Reading the Fair Budget Coalition’s New Report

The Fair Budget Coalition released its eighth annual report last week. As in the past, the Coalition recommends specific funding and other policy priorities for the District of Columbia’s next annual budget.

There are 33 recommendations in all — nearly half of them related to housing. The remainder address jobs, health, safety and revenues.

No way I can cover so many and diverse recommendations in a post. And at this point, I don’t want to pick and choose.

So let me instead share some thoughts I had as a read the report.

Growing income inequality is one of the District’s biggest challenges.

The District’s poverty rate remains considerably higher than the rate before the recession set in. And that was pretty high.

But the overall rate — 18.7% — is an inadequate measure of the challenges our policymakers face if, as Fair Budget proposes, they choose to “advance dignity and equity for all.”

For one thing, the poverty rate masks huge disparities. The poverty rate for black residents, for example, is more than four times the rate for those classified as white/non-Hispanic.

Not coincidentally, the poverty rate for the Census Bureau’s “micro area” that’s mostly Wards 7 and 8 is 34.3%, as compared to 9.6% in the area that’s mostly upper Northwest.

As I’ve written before — probably too many times — the official poverty rates are based on an outdated, over-simple measure. So they egregiously fail to reflect the hardships low-income people struggle with, especially in a high-cost city like D.C.

Consider, for example, that the median income for all the District’s black households was only $39,302 last year — about $19, 140 less than what would make a modest two-bedroom apartment affordable.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest households were doing very well indeed. In 2009, the top 5% had incomes averaging $436,900 — 25.7 times greater than the average for households in the bottom fifth.

The District has done more to address the hardships of low-income people than most jurisdictions.

We see this very clearly in the recommendations themselves.

One set, for example, calls for targeted expansions of the Local Rent Supplement Program — a housing voucher program the District established to supplement the woefully under-funded federal equivalent. Only four states have voucher programs like this.

Another recommendation asks for continuing adequate investments in the DC Healthcare Alliance — a program the District created to provide affordable health care to residents barred from Medicaid under federal rules.

For perspective on this, look at the states that won’t expand their Medicaid programs now, even though the federal government would pick up all the initial costs — and all but 10% for the long term.

Recent budgets have short-changed programs that serve low-income residents’ needs.

Like state and local governments across the country, the District had to cope with revenue losses due to the recession. And, like most, it decided to cope mainly by cutting spending rather than raising more money through tax policy changes.

So some safety net programs, e.g., homeless services, didn’t expand as they should have to meet increased recession-related needs. Others that could have helped low-income residents support themselves and their families were actually cut.

As I’ve written (and written), the District decided to start phasing out benefits for families who’d participated in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of more than five years — even though officials knew the program had failed them.

Also knew that even well-trained people with substantial work experience were having a hard time finding employment unless they had at least a bachelor’s degree.

Meanwhile, the budget for 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 jobs.

Funding for adult education was also cut, significantly limiting opportunities for the very large number of working-age residents who are functionally illiterate and others who aren’t, but lack a high school diploma or the equivalent.

The District now has an opportunity to rebuild and expand.

The District weathered the recession much better than many jurisdictions. And its economy has bounced back nicely.

Even the super-conservative Chief Financial Officer now projects $190 million more in revenues for the current fiscal year and nearly $178 million more for the upcoming fiscal year, when he (and everyone else) expects the District to experience greater impacts from the across-the-board cuts in federal spending.

The Mayor and the DC Council will still have to make choices. That’s what budgeting is about.

But they can, if they choose, invest more in programs that will alleviate the hardships of the have-nots and support their aspirations to share the opportunities and decent standard of living that many of us take for granted.

And I believe a large majority of the community would support this.

Those who do need to let the Mayor know ASAP. Fair Budget has an editable e-mail we can use.

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