Coming down from the posh mansions nestled on the spine of Red Mountain, down the expressway that cuts through the mineral seam which serves as a natural barrier between affluent suburban ZIP codes and the inner city, sits a reminder of Birmingham’s inequality gap — the Southtown Court housing development.
The housing project, built in 1941, is perhaps one of the most visible signs of the inequality that has dogged Birmingham (and Alabama for that matter) for the better part of a century. What’s more, many experts see that gap widening, pointing to the intersection of poverty, education, and crime; to individuals seeking a path to prosperity, the intertwined relationship between those three factors might seem like an insurmountable obstacle.
Unfortunately, true rags-to-riches stories are few and far between in Alabama, said Kristina Scott, executive director of Alabama Possible, a nonprofit whose sole purpose is to remove those barriers toward prosperity in Alabama. She refers to the juxtaposition between Southtown and the mansions a mile away often when speaking at symposiums or conferences on the subject of Alabama’s inequality problem.
“The state ranks in the bottom five in educational attainment,” Scott said over the phone. “Our median household income is about $10,000 less than the national median household income. It’s not because the cost of living is so much cheaper here. It’s because people make less money. That’s closely related to our educational attainment. You got a big chicken-and-egg problem.”
Going further back than Jim Crow and the lasting negative impacts segregation had on Alabama’s economy, a study published by Harvard Economist Nathan Nunn in 2008 detailed the correlation between former slaveholding states such as Alabama and the current economic inequality that persists in the South.
“Looking either across countries within the Americas, or across states and counties within the U.S., one finds a strong significant negative relationship between past slave use and current income,” Nunn concluded. “However, the data do not show that large-scale plantation slavery was more harmful for growth than other forms of slavery. Instead, the evidence suggests that all forms of slavery were equally detrimental.”
For Scott, who pointed to this study as an indicator of why Alabama continues to struggle with inequality, one of the biggest problems facing residents in the state is the legacy of a low-skill, low-wage economy.
“The chances of moving from the bottom to the top of the income scale is lowest in former slaveholding areas,” Scott said. “And for so much of Alabama’s history we relied on low-wage, low-skill work. Those were the kinds of jobs that were in this state, and that’s what our economy was built on. Today, our jobs aren’t going overseas, they’re being replaced through automation. And when we haven’t valued education as a society, it means that our people are struggling to make ends meet because they’re not qualified for the high-skill, higher-wage jobs. They’re not equipped for the jobs of today.”
Alabama helped put a man on the moon, Scott said, “So now, how can we help more people be prosperous?” She doesn’t have an answer, but she knows Birmingham is ground zero for that change she hopes is on the horizon. In terms of socioeconomic inequality, Jefferson County is the most divided county in the state, with the top 1 percent earning more than 25 times that of the remaining 99 percent of residents.
A troubling carousel
As the effort to find a new superintendent who can stabilize the leadership within the Birmingham City Schools continues, so has the nagging perception that educational opportunities are lacking for the city’s low-income families. The troubling carousel of superintendents — there have been eight in the last 20 years — is only one component of Birmingham’s schooling problem.
A staggering 49 percent of students in Birmingham City Schools live at or below the poverty line, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. Compare that to Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook, both of which boast 6 percent poverty levels for students, just a few miles away.
At a specially called board meeting on Friday, in which a lawsuit was filed against the board for allegedly not announcing the meeting 24 hours earlier, the Birmingham Board of Education narrowed the pool of candidates down to two: Dr. Lisa Herring and Dr. Regina Thompson. During the meeting, board members graded their rubrics and were subjected to a crowd who, at times, grew hostile during the hour-long process. “I came here just to be reminded why I’m glad I don’t have kids,” one audience member said. “You’re wasting time and taxpayer money with this circus,” said another.
Two men were escorted out of the meeting. However, compared to the bomb threat that was called in during the superintendent interviews two days before, the Friday meeting was relatively mild. Still, the search process has led to public outcry from both citizens and elected officials who claim that the way it’s been handled is damaging to the perception people may have of the city’s school system. One candidate, Ronnie Dotson, called members of the BBOE from his hotel room to inform them he would be withdrawing his name from consideration after the bomb scare.
Birmingham Mayor William Bell offered this guarded criticism of the school system’s leadership: “We haven’t had stable leadership for a while — I mean, a superintendent that can stay long enough to implement and see plans through that would get us on sound footing. Whoever they select, the board needs to be able to support that individual for a minimum of three years with no second-guessing and things of that nature. Also, that individual needs to take a comprehensive look at what the community needs and what skills they have to address those needs.”
Randall Woodfin, a member of the board who is also running for mayor, does not think the city is being intentional enough when it comes to improving education. He has been a critic of what he considers Bell’s tepid support.
“When you look at the city of Huntsville with a $303 million budget, and it gives its school system $20 million; we have a $425 million budget and the schools have to beg for $1.8 million,” Woodfin said. “There are no substitutes for fighting poverty like being intentional about putting people to work and supporting education for our youth. Everything else is just talk.”
Woodfin believes more attention needs to be given to wraparound services — “support that does not begin at 8 a.m. and end at 3 p.m.,” he said — because there are a large number of parents within the school system working two or more jobs and, through no fault of their own, unable to adapt their schedule in such a way that accommodates school hours.
“Here’s the deal about poverty: it goes beyond math, science, reading, and social studies. What we have to worry about is the emotional well-being of the child. We have to worry about neglect and abuse. When you consider all those things, reading and math may not be a priority for a child that’s hungry or has other life issues to deal with,” Woodfin said. “We have to look at big-picture wraparound services. What are we doing to offset poverty?”
One major criticism leveled toward the current mayor’s administration is the lack of attention given to educational attainment. Concentrated poverty has increased steadily over the last decade. Bell believes that crime, and the “misconception of criminality” among low-income residents, is a major factor in why the school system has struggled.
“Poverty in and of itself is not an excuse for lack of education,” Bell said. “But lack of education does play a factor in how poverty creeps into one’s life. … Studies have shown that if a child can’t read at a third-grade level by the time they’re in the third grade, they have a high probability of not graduating from high school. If they don’t have a high school diploma then they lack the ability to get a job and take care of themselves. That lack of a job leads to idle time, which consequently may lead to illegal activity that could lead to crime and being part of a statistic that the inner city faces.”
Dr. Jeff Walker, a criminology professor at UAB, said pinpointing exactly where poverty, education, and crime intersect is “a hard thing to figure out.”
“If poverty caused crime, West Virginia would have a crime rate that’s 10 times that of New York City. So it’s not just that,” Walker said. “If you look in any metropolitan area anywhere, Detroit or Cleveland or Baton Rouge, these variables associated with poverty are consistent.”
By his estimate, “fixing the educational system in a single community, let’s say Titusville,” would be a 20-year project. “But if it doesn’t work in three years, we throw up our hands and say it didn’t work and walk away,” Walker said. “We’ve got to give the education system time and resources. You can’t just go in and fix it overnight. There are so many things you have to do all at once.”
One example Walker gave is “hitting the neighborhoods with an integrated, encompassing effort” that deals with the health of the community and social issues faced by residents. “We didn’t get here in two years. It’s not going to be fixed in two years,” he said.
On the front end, if you have a community with a poor educational system, not unlike Birmingham, Walker explained, high dropout rates and lack of workforce development can lead to higher rates of crime among youth.
“If you got a broken leg and the doctor comes in and says, ‘Okay, here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to put your leg back together and put some screws in your bone but we’re not going to sew it up or fix the muscles around it. Also, we’re not going to give you a cane or anything. Hopefully it will get better,’” Walker said. “That’s basically the approach we’ve been using in combatting these issues here.”
The crime of being poor
Darnetta Herbert grew up in Birmingham’s public housing communities. One of the things that has stuck with her is how people’s perceptions of “what it’s like living in the projects” doesn’t fit her experience, for the most part.
“Just because you grew up in the projects doesn’t mean you have to stay there,” Herbert said. “Unfortunately I think that’s the mindset a lot of people have who live there is that there is no other way to live. Like, they just have to live on government assistance to get by. But that’s not that case. You can do something and get out of the situation you are in. Public housing is great for people who need some help. But if you can do better, do better.”
Dr. Lesley Reid is the chair of the criminology and criminal justice department at the University of Alabama. Her studies focus on urban crime and broader social influence of crime in urban neighborhoods. In 2012, she spearheaded a study looking the ways in which neighborhood transitions influence crime in Atlanta’s public housing communities. In 2008, the Atlanta Housing Authority had petitioned the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to demolish existing project-based housing.
There was no plan for building replacement housing, Reid explained. “People that had lived in project-based housing were being moved into market-rate housing with vouchers. What we were looking at was, what was that experience like for residents,” Reid said. She and her team followed about 400 families as they transitioned out of public housing.
There is undoubtedly a stigma of criminality associated with public housing and people who live below the poverty line. Reid wanted to look at how, if at all, the deconcentration of poverty would affect crime rates and challenge preconceived notions of how poverty influences criminal behavior.
“Whether you’re poor, rich, or anywhere in between, the vast majority of people abide by conventional norms of behavior,” Reid said. “People who engage in crime are a small percentage of any subgroup of our population. Crime is opportunistic. You engage in the kinds of crime you have the opportunity to engage in. So if the conventional perception is that people [who] are poor engage in more crime, well, people who are poor engage in more crimes that are related to poverty. People who are rich engage in more crimes related to affluence.”
You’re not going to find someone who comes from a poor neighborhood in Tuscaloosa engaging in white-collar crime such as embezzling millions of dollars, because that opportunity is not available to them, Reid said.
The movement of the population after Atlanta demolished some of its existing housing projects followed the public transportation lines, primarily along the major MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) corridors, and former residents only tended to move “a few miles,” Reid said.
“People didn’t move far. They did move to neighborhoods that had lower crime rates. But still high-crime neighborhoods. So their fear of crime didn’t really change much and their experiences with victimization didn’t really change much,” Reid said. Another negative aspect documented over the two-year study was that residents were often not able to rebuild “in-kind social networks” that often help alleviate some of the stresses associated with living in poverty.
“If you’re living in poverty, so much of what you do is on a non-cash basis. But when you move away from people you know, that [economic system] gets torn apart. So six months post-move, people were still very optimistic about rebuilding those connections. But two years post-move, they still had not been able to. So there were a lot of supportive social networks that were lost in the process,” Reid said.
One of the in-kind services that was lost during the transition that could perhaps lead to an increase in criminality long-term was the provision of childcare. “People not knowing their neighbors and having someone to help watch their kids could definitely lead to juvenile delinquency long-term,” Reid said.
On the positive side, residents felt less stigmatized when they were no longer living in public housing and had more opportunities simply because of their new living situations.
As a former project resident Herbert spoke about how the Housing Authority Birmingham District helped her achieve her academic goals and put her on the road to self-sufficiency after living in public housing for most of her childhood.
Public Housing Scholarship
Herbert spoke softly over the phone. Murmurings of a newborn baby could be heard as she explained how she transitioned out of public housing and into an apartment in Homewood. Herbert is one of many people who completed college with the help of scholarships granted by the Housing Authority of Birmingham District.
Having grown up in public housing in Birmingham, Herbert is well aware of the stigma that is placed on people living there. She was the salutatorian of her graduating class at Wenonah High School and working and saving up her money to pay for her books to attend Jacksonville State. Then she learned about the scholarship opportunity available to anyone living in Birmingham’s public housing communities.
“It helped tremendously. It paid for things that I needed to live that otherwise I couldn’t afford, like personal hygiene supplies and things of that nature,” Herbert said. The scholarship was about $1,000 a year. “That may not sound like much. But if you’re like me and you come from a home where your parents aren’t able to help much, that money means everything.”
The HABD Scholarship Foundation was created in 2012 with the goal of helping any resident of Birmingham’s public housing further their education, according to the organization’s director, Cardell Davis. “We wanted to be the conduit for them to be able to obtain their degree. Whatever that was, we wanted to be able to help them get all the way there,” Davis said.
The funding for the scholarship comes in large part from donations from the roughly 240 HABD employees. In 2016, they raised more than $40,000 for scholarship opportunities. “We want to be there to assist them with everything they need; books and living expenses. It’s not just tuition, we help with ancillary assistance as well,” Davis said. “We don’t want them to have any stumbling blocks toward becoming self-sufficient.”
Herbert described her experience growing up in public housing as “okay.”
“Growing up in Kingston I do remember it being pretty rough. I remember an incident where someone was shooting in broad daylight and there were kids playing outside,” Herbert said, shushing her newborn, Dante. “Some people just don’t have the choice. You have to live where you can. I want him to have everything I couldn’t growing up. I want him to have a house and backyard he can play in with a little swingset.”
In the next year, Herbert hopes to buy a house and give Dante exactly what she dreamed of having when she was a kid growing up in the projects.