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Universities Can Play A Key Data Role in Supporting Equity

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Office of Public Policy Outreach,Center for Public Policy, Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs
December 12, 2018

If you listen for it, the topic of equity is inescapable in current political, policy and administrative debates. From the potential impacts on health equity of cutting-edge genome research and local resources for education, to gender disparity in pay or representation in top leadership roles such as Congress, tax policy and equity in the building trades, evidence that some policymakers are paying attention to equity issues is easy to find. Yet a recent national survey also suggests that one broad area of equity—the growing gap between rich and poor—was among the top two issues for only 27 percent of voters in the 2018 election (39 percent of Democrats and 8 percent of Republicans).

An RVA Eviction Labmapping of eviction rates in Richmond, VA

Dr. Susan Gooden, interim dean of the Wilder School, notes as one of the central insights of her book Race and Social Equity: A Nervous Area of Government, is that equity issues—especially racial equity issues—make governments nervous and may lead them to pay less attention than needed to how government impacts and services affect different groups in the same area differently. In many cases, for equity to be discussed more widely, someone needs to bring up the concern and have the data to show decisionmakers where current policies are not equitable.

Universities have a unique opportunity to support such voices with data and the Center for Public Policy at the Wilder School, of which our office is a part, prioritizes a range of equity-enhancing projects, including:

  • Support by two CPP units – the Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory (SERL) and the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis (CURA)- for the Virginia Attorney General’s “Project Safe Neighborhood” effort to help reduce gun and gang violence among local youth. CURA provided detailed analysis of which communities in Richmond bore a disproportionate share of violent crime while SERL gathered community voices from potentially underrepresented groups through focus groups.
  • CURA, in a report on early indicators of distress in the Northside neighborhood of Richmond found that the neighborhood “lags behind the rest of the city in almost all socioeconomic, health, and children-related metrics” – a finding that can act as a catalyst for policymakers to implement necessary changes to stop and reverse the growth of such gaps.
  • The Minority Political Leadership Institute (MPLI), a program of CPP’s The Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute, asks each cohort of participants to conduct a racial equity analysis of recent Virginia legislation. In 2018, MPLI participants researched:
    • Senate Bill (SB) 909, a proposed bill to expand the Virginia Fair Housing Law to include lawful sources of income as a basis for non-discrimination.
    • House Bill (HB) 69, proposing the creation of a fund to catalyze public-private partnerships to expand access to Virginians residing in food deserts.
    • Senate Bill (SB) 106, introduced to address the criterion of redistricting and the specific impact on racial and ethnic minorities.
Sarin Adhikari, Ph.D., research economist at CURA, makes a presentation at the Communities and Public Safety Stakeholders’ Roundtable: An Analysis of Root Causes of Crime in the City of Richmond.

Another example of a focus on social equity is found in the recently formed RVA Eviction Lab. The Lab, headed by two Wilder School faculty—Kate Howell and Ben Teresa—formed in response to  Princeton University research showing that high eviction rates are disproportionately found in minority communities and that Richmond is the city with the second highest eviction rate in the United States. Housed within VCU’s Wilder School and linked with CURA, the Lab focuses on meeting eviction data and research needs and supporting the work of local government, community-based organizations, elected officials and other advocates.

Teresa, writing in RVA Eviction Lab’s report The Geography of Eviction in Richmond: Beyond Povertynotes the following evidence of racial inequality:

“Holding median income, property value, and other factors constant, we estimate that as the share of the block group’s African American population increases by 10 percent, eviction rate increases by about 1.2 percent. As the share of a block group’s White population increases by 10 percent, the eviction rate decreases by about 0.9 percent. Importantly, poverty rates and median income are not statistically significant, supporting the idea that eviction and poverty are not directly related.”

Whether it received due attention or not, equity has been a key political and administrative question throughout the history of the U.S. and our global community. Universities can play a key role in supporting voices for increased equity with data and an encouragement to keep asking the question raised by social equity champion H. George Frederickson – “For whom is this program effective or good?”Here at the Wilder School, we like to think that such a focus is one concrete embodiment of the advice often given by our school’s namesake, former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder – to continually “demand what is right and criticize what is wrong.”


Author: The Office of Public Policy Outreach is part of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. The office prepares VCU faculty for effective interactions with state and local lawmakers and helps generate and translate academic knowledge into successful public policies for the commonwealth. Email address: [email protected] | Twitter handle: @OPPOatVCU

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