New Coalition Aims To Focus DC Elections On Poverty

My government relations, a.k.a. lobbyist, friends have a favorite saying: “More legislative victories are won on election day than in an entire legislative session.” In other words, you need to focus resources on who will make the decisions on the issues you care about.

Individual citizens and private-sector businesses can impact outcomes by donating to campaigns and/or volunteering their services. Nonprofit organizations can’t–not if they want to retain their tax-exempt status. Nor can they otherwise engage in activities to help elect or defeat any candidate for elective office.

But they can, if they’re careful, provide us with information that can help us decide whom to support. And they can shape the debate so that successful candidates take office with an awareness of the issues voters care most about and commitments that can, at the very least, serve as benchmarks.

Hence we now have yet another local coalition–Defeat Poverty DC. It defines itself as “a coalition of organizations and residents in the District of Columbia working to bring greater focus during the 2010 election season and beyond to the damaging effects of poverty on our entire city.”

The coalition is the brainchild of four foundations and some organizations with a long track record of advocacy and services on behalf of low-income D.C. residents. They’ve recruited other advocacy groups and service providers, plus some faith-based organizations, the DC Statehood Green Party, at least one local business and an unidentified number of individuals.

In the months ahead, the coalition will marshal its resources to inject a focus on poverty and measures to alleviate it into this year’s mayoral and DC Council elections campaigns.

Its focus is primarily on expanding economic opportunity to reduce both the District’s high poverty rate–now estimated at nearly 19% or maybe higher–and the large and growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in the city.

The coalition promises policy briefs, forums and other public and candidate education efforts. The thrust of all this is to get the candidates on record with their specific solutions. At the formal launch of the movement, we were told that we would be asking candidates what they intend to do, rather than advocating solutions.

But, in fact, Defeat Poverty DC has a hefty poverty-reduction agenda, based on three imperatives:

  • Make work possible through job placement, increased literacy and access to quality child care and reliable transportation, i.e., convenient, affordable subway and bus transit.
  • Make work pay by improving job training, ensuring access to better wages and benefits and lessening the tax burden on low-income families. The better wages are to come about through more and better training. Most of the benefits too, I guess, though the agenda calls out the need to extend unemployment insurance benefits and raise the rates.
  • Make basic needs affordable by bridging the gap between the high costs of living in D.C. and the incomes of working poor residents, including increased availability of nutritious food, health care and affordable housing.

None of this is new, of course. Nor should it be. We and our elected officials have known for a long time what could be done to significantly reduce poverty among D.C. residents and the hardships of those at the bottom of the income scale.

Yet here we are with probably the highest poverty rate in 14 years and forecasts for at least another year or two of high unemployment. The rising tide that will eventually come isn’t going to lift the boats of residents who were poor long before the recession began–at least, not unless we’ve got policies and programs that enable them to qualify for higher-skilled jobs and the resources they need to thrive.

I’d like to think that Defeat Poverty DC will succeed in reorienting our local government’s priorities. It’s taken a smart first step by asking Mayor Fenty and current Councilmembers about their actions and positions on defeating poverty. I expect we’ll see more of this in the days to come.

But, as we all know, candidates for elective office make all sorts of promises. We also know that we’ll be told that the budget has to be cut and that everyone has to share the pain. If past is prologue, some will share the pain more than others.

Still, it’s worth the effort to insist again that investments must be made to ensure long-term economic growth and decent living conditions throughout the city.

So I’ve joined the campaign. You can too just by clicking here and entering your e-mail address at the bottom of the web page.


One Response to New Coalition Aims To Focus DC Elections On Poverty

  1. Matt McKillop says:

    I suspect that, if asked today, each councilmember and Mayor Fenty would commit to supporting efforts to “defeat” poverty in D.C. In my experience, there is not a lack of genuine compassion among most elected officials in the District. Rather, the rubber tends to meet the road when our leaders consider the breadth of issues on which they could focus and rightly decide that other issues have more robust and powerful constituencies. Thus, given their electoral imperative and a desire to tackle problems that they can conceivably solve, anti-poverty strategies too often fail to make the cut.

    I think it’s wonderful that this new group, which seems to be composed of many familiar faces from other coalitions, is seeking to actively shape and frame the debate in advance of the election. But until the constituencies who will be most affected by whether candidates make good on their promises, namely, poor and homeless residents, have the power to impact their leader’s electoral future, I’m afraid that too little will be done. That is to say, unless there are clear and predictable consequences for failing to make adequate progress toward an anti-poverty agenda, such progress is unlikely to happen.

    The classic analogy here is the power that AARP has helped to build among seniors. One needs to look no further than national elected officials’ efforts to court seniors during the recent health care debate for evidence of this.

    As Kathryn has written before, too often the calculus for support of anti-poverty programs operates in a similar manner to many people’s decision for whether to donate to charity. If there’s extra money, programs get funded. But in lean times, necessities need to be taken care of first, and such programs are rarely an electoral necessity.

    So the group must not lose focus after the upcoming election. Instead, it should find ways to hold leaders to account in the following elections if good faith efforts to live up to commitments are not made. That means, among other things, building the engagement level of those who are most in need of help.

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