What DC Taxpayer Dollars Could Buy for Poor Residents

I note here, somewhat belatedly, that the Fair Budget Coalition has published its recommendations for the District of Columbia’s next budget.

It settled on nineteen of them — a heterogeneous collection, reflecting the primary interests and priorities of the working groups that initiated them.

I’ve blogged on some already — shelter for newly homeless families year round, for example, and the automatic tax cuts, along with the seemingly, though not technically automatic tax abatements.

As followers know, I’ve also blogged — some might say flogged — the need to the replace rigid time limit for families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, e.g., here, here and here.

I may delve into others. At this point, however, I want to say a few words about the preface that’s intended to give readers a way to view the recommendations as a coherent whole.

We — and perhaps more importantly, the Mayor and DC Councilmembers — are invited to think of them as measures to increase public safety.

This, of course cleverly pings a concern that recent episodes of violence have fueled — and not only in poor neighborhoods, where residents have long-standing, well-founded fears of bodily harm (or worse) to themselves and their children.

It also pings the Mayor’s response — not approvingly, I hasten to add. The authors apparently view the ramped-up police presence in troubled neighborhoods and get-tough measures as “punitive” — particularly against blacks.

They do, however, build their framework on Police Chief Lanier’s own vision for public safety. “The goal,” she said, “should be to put us [the police force] out of business. The goal should be having investments before someone gets into the system” — specifically, “more investments in social services.”

Lanier calls for these investments because they’d prevent crime and thus help ensure public safety as we ordinarily understand it. The frame broadens the concept.

Safety may nevertheless seem a somewhat limited vision for our public policies — budgets included, of course. The recommendations themselves reach beyond safety from hunger, homelessness, lack of affordable health care and of money for other basic needs.

We see, for example, an understandably somewhat fuzzy recommendation for a “strong plan” to comply with the new federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, including provisions for adult education.

Becoming proficient in a skill set employers seek and will pay decent wages for does, of course, help keep residents and their families safe from the everyday deprivations of poverty.

And it offers a modicum of safety from the related stresses — scrambling to stretch SNAP (food stamp) benefits for a month, find a friend or family member to stay with, someone who’ll watch the kids because the work schedule has suddenly changed.

Relief from such stresses provides more safety from mental and physical health problems — and as we know, from spillover damages to children that last even if stress in the home later subsides.

But a well-structured program, like what WIOA envisions, puts participants on a pathway to jobs that involve increasingly higher skills, responsibilities and pay.

There’s some safety from financial insecurity here, though no one can feel altogether secure in a job, of course. But employment that calls forth strengths joined with those of others and to some productive end fosters a sense of inclusion — both in the workplace and in our society as a whole.

Providing for one’s self and one’s family this way fosters a healthful self-esteem and sense of well-being too — and hope, if one foresees better opportunities ahead. That’s what a realistic, well-mapped pathway provides.

Other programs FBC expressly supports would also afford some security, as well as safety. Funding to repair public housing, for example, would not only keep occupants safe from mold, mouse bites, blasts of freezing air through broken windows, etc.

It would also give them some assurance they’d have a place to live with neighbors they know and have formed bonds with. And if their housing were then truly decent, it would preserve or restore their sense of dignity and inclusion in the community, as the DC Legal Aid Society says.

One could say something of the same for more locally-funded housing vouchers — the kind that individuals and families can have unless and until their income rises to the point they can afford to pay rent on their own. Likewise the kind that enables developers to afford the costs of operating housing that’s affordable for the District’s lowest-income residents.

What I’m trying to get at here is that investments like those FBC recommends do more than provide a safety net of some specific sort. They extend to poor and near-poor residents intangibles we value in our own lives.

“We are talking about people,” as one comfortably-housed resident said at a heated meeting on the Mayor’s family shelter plan. There’s a message here that’s deeper and far broader than the intended rebuke to unneighborly neighbors.

Something to do with cost-benefit calculations beyond what any budget analyst could produce.

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