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America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake: The Failure of American Housing Policy.

City Journal

Howard Husock
A Connecticut Yankee in Appalachia
Alice Ely Chapman wages a one-woman war on poverty.
Spring 2014
Photographs by Robb de Camp
Chapman’s philanthropic work promotes Victorian values like self-discipline and persistent effort to the poor of Marietta, Ohio.

Jobs are available in and around Marietta, Ohio—well-paying blue-collar jobs—thanks to the oil and gas drilling in the Utica and Marcellus shale formations that run deep beneath the bucolic hills of Washington County. The local economy is not as robust as during its manufacturing heyday, when chemical, metals, and plastics plants dominated the Ohio River waterfront. But a welder can make $35 an hour at one of the flood-lit drilling sites outside town; a roustabout can make $18. The parking lot at the Fairfield Inn off Route 7 is filled with out-of-state trucks from Boots & Coots, a Halliburton subsidiary specializing in well-pressure control. Yet in this Rust Belt city of 14,000, many jobs either go untaken or are filled by out-of-staters. Intergenerational poverty is common, a paradox explained in part by a host of social problems—family breakdown, dependency, drug abuse, and educational indifference. These pathologies run as deep here as the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers on Front Street—notwithstanding the fact that the city is 97 percent white. In fact, locals speak (sometimes softly, as if it were politically incorrect) of a pervasive culture of “Appalachian values,” reminiscent of the values and behaviors often thought to be confined to America’s black urban underclass.

Since coming to the city in 1996, Alice Ely Chapman has learned more about such values than she’d ever expected. She is a figure who seems to step out of the past, a Connecticut Yankee—from a first family of old New Haven, a descendant of Connecticut’s signer of the Declaration of Independence—come to southeastern Ohio, hard by the West Virginia line. As the founder, director, and principal funder of the Ely Chapman Educational Foundation, she has attempted over the last two decades to reintroduce Marietta’s struggling poor to the “Victorian” values of her childhood—working in the line of someone like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who preached not just emancipation but self-discipline and “persistence,” or even Cotton Mather, who lamented the ill effects of “destructive Ignorance.” Like them, Chapman is an austere New Englander. While the after-school and summer programs she offers aren’t, at first blush, remarkable—homework help, theater and karate classes, a Boy Scout troop—she has become an unlikely local hero. If one wonders what an American cultural traditionalist willing to devote both money and time to uplift the poor would do today, Chapman provides an unapologetic answer. “I see myself as preserving the values that children need to learn to become successful: respect and responsibility,” she says. “We are teaching, every day, the first steps of a good work ethic.” The challenge she faces is a microcosm of the nation’s challenge to encourage upward mobility. Her efforts show how much one person, through good ideas and force of personality, can accomplish toward that end.

Marietta, just across the Ohio River from West Virginia, is a place of great natural beauty and fading architectural grandeur. Founded in 1789 by 48 Revolutionary War veterans from Massachusetts and Connecticut, its buildings retain some of that New England character. The Marquis de Lafayette once visited Marietta to honor those he served with during the Revolution. Marietta College, which began as a local private secondary school, was and is a good, small, liberal arts school; it was to be the settlers’ Harvard. Concentrations of historic Victorian and Federal-style homes reflect the wealth generated by an early-twentieth-century oil and gas boom. Industrialization followed that boom, and for much of the last century, solid, blue-collar employment could be had at those plants on the banks of the Ohio. The prosperity lasted until manufacturing firms began sending jobs to less expensive locations in the South and overseas during the 1970s.

These days, the signs of economic stagnation are hard to miss, despite the recent energy boom, which has driven the area’s normally high unemployment rate below the nation’s. Check-cashing and payday-loan places dot the landscape near the exit off I-77, the north-south highway on which signs are regularly posted urging citizens to report drug-related activity. Trailer homes can be found even inside the city limits, some in better condition than the mid-nineteenth-century homes in the riverfront Harmar neighborhood. Main Street is dominated by modest businesses—consignment stores, coffee shops, cheap gift outlets. The poverty rate is 15.4 percent, significantly above the national average.

Jobs are available in and around Marietta, but swaths of the city are mired in poverty because of family breakdown and drug use.

The social indicators are equally stark and will sound familiar to readers of Charles Murray and his analysis of the decline of the white working class. Almost as many Marietta children are raised by single parents these days as are being raised by two-parent families; more “non-family” households reside here than married ones. Dependency is widespread. Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of families receiving food stamps doubled, while the labor-force participation rate hovered well below the national rate. For many Mariettans, the safety net of benefits—food stamps, housing vouchers, Supplemental Security Income, and more—has been a substitute for work, instead of serving as a temporary helping hand. Marietta’s underclass has developed an informal network to help recipients maximize various streams of government benefits. Parents learn to push schools to classify their kids as having special needs in order to qualify for disability payments, for example, or (illegally) to use food stamps for cigarettes. There’s a street calculus, too, that says a job should pay at least $12 an hour in order to make it more worthwhile than a life on “benefits.” “Whenever there’s a new program, you can be sure who’s going to show up to apply,” says a staff member at the Washington Morgan (Counties) Community Action Program. As someone who grew up in rural poverty herself, without central heat or indoor plumbing, the staffer reluctantly concludes that the availability of myriad benefit programs has helped erode the work ethic among this population.

Almost as many of Marietta’s children are being raised by single parents as by two-parent families.

Like many cities in the Appalachian region, Marietta is awash in illegal drugs. When a local pipe manufacturer administered drug tests to 200 potential employees, only 25 passed. Teenagers hold “skittles parties,” where they scoop up and pop random assortments of pills from their home medicine cabinets. Not even local boosters—and there are many—sugarcoat the drug problem. City treasurer Cathy Jo Harper remembers the month when the Washington County sheriff announced 35 indictments; 32 were drug-related. “Heroin overdoses, meth labs in the backseats of cars, a prescription-drug black market—we’ve got it all,” she says. A local judge estimates that 99 percent of the search warrants he approves are for drug searches. The drug trade and its associated gun violence are concentrated in garden apartment complexes, where many residents rely on Section 8 housing vouchers, provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to pay their rent. Harper estimates that 1,000 of these “HUD houses” are scattered throughout the city.

Marietta’s public school system is not helping matters. Ohio’s 2013 state “report card” gave it a D for value-added—that is, for its progress in improving the reading and math skills of low achievers between fourth and eighth grade. Over 12 percent of students never finish high school. But school officials say that they are battling powerful and destructive forces in the community, with many students living in disorganized households with multiple children from multiple fathers. The principal of one elementary school says that she even has a tough time getting parents to sign the permission slip needed for kids to attend an after-school enrichment program. “I finally got the cell-phone number of a parent. I reached him twice, but nothing happened,” she said. Just getting through to a parent can be difficult. Many on public assistance receive “government cell phones” through the so-called lifeline assurance program. These offer limited monthly minutes for incoming calls; calls not from friends or family tend to go unanswered.

Chapman’s after-school programs require kids to learn how to read literature and study math and history.

All this dysfunctional behavior—the disordered families, the aversion to work, the welfare dependency, the drugs and violence—is what Marietta leaders mean when they use the euphemistic phrase “Appalachian values.” Social thinker Edward Banfield, in his classic book The Unheavenly City, described something similar when he wrote of chaotic lives marked by “present orientation”—that is, unable to plan rationally for the future and addicted to immediate gratification. Sociologist Joseph Howell called the conduct “hard living.” Economist Thomas Sowell has gone so far as to suggest that the values of the poor, antebellum Scotch-Irish Southern whites who settled the region became the cultural norms into which poor African-Americans eventually assimilated. Appalachian values, he believes, were imprinted on black culture, with the urban underclass its cultural product. City treasurer Harper links the drug and alcohol abuse among the young to what she calls “community disorganization.” Around here, bad choices are so common that people just accept them as normal.

Enter Alice Ely Chapman. An austere New Englander, Chapman is a descendant of Nathaniel Ely, one of Connecticut’s founding settlers. Her maternal grandfather, John Day Jackson, owned the New Haven Register, which was still, in the early 1960s, among the state’s most influential institutions. As a young woman in one of New Haven’s first families, Chapman was groomed for a genteel life—maids and drivers, dressing for dinner, piano, French, study abroad, Bryn Mawr. As a teenager, she served in an Episcopal mission to the Navajos, helping them translate traditional hymns into the tribal tongue. But her missionary zeal lay dormant until much later in life. After college, she married an Ohio-born son of a coal miner, whom she’d met in France while she was studying piano and he was serving in the army. “I was the rebel in my family,” she says. The unlikely couple lived a modest life in Philadelphia for decades: he worked for the post office, and she was a purchasing agent for a Quaker secondary school.

It was only in 1996 that the retired couple decided to move to Appalachian Ohio. The death of her mother in 1994 left Chapman with a significant “charitable remainder trust,” thanks to John Day Jackson’s considerable fortune. The death of her father in 1997 left her with an additional personal inheritance so substantial that she could devote $2 million to the Ely Chapman Education Foundation (ECEF)—the centerpiece of her philanthropic work in Marietta.

Her efforts began modestly, in the fall of 1998, when she and a group of other members of Saint Luke’s Lutheran Church started an after-school program in the otherwise vacant and dilapidated former Marietta High School building on Scammel Street, in the city’s still-striking, relatively affluent Victorian-era residential district. Over the years, the building housed the city’s municipal court and served as the local Knights of Columbus hall. When the church decided that it couldn’t afford the upkeep and would close the after-school program, the newly established ECEF stepped in, purchasing the massive old building and giving it a $400,000 renovation. At first, Chapman wanted to use the building for a charter school, but she discovered that Ohio law limits such schools to major cities. So she opened an after-school program instead—the School of Unusual Needs Students offering Healthy, Individualized and Nurturing Education, or the S.U.N.S.H.I.N.E. Learning Station, as it’s known by most locals today.

Now, 16 years later, foundation-owned vans bring 65 kids from six schools—including the local Catholic school—to the Scammel Street building every day. Over the years, the program has served some 1,900 kids—not an insubstantial number for a small city with a public school system that serves only 1,600 students a year. The foundation pays a substantial share of the $400,000-plus annual operating costs for the eight staff teachers, the food-service workers, and the maintenance staff. It’s not all charity, though. Chapman insists on tuition payments of some kind, even from the poorest households. A small state grant covers the cost of daily meals for all students.

Chapman has made it her business to know the Marietta public school curriculum grade by grade, but her efforts go beyond the academic. The real objective, she says, is for all the students to become what she calls “independent learners”—to develop the tools to learn on their own when they get to high school and beyond. She wants them to know how to read literature and how to study math and history. Though she’s taken several graduate-level education classes, Chapman credits her Connecticut mother for seeding this commitment to the idea of lifelong learning.

In her role as full-time director of ECEF, Chapman stands in the tradition of a nineteenth-century predecessor, Connecticut-born minister Charles Loring Brace, whose approach to helping the poor emphasized the “formative” over the “reformative.” (See “Uplifting the Dangerous Classes,” Winter 2008.) Chapman’s belief in “the two Rs”—respect and responsibility—led her to embed these concepts into the S.U.N.S.H.I.N.E. program’s curriculum. Posters emphasize them in each classroom. The values are practiced as well as preached. When students misbehave, for example, they must write letters of apology to their teachers. Students are expected to have their homework assignment in hand when they arrive at ECEF in the afternoon, even, says Chapman, if their teacher has failed to give it to them earlier in the day. She explains: “We talk about being respectful and being responsible for yourself. If they don’t have their homework assignment, whose fault is that? They might say, ‘My teacher didn’t put it in my cubby.’ We would say, ‘It’s not the teacher’s fault. It’s your fault for not asking the teacher where the homework for tonight is or why it isn’t written on the board.’ That’s our way of teaching responsibility. That’s teaching the first steps of a good work ethic.”

Chapman’s descriptions of a day at ECEF are collected in a set of notes titled “Daily Schedule for Academic Programs (annotated).” They reveal a program that emphasizes structure and responsibility at every moment of the day. Upon arrival at ECEF, the notes explain, a student must put “his/her backpack/bookbag in the proper location.” Middle school students must “wash their hands before going down to the café to eat supper.” All students receive a tray with milk, regardless of whether they are planning to eat. Because of the acoustic created by a linoleum floor and a tin ceiling, the basement café can get loud. When the noise level is unacceptably high, students who notice will hold up two fingers to quiet the group down. “Having the students self-monitor their noise level is extremely important,” the notes observe.

After supper, students go back upstairs to their assigned desks to work on homework. Homework, enrichment, and reinforcement activities are overseen by classroom teachers, several of whom are joint education and psychology majors at Marietta College. In contrast with many tutoring programs, S.U.N.S.H.I.N.E. students must complete their homework, not merely start it. This makes the program, in effect, an extension of the school day. Still, even “students with no homework must read for 15 minutes and do two pages of math work before doing anything else,” Chapman’s notes point out. When homework is completed, students must read. Only then are they free for “socialization time” in the gym or art room. “One hard and fast rule,” Chapman’s notes state, “is that each student must pick up his/her ‘mess’—Legos, blocks, games or toys.” Toys not properly picked up will be pulled from the art room for a week. Students are released at day’s end only to “parents or guardians” (ID can be requested), who start picking up students around five o’clock. Some pick up earlier, but “that is frowned upon, as it does not give the students enough time to get the academic work done.”

The independently run programs at ECEF are richly varied. Students participate in a regular “Success and Honor” karate class, the Youth Theater Company, the Marietta Dance Academy, and the River Education Program, which, led by a local artist, filled the basement “with a topographically correct model of the Muskingum River with all bridges, locks, and cities identified,” Chapman says. Chapman herself teaches the “merit badge” course on the Constitution to the Boy Scout troop. The building has a decently stocked library (books are sorted by level of difficulty), and there’s an annual giveaway of remaindered books, donated by publishers.

Other after-school initiatives operate in Marietta, but ECEF’s character- and habit-based approach is unique. The YMCA, for example, promotes a teen after-school program that focuses on fuzzy goals, including “leadership,” “discussion,” and “social responsibility.” A training program for organizers of such youth clubs, held at a nearby Ohio city, stresses that “teens will learn new skills and further their knowledge about the topics that affect their lives, including relationships, peer pressure and school. Like every aspect of Teen Leaders Club, the teens, themselves, determine what they are going to learn about, based on what they WANT to learn.” This teen-centric approach has its defenders, but it’s not what’s going on at ECEF, where an adult-determined structure simulates an oversize, well-run, middle-class family, with Chapman as a “parent” or “grandparent” helping to give guidance to the kids. A well-organized family is something that many Mariettans have never known before.

In the scale of her philanthropy, Alice Chapman is Marietta’s Melinda Gates. If a foundation were to devote a similar magnitude of funds to a midsize city—say, Buffalo, with just under 300,000 residents and similar problems—it would have to spend almost $40 million. But is Chapman actually helping to break Marietta’s cycle of intergenerational poverty?

Cultures don’t change quickly, but one can discern some indicators of progress. Of the nearly 2,000 kids who’ve enrolled in one ECEF program or another, 375 have gone on to post a B average or better, the public school criteria for honor roll. Of the 65 students currently attending, 19 are on their schools’ honor rolls. And 13 years after ECEF opened, the fraction of Mariettans’ total personal income coming from government is beginning to decline, from a peak of 26.2 percent in 2010 to 25.3 percent in 2011—though ECEF’s role in that trend is unclear.

The most powerful evidence of the worth of Chapman’s work comes from personal stories. Consider Fred, taken in by his grandparents after living for a time with his mother in a home in which marijuana smoke was so thick that he often came to school high from it: thanks partly to ECEF’s help, Fred has gone on to get a college degree in language and speech pathology. Or consider Bruce, an indifferent student from a rough background: he blossomed when ECEF recognized his artistic talent and asked him to design publicity posters for the independently run Youth Theater Company, housed in the foundation building. Now in college, Bruce recalls proudly bringing a poster he designed to the hospital bed of his dying mother—a dramatic moment that “turned his life around,” he recalls.

Parents can see the value of Chapman’s program, and they work hard to afford it. Clyde, a single father of two children, has custody most of the time. “Their mother is a pill head,” he says. “In and out of jail.” Clyde saw that his son was falling behind academically and that the school was prepared to write him off, perhaps classifying him as disabled to guard against his low test scores pulling down the school’s overall performance. Chapman, he enthuses, is like a grandmother to the children. “Those kids listen to her.” Enrolling at ECEF has helped his son get to grade level. Clyde hopes that the boy is now on a path to a life in which “he won’t have to work outside in the weather.” Tiffany works the night shift at a local assisted-living center. Her husband works overnights, too, at a local industrial-magnet manufacturer. They sleep in shifts during the day to ensure that someone is always awake with their two children, both enrolled at ECEF. It’s not easy for the couple to afford even the modest tuition. “Mrs. Chapman worked with us on a payment schedule after my husband’s hours got cut,” Tiffany says. “I got pregnant right after high school. I want my kids to go further.” The gibes from neighbors about sending her kids to “that rich people’s school” were hard to hear, but she ignored them.

Not every story has a happy ending. Annie, daughter of a learning-disabled mother, was removed by authorities to her grandparents’ home, but things weren’t great there, either. She suffered from frequent infestations of head lice and typically missed 30 to 40 days of school a year. Her grandfather—given to watching pornographic films even with the young girl in the same room—routinely and purposefully discarded the homework she completed in the after-school program, leading teachers to think that she wasn’t doing it. Chapman intervened personally by taking the finished homework assignments to Annie’s school herself. Annie eventually became a B student in high school, and started vocational training as a welder—one of the well-paying skilled jobs suddenly in high demand around Marietta. All might have gone well had Annie not gotten pregnant in December of her senior year. When they met at the career center where Annie was in class, the girl told Chapman, “I know you are disappointed in me, Mrs. C. You were right. Just like you said, I did fall for the first boy who said he loved me.” Now that she was pregnant, Annie said, the boy seemed not to care any more. To date, Annie has neither graduated from high school nor completed the welding program. As “Mrs. C” puts it, the girl “has fallen off the radar.”

Annie’s embarrassment at revealing her situation to “Mrs. C” serves as a reminder of the importance of Chapman herself, as much as program design or execution, to ECEF’s success. Her tone, manner, and obvious personal investment send the message to students and parents that someone impressive cares deeply about them. She has become for Marietta’s underclass a living representation of the norms of constructive behavior. Advocates for the poor often see a new program or policy—such as prekindergarten education for all New York City low-income students—as holding the key to uplift. But it may be that preparing the poor to compete economically will always be a function of a capable individual’s personal investment in their lives.

The City of Marietta understands what Alice Ely Chapman has done for it. In 2010, the local chapters of the Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions clubs jointly named this bold outsider their citizen of the year. Her value to the community goes well beyond her after-school programs. Thanks to the sheer size of the foundation’s building, Chapman can offer space to other programs and projects. This provides ECEF with additional income and has allowed Chapman to reduce her personal philanthropic giving. Yet the Ely Chapman Education Foundation may not survive the eventual departure of its founder. She’s almost 70, and one of the oil and gas companies active in the region wants to purchase the mineral rights to the property she owns outside town, in rural Washington County. She seems to be leaning toward saying yes—so long as the offer includes a healthy contribution to ECEF.

Both Chapman and her board agree that she’ll be difficult to replace, though she does have a successor in mind. She has done more than anyone can remember to bring Marietta’s poor and marginalized communities out of their isolation. If, as economist Tyler Cowen has written, the quality most at a premium in our changing economy, especially for lower-skilled workers, is conscientiousness, then this nineteenth-century Connecticut Yankee is at the cutting edge in preparing her charges for the twenty-first-century workforce. Whether her efforts ultimately succeed in changing the dysfunctional culture of this small city remains an open question. One thing is undeniable, however: a lot of kids in Marietta, Ohio, are a lot better off because of Alice Ely Chapman.

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