Prosperity Citrus Skepticism Set Aside in Favor of Path to Meaningful Change



Today is Halloween and I am dressing up as a radical in celebration. That’s the wrong word. An idealist may be better.


This Halloween we look at an idea free of ideological constraint and without consideration to the practicality of its implementation. The only thing that matters is the mission. This concept is Prosperity Citrus.


Citrus County Chamber leadership Josh Wooten and Ardath Prendergast as well as Commissioner Holly Davis won a Florida Chamber award this week for efforts with an ongoing effort aimed at ending generational poverty known as Prosperity Citrus.


Community leaders including Sheriff Mike Prendergast, Clerk Angela Vick and Judge Patricia Thomas all spoke in favor of the initiative and it has drawn some of the hardest behind-the-scenes workers as well. The premise of the Prosperity Initiative is that zip code targeting will make the difference.


Half of the children living in poverty in Florida are in just 15% of the state’s 983 zip codes. Thus, if we focus on those 150 zip codes where roughly 50% of the poverty is then we can solve much of it.


Several of these 150 most impoverished zip codes are here in Citrus with the most troubling area being 34428 in north Crystal River. The formula to solving poverty is a ten step program that includes: nutrition, health, housing, safety, justice, voice, employment, education, transportation and childcare.


When we think about normal distributions, our minds tend to think of bell curves. When new technology like the iPhone in 2007 came out, a few people got it right away then the vast majority of people migrated to it and now only a few people still have flip phones. The few in the beginning and the few at the end are the extremes of the bell curve with the steady raise between the two.


What Florida’s poverty numbers show us is that the distribution is not a bell curve. A few areas, 15% of zip codes, represent a disproportionate number of impoverished people, over 50%, so this is a power law distribution. Power law graphs look more like a lying down hockey stick than a bell and are better understood as the 80/20 principle.

ADVERTISEMENT

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in a 2006 column about the power law distribution in the homeless population’s effect on the Reno, Nevada healthcare system stating that poverty initiatives don’t often attempt to cure the problem, but rather try to treat the symptoms. If you want to solve homelessness, then give people homes. This solution, he acknowledges, will be met with political pushback.


“Power law solutions have little appeal to the Right because they provide special treatment for those who do not deserve special treatment and they have little appeal to the Left because their emphasis on efficiency over fairness suggests the cold number crunching of Chicago school cost benefit analysis,” Gladwell wrote in his 2009 book What the Dog Saw when recounting his 2006 article.


Even so, the approach to housing the homeless was tried twice: once in the State of Utah by a Republican governor and once in the City of Denver by a Democrat mayor. After the decade-long initiatives ended, in both cases the problem was abated with only marginal or no clear sign of success.


So what makes Prosperity Citrus different? Was Gladwell wrong and treating the symptoms of poverty can be a path to a cure? Maybe.

His argument that many treatment plans, like the 10 steps of Prosperity Citrus, assume that the people or situations receiving the treatment will respond rationally. People should want to work, so if you present them with a meaningful job, they will work. Due to underlying causes such as behavior problems or addiction, however, this is rarely the case.


The Concurrent has often distinguished between people who believe in the strength of institutions over individuals and those who think that individuals are the strength of institutions.


I believe in institutions and the 10 steps of Prosperity Citrus feels too broad for an initiative that also touts the merits of its precision location targeting. However, there is no doubt that the amount of talent that Prosperity Citrus has attracted to help make it work qualifies this as a serious push toward making Citrus a better place.


I’m proud to live in a county that doesn’t give up on its most vulnerable population, and while I have my skepticism with Prosperity Citrus as a structure to success, there’s no doubt the people who are involved want to see real change enacted.


A 750 word column about Citrus County published every Thursday and Sunday