The legislative year is almost over as Governor McAuliffe vetoes or approves bills that emerged from the “veto session.” As I write this column, he is preparing to sign the final transportation bill, which will facilitate a small increase in desperately needed funding. Overcoming partisan discord surrounding new transportation revenues is one of many small reasons to feel good about the session. Still, I can’t shake my strong sense of opportunities lost: failing to enact Medicaid expansion, inadequate response to the rising cost of higher education, lack of attention to criminal justice reform and other challenges.
After session, the focus of my work as a Delegate shifts from Richmond to the 38th District, from legislation to governance and politics. Each year my office handles hundreds of requests from individuals, local governments, civic groups, associations, not-for –profits and businesses. My legislative assistant Elise Cleva and I respond to questions, contact state agencies, make referrals to government offices and service providers, advocate for constituents and mediate disputes. We strive to be “grease for the gears” of government when residents find other paths to be non-responsive. “Constituent services,” is how officeholders describe this activity. Though frequently challenging and frustrating, this work is the most consistently rewarding part of my job and reliably recharges the batteries depleted by the session.
Most officeholders invest time and effort in constituent services, though clearly some value the activity more than others. Last week I read an article that helped me better understand my belief in the importance of this work. The article reported on a “groundbreaking” study by Harvard economists describing the “role that geography plays in shaping a poor child’s chances of future success.” (The Washington Post, p. A11, 5/8/2015.) The study reported differences in expected future incomes of poor children living in America’s hundred largest counties based on the number of years they spent growing up in each. Kids from the county with the largest negative impact – Baltimore – had earnings 1.5 percent lower than the average county studied for each year they lived there. In contrast, the article cited Fairfax County for producing among the largest positive impacts on prospects for poor children.
The enormous gap between Fairfax and Baltimore is the result of multiple factors. Educational opportunity is surely one of these, but surprisingly Baltimore, among these counties, has the third highest per pupil spending on K-12 education. Whether this is adequate or not is debatable given the challenge of educating high poverty student populations, but the sheer size of the investment forces us to look for other explanations.
One of the factors the authors suggest is the difference in “social capital” among counties. This term refers to the network of private business interests, community organizations and governments representing the diverse ethnic and economic segments that make up community life, as well as the values and norms which guide their interaction and cooperation. Social capital fosters effective interdependence and joint action even among groups with vastly different priorities and beliefs.
I believe the investment in social capital by generations of Fairfax County leaders has enhanced our remarkable development over the past 30+ years. However, I fear that in recent years our reservoir of social capital has been depleted, in response to demographic trends, fears of rising economic insecurity, an external environment of growing partisan discord, concerns about government competence and public distrust of officeholders as honest brokers capable of balancing community and business interests. These factors block our ability to build consensus for long term investment in solutions rather than on band aids that only address symptoms.
If there is a general non-partisan prescription for these circumstances, I think it revolves around the idea of building social capital. Residents must inform themselves about what is happening in the community. Become involved in areas that interest them. Engage community leaders and officeholders and set high expectations for performance. Above all, commit to active involvement in the democratic process. Follow the candidates, understand their differences. Make a decision and “invest” in a trip to the polls on Election Day.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected]