Panel to Address Poverty in DC and What to Do About It

On Tuesday, March 5, the Fair Budget Coalition will host a panel discussion on poverty in the District of Columbia — “The State of the District’s Poverty: What’s the Story Behind the 600 Kids at DC General?”.

As the online invitation suggests, the Coalition is linking the record-high number of children in DC General — the District’s main shelter for families — to funding cuts in both safety net programs and others that benefit low-income residents.

A look at the District’s poverty rates is surely worthwhile. As I’ve written before, both the overall rate and the child poverty rate are well above the national rates — and considerably higher than the rates in 2007, just before the recession set in.

But, as I’ve also written, the Census Bureau’s poverty thresholds are unrealistically low. For a single mother with two children, for example, the 2011 threshold was just $18,123.

The Wider Opportunities for Women’s Basic Economic Security Tables for the District show that the family would need about $85,680 for basic necessities, child care and taxes, plus some extra for rainy day and retirement savings – if the mother had employer-sponsored health insurance and retirement benefits.

This is higher than the 2011 median income for District households as a whole, but nearly $22,000 lower than the median for households classified as white/non-Hispanic.

One of many indications that the growing economic prosperity Mayor Gray’s recent State of the District address celebrated hasn’t done much for the “have-nots” in the city.

The challenge Fair Budget faces is that no panel can specifically address all the programs that could alleviate hardship — and narrow the huge income gaps here — if the Mayor and the DC Council invested more money in them.

The event can provide a framework for the programs, however, and draw some links among them. Also identify priorities for addressing critical weaknesses.

We know, for example, that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program aims to prepare parents for work that will, at the very least, reduce their need for safety net benefits.

The District has invested resources in making TANF job training more effective. It’s also launched several initiatives to match job seekers with employers that might hire them.

But many parents won’t be able to work unless they have child care — and a subsidy to make it affordable. Consider, for example, that the average annual market rate local centers charge for infants is $2,400 more than a full-time minimum wage worker earns.

Yet the District’s subsidy program reimburses providers at such low rates that many have gone out of business. The remainder perforce generally limit the number of subsidized children they’ll take.

So there are more than 9,000 infants and toddlers on center waiting lists, according to the Fair Budget invite.

We’ve thus got one program that’s doing more to address barriers to work and another that should, but isn’t because it’s egregiously under-funded.

Similarly, the employment prospects of more than 36% of D.C. adults are extremely limited because they’re functionally illiterate.

Yet local funding for adult education programs was cut in Fiscal Year 2011 and again in Fiscal Year 2012. It’s at its twice-reduced level in the current budget, I’m told. (The budget for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, where adult ed. is housed, is notoriously opaque.)

Well, I could go on, but point is made, I hope. As with any complex problem, poverty has a lot of inter-related parts. And the District government has a lot of parts that affect it, for good or ill.

If the Mayor truly wants to “improve the quality of life for all,” as his One City Action Plan says, then he should fashion a budget that reflects a comprehensive commitment to both the safety net and poverty reduction.

Like all elected officials, he’ll tend to want what he believes his constituents want seriously enough to consider when election time rolls round.

So a good turnout at the Fair Budget Coalition’s event would send a helpful message. And I expect it to be both informative and a launching pad for this year’s grassroots budget advocacy.

And who wouldn’t be inspired to launch after listening to panelists who know poverty first-hand — and while sitting among some of the families from DC General who’ll be there too?

The hour-long event begins at 3:30 p.m. in Room 412 of the Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. You’ll need a photo ID to get past the guards.

And Fair Budget asks that you RSVP to Janelle Treibitz, 202-328-5513 or janelle@fairbudget.org.

UPDATE: The event will be in Room 123 instead of Room 412, as originally planned.

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2 Responses to Panel to Address Poverty in DC and What to Do About It

  1. [...] child care subsidies was cut by a total of $30 million, making it difficult for low-income parents, especially those with infants and toddlers, to manage full-time [...]

  2. [...] low reimbursement rates providers get account, at least in part, for the fact that parents of some 9,000 infants and toddlers can’t get affordable child [...]

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