ll get back to you on more specific answers regarding the code.
I think the Workforce Grant Credential Program is a great program for Virginia that actually helps us achieve our goals. That is where people are helped to get a license or credential that is nationally recognized, and the state pays for ⅔ of that. Now, talking about incentives, this is through the community college system. The ⅓ that the individual has to pay can be offered through a PELL grant or through a foundation, but the state doesn’t pay the community college. The grant doesn’t pay for the enrollment like the rest of higher education, it pays for completion, then the state pays again for the license. That means that the community college is investing in making sure that student succeeds. That’s what we really want.
We have a great example with the commercial driver’s license. The last time I received data, we had 1,400 people in Virginia get that license and transition into well paying jobs. These are the things I want us to talk about, and to accomplish going forward. If we get programs to say that we are going to get everyone access to the American Dream, and to get rid of artificial barriers, we can find ways to actually help all Virginians accomplish what they’re looking for. I’ve been very excited to talk about this for the past five years. This is what I’ve been working on in terms of legislation at the General Assembly.
I’d also like to talk about housing. When someone is getting housing support, which is run through the federal government, they can have either a nonportable voucher which means they have to live in some place like Essex Village, which is in Henrico. This is federal housing that is egregious. There were sewage problems, faulty systems, and a balcony that fell down with a pregnant woman on it. The county had no say over that unit. The individuals there were reaching out to the county asking to be able to move, and the county could not get action from the federal government. Most of the residents there signed a statement saying that they were not living in healthy conditions, and asked for portable vouchers. Portable vouchers act as support from the federal government, but instead of living in a government built facility, you get to live anywhere you can get housing. We were working on that in the General Assembly this year to make sure there were enough apartments. Henrico told me they had 32,000 empty apartments in Henrico that were readily available for those from Essex Village. Not only does that free people up from the zip code they live in, with a portable voucher in Virginia you can buy a home. It’s a long process, you work with a bank over time to develop good financial habits, but you can buy a home. This is what gives you access to the American Dream. These are the kinds of things I want to be doing in Virginia.
In legislation, I asked for a block grant from the federal government so that Virginia could manage its own public housing to hopefully give more people access to portable vouchers so they could move towards the goal of purchasing a home, or at least living where they want to.
I’d love to see us turn the conversation to the people who have asked us to build a better America so we can all go after the dream we all share, and that we can actually sit down and look at those programs. This way, we can make that a goal to where everyone can thrive. It’s the right thing to do to help people who can’t help themselves. But we should never block someone from having a chance at the American Dream and self-actualization. I think we can build those systems together.
This is an enormous amount of information and research. Next week we’ll focus more on education as we transition this from just about COVID to talking about the things you guys say are most important.