On Snow, Charitable Giving and Need

February 4, 2016

Can’t altogether put the big snowstorm behind me. For one thing, the city left the hard-packed drift behind my car. But that’s not what I want to write about. On the contrary. It’s why I wasn’t snowed in and anxious as all get-out.

Even before the snow stopped, I could open my front door, where it tends to pile up, and walk safely to my gate. One of my neighbors shoveled my steps and front walk twice during the storm and again the following day. Cleared the sidewalk in front too.

His wife had made a first pass at the walk as night fell — and snow swirled. She’d called in the morning to find out if I needed anything and again the next day. I mentioned my worries about a power outage.

Well, I should come over to their house, since they’d have a fire going. And power loss or no, would I like to join them for dinner?

Now, these are people I don’t know well — just neighbors whom I chat with when we chance to see one another. But they went out of their way to care for my most critical need — and to let me know they cared.

So did total strangers.

When the snow finally stopped and the sun came out, I decided I should start unburying my car. I knew I didn’t have to strength to do it all at once. (It was barely distinguishable from the drafts fore and aft.) So I planned to do it in stages.

Three young men in a truck pulled over and asked whether I’d like help. I told them I couldn’t pay them unless they’d accept a check. (I’d realized only after the storm started that my provisioning had omitted a trip to the ATM.)

No check wanted. They just pulled out their shovels and dug for awhile — enough so I could get into the car and out of my parking space should I dare to drive. (I didn’t.)

But I returned to the car task the following day. Up walked another young man. Could he help? He didn’t want to be paid, he assured me.

And he would have gone on digging even longer than he did if I hadn’t said we should call it quits — this so I could retreat to the house and get blood flowing in my fingers.

Reflecting on my snow days experience, I’m struck — and moved — by how charitable these people were. That’s the word that pops to mind when I retell the story to myself.

We’re accustomed to seeing it in the phrase “charitable giving” or its kindred “charitable gift.” These , of course, refer to donations of money or things of value to organizations that, in this country, have registered with the Internal Revenue Service as 501(3)(c)s.

But the word came into our language, through French, from the Latin caritas. Long before it migrated, it had come to mean selfless love for one’s fellow beings — the feeling that inspires caring acts, including giving alms to the poor.

But the love, not the donations was what qualified charity as a Christian virtue — in some Biblical texts and later teachings the greatest.

I’m not trying to convert my snow story into a sermon. I do, however, think there’s a lesson about giving and need.

We see people in need every day — and know about many more through our media sources, advertisements and the solicitations we receive, especially toward the end of each tax year.

Some of us may give money directly to people who ask for it as we pass them by on the street. I doubt many of us give to everyone who asks, though I’ve only my own conduct and what I see as evidence.

We who’ve got the wherewithal tend to respond to the needs of those we only read or hear about by charitable giving in the usual sense. But we, the American public, split when it comes to public policies. If we didn’t, we’d have a quite different set — and different elected officials making them.

Consider, for example, SNAP (the food stamp program). It’s supposed to address needs for food that poor and near-poor people can’t otherwise afford.

But as you read this, more than a million people are near to losing their SNAP benefits because they’re able-bodied, have no dependents living with them and can’t meet the work requirements Congress imposed when it ended welfare as we knew it. “Can’t” is the proper word here, given the barriers they face.

Conservatives like work requirements. And we don’t see much pushback from progressives — at least, not as a matter of principle. Trouble is poor people need cash or near-cash assistance to survive.

Now I’m not ready to argue that we should give free food, housing and the like to work-able people who purportedly laze about in comfortable hammocks.

But who believes that any able-bodied (and minded) adult without dependents would choose not to work at least half-time or participate in a job training program because s/he could get some free food — less than $2.00 per meal, on average?

We’ve got a modern-day version of the old distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. Those who don’t work or prepare for work in some specified way can’t have their basic needs met — unless they’re too young, too old or too severely disabled.

Few basic needs met for the too young, however, unless their state exempts them from the five-year, lifetime limit on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits. Most states don’t.

Returning — thought I never would, didn’t you? — to me and the snow days. No one who helped me had decided I was a worthy sort. No one tried to ascertain whether I’d put my back into shoveling out.

They simply felt a charitable calling. Surely we could have more of that in our public policies without jeopardizing the work ethic of our poor fellow creatures.


What the Revamped Child Nutrition Act Would Do About Summer Hunger

February 1, 2016

Picking up where I left off, the Senate Agriculture Committee’s new version of the Child Nutrition Act seeks to close — or at least, narrow — current gaps that can leave low-income children without enough nutritious food.

One opens every summer, when the school year ends. No more free meals five days a week. No more free snacks in after-school programs. And SNAP (food stamp) benefits don’t increase to cover a family’s extra costs.

Summer Hunger in the Child Nutrition Act

The CNA has a double-pronged approach to summer hunger. One prong allows schools that serve meals to kids in summer classes to tap their regular reimbursement source.

The other — the Summer Food Service Program — will reimburse schools, other government agencies and nonprofits for meals and/or snacks they serve at sites in low-income areas, i.e., those where at least half the kids are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.

All kids eat for free. So there’s not the same stigma some poor and near-poor children feel when they queue up in the cafeteria during the school year. And participating organizations may offer a variety of activities — sports, for example, or computer training — that attract kids, regardless of income.

The program nevertheless reaches only a fraction of children who benefit from free or reduced-price lunches during the school year — just 16.2% in 2014.

Various reasons for this — some more amenable to policy solutions than others. But the Senate Ag Committee clearly has considered what more federal policies might do.

What the Senate Agriculture Committee’s Bill Would Do

The bill goes at the summer hunger problem in three different ways. First, it would allow some sites to serve meals kids can eat at home, though the program usually requires “congregate feeding.”

That would help in rural areas, where sites are often widely scattered and hard to get to. Other communities with extremely high rates of poor and near-poor children could also opt for off-site meals, however.

The exception would also help prevent hunger when children can’t or won’t go to a site every day, as they usually do — when it’s extremely hot, for example.

Second, the bill takes a stab at simplifying administration for non-school sponsors that offer both after-school and summer programs. They now have to do all the paperwork for each separately and comply with two different sets of standards.

The bill would phase in a fused option, beginning with seven states in 2017 and in the far distant future covering all 50, plus the District of Columbia and other entities the law treats as states.

Third, the bill would create a limited option to the summer feeding program. States could issue electronic benefits transfer cards, loaded with $30 per month, per child to some parents.

Not all states could opt in, however. Nor could the states the U.S. Department of Agriculture chooses get enough cards for all kids who, for one reason or another, don’t get fed through a site-based program.

The bill restricts the option to states in compliance with a provision in the prior CNA that requires them to use EBT cards for WIC, instead of paper coupons by 2020. The Food Research and Action Center understands this to mean that states must have converted to the cards.*

Only 15 reportedly had, as of last October. But the option wouldn’t kick in until 2018. When it did, only a fraction of potentially eligible children would benefit — 235,000 then and 50,000 more in 2020.

Some of you may recall a bill introduced last year that would have made the summer EBT card option available nationwide and given families significantly more money for food — five times as much initially.

As I remarked at the time, the offset the bill proposed virtually assured it would go nowhere. And the felt need for an offset may account for the stripped down version we see now.

Much as we might like to see something akin to the earlier proposal, we know the gain could have come at a high cost, especially because the Senate Ag Committee apparently felt it had to find the pay-for within the food assistance area.

When Congress last reauthorized the CNA, it paid for nearly half the additional costs by curtailing the SNAP boost that was part of the Recovery Act. That, plus an earlier pay-for cut benefits for all recipients, including about 22 million children.

We perhaps then shouldn’t feel too disgruntled at the limited steps toward ending summer hunger. As with the broader subsidies to feed children in daycare, a step forward now could mean another step in the future.

One of those hope springeth eternal moments for this blog. The new CNA bill has quite a ways to go before it can have any effect on child nutrition. And, of course, we’ve no idea how the next Congress to look at the issues will net out. Still ….

* FRAC has been extensively and intensively involved in the reauthorization process. So we can, I think, feel confident that this is what the drafter intend.

 


Senate Committee Clears New, Promising Child Nutrition Act

January 28, 2016

The Senate Agriculture Committee passed a new version of the Child Nutrition Act last week. Some positive changes. Some not so hot. But the good far outweighs the not-so, I think.

Basically, the bill would do more to help ensure that low-income children have enough nutritious food to eat when they’re not in school — because they’re too young, because school has let out for the day and or because it’s summertime.

The bill could have gone further, but it paves the way for stronger measures in the next CNA — or perhaps even sooner. And happily, it doesn’t go further to water down the nutritious standards for meals children get when they are in school.

The bill has many parts. And even just those I’ve highlighted have parts. So I’m going to deal here with only the first two and the compromise that barely compromises the nutrition standards. Summer meals to follow soon.

Preschool-Age Children

WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance for Women, Infants and Children) has long provided, as its name suggests, a cash-equivalent income supplement that enables pregnant women and mothers of young children to buy foods and beverages that they and their kids might otherwise not get enough of.

The benefit has thus far supplemented the diets of children until they’re five years old. By the time they’re six, they’ll be in elementary school and thus eligible for free or reduced-price lunches — and most of them for breakfasts too.

But, as you see, there’s often a gap. The Senate Ag Committee’s bill would close it by extending eligibility for WIC to age six, except for children in full-day kindergarten programs — and thus presumably fed at no or little cost to their parents.

Children in Childcare Programs

Now, some of those preschoolers spend most of their days — and perhaps part of their evenings — in a childcare center or home-based childcare program. Likewise older children whose parents work late shifts and/or weekends.

Trouble is kids get hungry. And young kids tend to get hungry often because they don’t eat all that much at any one time.

Yet the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which subsidizes meals and snacks served by some of those centers and home-based programs, has reimbursed for no more than two meals and a snack per day.

The Senate Ag Committee’s bill would allow reimbursements for two snacks, as well as two meals for children in programs for at least nine hours a day and no older than twelve.

And residential childcare programs would get reimbursed for three meals a day. These, as you’d guess, are live-in programs, generally for children who’ve been taken away from their parents.

At this point, their reimbursements come only from the program that reimburses regular public and private nonprofit schools for breakfasts and lunches. The Senate Ag Committee bill would enable them to also participate in CACFP — hence, the third meal.

Ideally, CACFP would reimburse all eligible childcare programs for three full meals, as it did before Congress cut its budget during the Reagan administration. Still, a step in the right direction.

Children During the School Day

The CNA authorizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture to at least partially reimburse public and private nonprofit elementary and secondary schools for the meals they serve. They in turn must serve meals that meet USDA’s nutrition standards.

The current CNA directed the agency to update the standards. And so it did, relying largely on recommendations from experts at the Institute of Medicine.

As I’ve mentioned before, the School Nutrition Association raised a big fuss over some of the new requirements. Soaring costs, heavier administrative burdens, losses because kids didn’t buy the meals any more, waste because those that did tossed the fruits and vegetables.

The Association sought more “flexibility,” including a rollback to the standards that required only half the pasta, bread and other “grain-rich” foods to be whole grain, rather than all. It also wanted an indefinite pause in the schedule for reducing sodium content.

The Senate Ag Committee bill grants neither. Nor does it heed the Association’s seemingly reasonable request for increased reimbursement rates to cover the costs of serving more nutritious meals.

The bill would instead allow schools a 20% exemption from the whole grain requirement. And schools would get an extra two years to meet their next sodium reduction target. A study would then determine whether the third and final target should kick in.

No reimbursement rate increase whatever. But another compromise could enable schools to gain more revenue from the foods they sell in so-called a la carte lines, where kids can pick and choose. Not a sure thing, but a working group to assess the current restrictions.

The Association seems relatively content with the compromises. We, I think, should view them as an okay deal too. The Ag Committee could, after all, have folded in a bill, sponsored by two of its members, that gave the Association exactly the grains and sodium changes it wanted.

About 30.5 million children eat lunches subject to the nutrition standards. More than 72% of them live in poor or near-poor families — those whose incomes make serving enough healthful foods unusually challenging.

What the kids eat at school can help ensure that their diets overall supply the nutrients they need. And both research and practical experience suggest they learn to like those fruits, veggies, whole wheat rolls, etc.

Good not only for their bodies, but for their abilities to learn during classroom time. Perhaps the rest of the time and beyond school years too.

NOTE: I’m indebted to the Food Research and Action Center for its overview of the bill. Opinions and any errors are my own.

 

 

 


DC Rents Out of Control, Despite Rent Control

January 25, 2016

The District of Columbia’s rent control law is stronger than just about any other in the country, I’m told. But it has loopholes that leave lower-income residents vulnerable to rate spikes — and perhaps homelessness.

We generally see “loophole” used to refer to provisions in the tax code that allow corporations and/or individuals to pay far less than they’d otherwise owe — or nothing at all. Everybody who cares to knows about these.

Not so for the loopholes in the rent control law. But some nonprofits, including several that provide free legal services to low-income residents have discovered them. And they’ve developed an agenda to reform the law.

A fact sheet distributed at a recent briefing I attended listed well over a dozen changes. Far more than I can take on here. So I’ll confine myself to a relative few fixable problems that have broad impacts.

Caps on Rent Increases

First off — and to me, the biggest surprise — the rent control law doesn’t apply to units built after the original version of the law was passed in 1975 or to units vacant then. The law exempts other units too, but this seems to me the biggest loophole, if one can call it that.

For units not exempt, landlords may increase rents for most tenants by the percent increase in the Washington metro area consumer price index the Social Security Administration uses, plus an additional 2%.

No extra 2% for elderly and disabled tenants whose incomes don’t exceed $40,000 a year. And no increase greater than 5% when the CPI rises by more. They’ve got to file a form to get this relative protection, however, which means they need to know this much of the law.

When a unit becomes vacant, the cap, whatever it be, increases to 10% or to what a “comparable unit” rents for, provided the increase isn’t greater than 30%. Comparable units are defined by physical characteristics, e.g., overall size, floor plan, equipment, condition.

Lots of units have come into the market in the last 30 years, of course. And lots rent for goodly sums, especially now that more high-earners have chosen to live in the city.

So landlords have an obvious incentive to choose tenants unlikely to stay for more than a couple of years, if that, e.g., students, employees on short-term assignments away from their home base.

Case-by-Case Exemptions

Just because tenants live in covered units doesn’t mean they won’t get hit with large increases. Landlords can petition for exemptions from the caps.

They may, for example, claim that they’ll suffer “hardship” if they can’t collect more than the allowable rent. They don’t have to allege a potential loss — only that they won’t earn a 12% return on what they’ve invested in the property.

They’ve sought rent increases upwards of 100%, the DC Legal Aid Society has testified. And they can get them before the District has audited their paperwork and made a final decision on their claims.

Meanwhile, tenants are likely to leave or to fall behind in their rent, giving the landlord grounds to evict them. Cleaning out the building has advantages I’ve already mentioned.

Landlords have several other options for getting permission to charge far more than the law would ordinarily allow. They can, for example, petition for an annual 20%  increase to cover the costs of capital improvements, i.e., upgrades or renovations beyond ordinary repairs.

Capital improvement increases are supposed to last only until the landlord recovers the costs. Another option allows for a permanent increase when the costs of a “substantial rehabilitation” are considerably higher than the property’s assessed value. The increase in this case may be as high as 125%.

Landlords don’t necessarily rely on the success of these petitions, however. They can instead used the prospects of rent increases to get tenants signed onto voluntary agreements. These protect tenants from all but the usual rent increases, provided they agree to much higher rents for future tenants.

In one reportedly popular scenario, landlords then offer tenants the option of a buyout — some cash to clear out of their units. Every unit freed up becomes subject to the large increase, followed by the usual ongoing CPI-based increases.

Affordable Housing Losses Offset Gains

Even this over-simplified wade into the weeds shows one reason the District lost nearly half its lower-cost rental units during a recent 10-year period. Only about a fifth were still affordable for households with two full-time minimum wage workers.

Mayor Bowser has committed to substantial investments in new affordable housing construction and renovations to preserve some of what remains. Her administrators have other tools in the box as well, e.g., tax credits, conditions now attached to sales of publicly-owned lands.

But what’s built over here disappears over there — and apparently then some.

When the DC Council passed the rent control law, it intended to “protect low and moderate-income tenants from the erosion of their income from increased housing costs.”

What with one thing and another, the law covers, at most, roughly half the rent units in the city, according to somewhat dated Urban Institute estimates. That doesn’t mean all the tenants are protected, as we can see.

The Council now has two bills pending that would make the law work somewhat better. One would update and otherwise expand its protections for elderly tenants and those with disabilities. The other would partly, but only partly close the hardship petition loophole.

So there’s a lot more to do. The Latino Economic Development Center has a petition District residents can sign to support solutions the coalition I mentioned is advocating.


When Personal Responsibility Paves the Way to Homelessness

January 21, 2016

Many accounts of homelessness focus on personal financial crises — a job loss, for example, a serious illness or injury that results in huge medical bills, an eruption of domestic violence that impels a spouse or partner to flee the breadwinner.

Others cite less sudden crises due to mental illness and/or substance abuse, both ultimately leading to lack of money for housing. Still others take a different tack — rising housing costs, with no commensurate wage increases to cover them.

But sometimes families become homeless for altogether other reasons. Here’s a still-unfinished true story and some untruths it exposes.

I’ve written before about Peter,* who does occasional work for me. Now he and his daughters are homeless, though not (yet) eligible for federally-funded assistance as such.

Peter must depend on earnings from short-term jobs with flexible hours because he often must drop everything to tend to his chronically ill younger daughter. But between what he makes and her Supplemental Security Income benefits, he’s had enough to cover the family’s housing costs.

Seems his landlord didn’t have enough for the mortgage payments, however. So the lender repossessed the building and evicted the tenants.

Shortly before and after, a series of untoward events diminished Peter’s earnings and, at the same time, forced him to come up with extra money. His daughter’s new medication caused drastic side-effects. So he had to stay home with her for some days.

Then his car got towed because he’d parked it illegally, seeing no other way he could sell the newspapers he’d already purchased, as all vendors of our local homelessness paper do. No way for Peter to get to other jobs unless he paid the fine and the hefty towing-storage fee.

His sister then borrowed the car and got arrested for drunk driving. Immediately thrown in jail because it was her second such offense. Peter felt he had to bail her out, which, of course, meant a fee to a bail bondsman. And he had to bail the car out too because the authorities had impounded it.

Now, none of these things or even all in combination would have left Peter with nothing to spend except what he could earn day by day if he’d had the emergency savings that financial experts advise. But he could just get by when everything went smoothly.

So at this point, he, his daughters and his sister are holed up in a cheap motel while he waits for the tax refund that will cover the upfront costs of a new apartment lease — or so he hopes.

He’s thus far found no apartment he can afford. In the family’s home county, a two-bedroom apartment — very snug for them — costs, on average, $1,625 a month. And he sure won’t get help from the local housing authority. He’s been on its waiting list for some considerable time.

As I put together the pieces of this story, I recalled part of Tolstoy’s frame for Anna Karenina. “[E]ach unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But the story has other, more pertinent lessons.

Right-wing policymakers and the gurus they listen to often trace poverty to a failure of personal responsibility. Well, who exercises more personal responsibility than Peter, who could have left his daughters with their egregiously negligent mother — and his sister miserable in jail and then alone to struggle against her alcoholism?

More specifically, the Republican Presidential candidates at the recent “expanding opportunity” forum seemingly concurred on three ways our public policies and programs could reduce poverty.

First, they have to do a better job of promoting marriage — not only of getting people (of opposite sexes) to marry, but of inducing them to stay married and in the same home. Hard to see how persisting in a failed marriage to a persistent substance abuser would have made life better for Peter and his kids.

Second, public policies have to get people working for enough pay so they can support themselves and their dependents. Peter could do that if his younger daughter had neither a chronic illness nor developmental disabilities. He has in-demand technical skills and an entrepreneurial spirit.

As things stand now, however, he can’t responsibly delegate care for the daughter to a home healthcare aide or anyone else. Too many emergencies. Too many judgment calls only a parent can make. And too much time needed for his role in the education she’s receiving to develop independent living skills.

Third, our major federal safety net programs should get rolled into block grants that states can spend pretty much however they see fit. I’ll leave it to Center on Budget and Policy Priorities President Robert Greenstein to explain (again) why this is such a bad idea.

I’ll merely note that the programs Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and forum moderator Paul Ryan would replace with super-block grants expressly include major federal housing assistance programs.

If Peter’s got problems getting back into an affordable apartment now, imagine how he and his family would fare if states had no obligation to provide vouchers or public housing — and had less in real dollars to fund any of the block-granted programs that now serve low-income people’s needs.

And imagine what would happen if he couldn’t rely on Medicaid for the services that keep his daughter alive — a distinct possibility if the program were block-granted, as Ryan and his House Republican colleagues intend.

* As before, I’ve changed his name to protect his and his family’s privacy.


Far More in King’s Dream Than a Color-Blind Society

January 18, 2016

Not long after Congress passed the since-enfeebled Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King, Jr. turned his attention to poverty and income inequality.

This, for him, was clearly a next step, along with opposition to the country’s engagement in Vietnam. He and colleagues at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had launched a Poor People’s Campaign and were planning a demonstration akin to the original March on Washington.

King signaled the campaign’s agenda in a book entitled Where Do We Go From Here? — here being after the enactment of most of our major federal nondiscrimination laws.

His answer took off from a critique of the anti-poverty approach still reflected in many of our public policies. They proceed, he said, “from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils,” e.g., bad housing, lack of education.

Not a faulty notion, he implied. But it led to a piecemeal approach — “a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities,” etc. And the programs were neither coordinated nor sufficiently funded “to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.”

Beyond this, they all sought “to solve poverty by solving something else.” The solution to poverty is for everyone to have enough money. So “we must create full employment or we must create incomes” by establishing a guaranteed minimum.

The latter has garnered more attention — for two reasons, I’d guess. On the one hand, it seems radically progressive. On the other, it has conservative roots and current support from some minimum government types.

King had in mind something far more ambitious than proposals conservatives had floated or the version President Nixon wanted Congress to pass as a replacement for welfare. Likewise what Charles Murray more recently advocated as a substitute for all social welfare programs, including Social Security and Medicare.

King’s guaranteed income would “be pegged to the median income of society.” Once set there, it would increase automatically to maintain parity with the median.

It wouldn’t, on the other hand, go automatically to every adult or family. It would supplement, so far as necessary income gained from work and/or investments, which have always served as “an assured income for the wealthy,” he noted.

Now, one might think that full employment has gotten its proper share of attention too. But what King had in mind, as I understand it, differs significantly from the way it’s commonly understood, i.e., as a situation where everyone willing and able to work is working or merely between jobs.

This, for King, was necessary, but not sufficient. Recall that he was killed in Memphis, where he’d gone to support a strike by black sanitation workers. They had employment obviously. They were demanding safer working conditions, a wage increase and recognition of their union.

“It is criminal,” King said there, “to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.” With “wages so low,” the working poor — as most poor people in the country were, he said — “cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.” In other words, poverty-level wages were a form of segregation.

King’s Memphis message grew out of the Freedom Budget developed by two other civil rights leaders. It called for, among other things, a higher minimum wage, unemployment benefits and compensation for workers injured on the job.

As the Poor People’s Campaign got in gear, the $2 an hour minimum wage the Freedom Budget called for had become a living wage. And jobs for everyone who could work had become “meaningful” jobs, including at least a million more providing “socially useful” careers in public service.

King himself had broadened the meaning of full employment in another way too. He noted — astutely, given the anxieties triggered by the first spate of big-city riots — that “Negro youth … are the explosive outsiders of the American expansion.”

Many “have left the labor market completely,” having “faced so many closed doors and so many crippling defeats.” They “are alienated from the routines of work” and so will initially “require work situations which permit flexibility.”

The jobs will also develop skills. They will nevertheless be jobs, not training, which often “becomes a way of avoiding the issue of unemployment.”

Ultimately, full employment, so understood, will help solve other major problems cited in the Freedom Budget — or so supporters thought. It would, of course, generate revenues to “finance improvements we all need,” including “decent housing” to replace the clusters that form slums.

At the same time, workers would have the wherewithal “to do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay,” as King’s Where Do We Go argued. And blacks, who were disadvantaged by discrimination, as well as poverty would have “the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.”

King hoped that the guaranteed income proposal would provide the basis for a biracial coalition, since two-thirds of the country’s poor were white. The Freedom Budget drafters — and presumably King, since he endorsed it for the SLCC — had similar hopes for full employment.

“The workings of our economy,” they said, “often pit the white poor and the black poor against each other.” They termed that “a tragedy.”

Likewise the fact “that groups only one generation removed from poverty themselves, haunted by the memory of scarcity and fearful of slipping back, step on the fingers of those struggling up the ladder.” Anyone who sees no relevance to current events is blessedly insulated from the Presidential campaigns.

We have, however, made progress, in some respects, since King unfolded his dream of an end to segregation and other then-legal forms of discrimination. Not saying we don’t have a long way to go before black children (and adults) are no longer “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But progress nonetheless.

We’d be hard put, I think, to find anything like such progress toward King’s dream of a society where no one is poor and everyone has, at all times, enough income to live on and then some. Worth pondering as we celebrate his birthday.


Recent Report Misreports Homelessness and Hunger in DC

January 14, 2016

Each year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reports the results of a hunger and homelessness survey it takes of a subset of its member cities. Twenty-two responded last year, including the District of Columbia.

Past experience has made me wary of figures reported for the District. At least one key hunger figure got mangled several years ago, as I belatedly learned.

This time, I found key homelessness figures downright perplexing because they bore no resemblance to what the one-night count found — or for that matter, to anything else I’d read or heard about.

So I checked the figures with the Department of Human Services, which files the survey responses, based on what it receives from the Community Partnership to End Homelessness and the Capital Area Food Bank. Also checked directly with CAFB.

And sure ‘nough, something(s) got lost in translation, to put it kindly. Niggling about the figures may seem just a wonkish gotcha. But the USCM report does get cited by reporters, columnists and us social media types.

So I’m going to set the record straight, best as I can.

More Recorded As Served, Not Necessarily More Homeless

The USCM reports that the number of homeless families in the District increased by 60% between 2014 and 2015 and the number of homeless individuals by 11%.

Well, the increases actually reflect numbers served by programs funded at least partly by DHS — this courtesy of Dora Taylor, the agency’s public information officer, who herself seemed rather taken aback.

“Served” here means people generally got some form of assistance — not necessarily what they asked for or needed, but something that caused an intake worker to enter a record for them in the homeless information management system that the Community Partnership maintains to comply with federal requirements.

As Taylor suggested, the misreported homeless family increase may in part reflect the administration’s decision to open shelter doors to newly-homeless families year round, rather than only on freezing-cold days.

They didn’t all gain shelter, however. Services recorded include, for example, what’s referred to as “diversion” — usually an intake worker’s finding a friend or relative the family could stay with, however briefly.

Whatever the services, the reported increase seems far greater than what the welcome policy change can account for. Recall that it was intended partly to ease the annual crush at the intake center when winter set in.

I got nothing from DHS to help explain the reported uptick in homeless individuals. So I’ll just tee up two related hypotheses.

The HIMS probably had more records for singles because DHS and nonprofit partners had become convenient one-stop-shops of sorts — and still are. Caseworkers assess and then link singles to some form(s) of aid. All those assessed become part of the system, if they’re not in it already.

It’s also possible that more homeless singles chose to seek help because they’d heard that they had a better chance of getting affordable housing — time-limited for some and permanent, i.e., indefinite-term, with supportive services for those deemed chronically homeless.

More Requests for Help in Finding Free Food, Not Necessarily Increased Need

The USCM reports that requests for food assistance in the District increased, though not by how much. Still disturbing if requests reflect need.

They don’t. CAFB has no way to track the number of people who seek free groceries and/or meals. So it supplied a figure reflecting the increase in calls to its hotline, which makes referrals to nonprofits it helps supply.

As my CAFB contact remarks, the increase may reflect, at least in part the fact that more people in need know about the hotline. Doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of residents who can’t afford to feed themselves and family members — only that we don’t know whether we’ve got more (or fewer).

Unmet Food Demand (If Any) Still a Mystery

The USCM reports that an estimated 24% of the demand for food assistance in the District went unmet in 2015. “Demand” here presumably refers to requests for groceries and/or meals provided by local nonprofits.

Not necessarily all, however, since CAFB would have no information from any nonprofit it didn’t help supply. It does, however, have data for the 444 nonprofits in its distribution network, thanks to a periodic survey Feeding American conducts.

But the latest survey results are for 2014. And the data CAFB can readily access are for all the Washington metro area programs in its network, not just those in the District. So we’ve got a flawed unmet demand estimate — and for the same reason as before.

Flawed Survey, But Not the Whole Story

What I’ve just said about the food assistance figures doesn’t reflect badly on CAFB. The USCM survey clearly asks questions that public agencies it contacts can’t answer, either from their own records or from what other sources can supply.

And respondents don’t get clear instructions on how to come up with such numbers as they can, my CAFB contact says.

There is, however, guidance for the homelessness questions. Cities are told that their best source will be their HIMS. This presumably opened the door to the misleading figures reported for the District. Door open doesn’t mean the Community Partnership — and ultimately DHS — had to walk through it, however.

We know we’ve got a serious homelessness problem in the District. We know that some residents at least sometimes don’t have enough to eat. But the figures should have raised red flags, I think.

Better to have gone back to the sources before responding. And better to have taken a pass on the survey — or at least some questions — than to have USCM report such faulty figures, however well-meaning its attempt to document urban needs.

 

 


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