New Hopes For DC Tax Reforms

November 18, 2010

Local listservs are buzzing. Advocacy groups are huddling. We’re all concerned about how the DC Council will close the $175 million gap in the current budget.

We know that spending cuts will be at least part of the answer. What they’ll be and how big are open questions. But if past is prologue, programs that serve the needs of low-income residents will be highly vulnerable.

Last year, funding for human services and other programs for low-income people took at $49 million hit — the second largest after public education. And it could have been worse if the District hadn’t still had unused federal stimulus funds for our schools.

It would have been better if Mayor Fenty and the DC Council had focused more on the revenue side of the ledger. What we got were a couple of sales and excise tax increases, plus freezes in the homestead property deduction and the standard exemption and personal deduction in the income tax — all disproportionately costly for low-income residents.

This year a similar story. Some fee increases, a couple of highly targeted taxes and one regressive expansion in the sales tax, which now covers soft drinks, but not various services used mostly by higher-income residents.

But maybe the day for a serious look at the local tax structure has dawned. Soon-to-be-mayor Vincent Gray has remarked that services have been cut to the bone. “Actually, we’ve cut down to the bone marrow,” he’s said.

More importantly, he’s reportedly told attendees at two successive ward meetings that he’s ready to consider new or expanded revenue raisers.

As you may recall, the Save Our Safety Net coalition championed two news brackets last spring — a 9% rate for residents with incomes over $200,000 and a 9.4% rate for those with incomes over $1 million.

SOS-DC is back on the case — hopeful that it can help shift Gray and a couple of other Councilmembers to the “yea” column. How many have to shift depends on when the Council gets around to voting.

SOS is still working as the grassroots arm of the Fair Budget Coalition and an overlapping coalition including FBC members, local labor organizations and some faith-based and other community groups.

They’re now focusing on one new tax bracket — 1% higher for residents earning over $200,000. This, I assume, is after the adjustments the federal tax code permits.

Gray has said that he thinks District residents will at least be open to tax increases if they understand how damaging a cuts-only approach to budget balancing will be. “If we can make the case that the vulnerable are going to be imperiled, I think there are going to be a lot of people who are going to entertain some sort of tax increase.”

“Some sort,” of course, covers a lot of territory. But a new top tax bracket certainly could be there, along with some other measures that would increase both revenues and fairness. I’m still hopeful eliminating the District’s almost unique exemption for interest paid on out-of-state bonds.

Gray has reportedly challenged advocates to make the case to the public. Originally, I thought this was shifting the burden where it didn’t belong. Now, however, it appears that what he actually wants are the facts, figures and, very importantly, the stories to help him make the case.

He’s planning to work with fellow Councilmembers on a list of potential budget cuts and then seek public input on whether taxes should be raised instead. So look for announcements of public hearings — or maybe just one of those all-nighters the Council sometimes perpetrates.

In the meantime, there’s a need to show that we, like Gray, wouldn’t mind paying more if the trade-off were protecting investments in our safety net and other key programs that can give low-income residents a better chance at finding full-time, living-wage work.

SOS-DC has an editable letter we can send to our representatives on the Council. A quick, easy way to voice our support for a balanced approach to budget balancing.

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DC Mayor Discounts Limits On Summer Youth Employment Program

September 10, 2009

When is a budget not a budget? Apparently, when Mayor Fenty doesn’t like it. Yesterday’s Washington Post reports that this year’s Summer Youth Employment Program wound up costing $41 million–considerably more than the City Council originally approved.

The SYEP appropriation for next year is $20 million–for a program limited to six weeks and a maximum of 21,000 participants. But the Mayor reportedly said he’s determined to find a way around the caps.

Set aside the question of whether the SYEP should be expanded or rather refocused on quality instead of quantity, as experts have recommended. Last time I checked, programs were supposed to operate within their approved budgets. If a chief executive wanted more money, he was supposed to go back to the legislature and ask for it.

And last time I checked, the Council had made deep cuts in crucial safety net programs to balance the city’s budget. It might well have to close yet another budget gap. This seems hardly the time for ignoring any expenditure cap–let alone one designed to ensure that D.C. youth have a properly supervised, skill-building work experience.


New Report Documents Violence Against Homeless People

August 15, 2009

Every once in awhile, we read about some act of violence against a homeless person. Young men set fire to a homeless man. A teenager beats a homeless man to death with a baseball bat. Twin brothers terrorize homeless people in a public park–a woman thrown down a flight of stairs, a sleeping man pounded with his own bicycle, another stabbed.

For 10 years now, the National Coalition for the Homeless has been issuing annual reports on crimes like these. It’s just published the latest.

As NCH readily acknowledges, its data are incomplete, based on news articles and reports from advocates, service providers and homeless and formerly homeless people themselves. But they’re still enough to give one pause.

  • In 2008 alone, 106 homeless people were subject to violent attacks, 27 of them fatal.
  • These attacks occurred in 22 states and the District of Columbia.
  • They included shootings, beatings, rapes, other assaults and at least three human torchings.
  • Victims were predominantly middle-aged and elderly. Of those whose attackers were formally accused, 17.3% were in their 50’s and 10.9% were over 60.

The NCH data are just the tip of the iceberg. Homeless people are understandably reluctant to call the police. And law enforcement authorities don’t have to keep records identifying crimes that seem motivated in whole or in part by the homelessness of the victim. But even the relatively little we know tells us there’s a serious nationwide problem.

So what’s to do? The ultimate solution, of course, is to create enough affordable and permanent supportive housing so that no one has to be homeless any more.

In the interim, we have to look for other policy solutions. One NCH recommends is legislation to make homeless people a protected class under existing hate crimes laws.

The District of Columbia has just joined a relatively small number of jurisdictions in enacting such legislation. Under the just-signed emergency crime bill, the Bias-Related Crime Act is amended to include crimes based on a prejudice against homelessness. This will allow a court to impose up to one and a half times the ordinary maximum fine or jail term if a crime against a homeless person was committed at least in part because of the victim’s homelessness.

The measure is important, I think, as an expression of our collective revulsion against senseless, hateful acts. But I doubt the tougher penalties will serve as a deterrent.

After all, crimes like those in the NCH report aren’t based on rational risk/benefit calculations. Most seem prompted by a felt need for the thrill, release and peer validation of attacking a defenseless person. Some apparently are also fueled by hatred or contempt of homeless people. In short, they’re a symptom of something profoundly wrong in our culture.

What else can we think when someone who strangled and cracked open the skull of a homeless man said, when told who the victim was, “Oh him, he’s just a beggar, a vagrant.”? Or when others arrested for similar crimes said they did it for fun or just because they could?

There’s a pathology here that’s beyond my ken. But I think NCH is right to lay part of the blame on laws that target homeless people for innocuous acts like sitting or sleeping in public places, loafing, loitering or living in cars–not to mention laws that prohibit feeding them.

So passing hate crimes laws won’t be enough. Nor, I think, will eliminating laws that criminalize homelessness or putting homeless education programs in our schools, as NCH also recommends. But these are all steps in the right direction.

Not as good as ending homelessness or the deep-seated alienation and rage of young men who get pumped up by “beat[ing] down some bums.” But positive nonetheless.


Bring Free Suppers To Poor DC Children

August 8, 2009

I wrote awhile ago about the enormous stress on after-school programs in the District. More children are showing up for these programs hungry because they didn’t have dinner the night before. One more thing to chalk up to the recession.

The best these programs can do is serve more hefty snacks and let children take extras home. Even this is creating big budget pressures because the federal government reimburses at a maximum of $0.74 per snack. And, for sites that aren’t run by public schools, snacks for children over 12 aren’t reimbursed at all.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Under existing legislation, eligible programs in 10 states can get reimbursed for serving suppers. The Fiscal Year 2010 agriculture appropriations bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would add the District to the list.

The companion bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee wouldn’t. But the full Senate could add D.C. when the bill comes to the floor.

Those of you who don’t live in D.C. can support this action by e-mailing or calling your Senators. It’s a good step toward expanding the supper program nationwide when the Child Nutrition Act is reauthorized. No comment here on how we D.C. residents lack our own leverage.

The District has made great strides with its after-school nutrition programs. In 2008, they served about 14,650 children–more than five and a half times as many as in 2004. Just think what a difference it would make if even some of these programs could serve all school-age children a healthy evening meal.


Summertime and Poor Children Are Hungry

June 28, 2009

Many of us think of summer as a season of abundance–juicy peaches, tomatoes that really taste like something, neighbors begging us to take some of their zucchini.

But for poor children summer often means hunger. During the school year they can get free lunches and, in many schools, breakfasts. At some after-school programs, they can also get snacks.

Then comes summer, and families who had to feed them only once a day during the school week now have to provide all their meals. Surveys indicate that food insecurity rates for families with children spike in the summer. It’s easy to understand why.

The federal government has two programs to address this problem–the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option. The latter is only for school districts that participate in the National School Breakfast and/or Lunch Programs. But SFSP sites can be sponsored by other types of organizations.

As with the school-year nutrition programs, summer meal providers are reimbursed for the meals they serve. At most sites, they can serve up to two meals a day (but not both lunch and supper). They have the option of serving any child who shows up. And meals for all children are free.

Sounds like the answer, doesn’t it? Well, that depends on where the poor children live and the commitment of the local community to feed them.

Here in Washington, D.C., our schools, recreation centers and nonprofits do a great job. According to the Food Action and Research Center’s latest summer meals report, nearly 96% of D.C. children who got free or reduced-price lunches during the 2006-7 school year were participating in a summer meal program in July 2007.

But nationwide, summer meal programs served only 17.5% of children who got free or reduced-priced lunches during the school year–11.8% fewer than were served in 1997.

The most important reason for this is that the eligibility standards for summer meal programs are very restrictive–more so than they used to be. To get reimbursed for meals, most programs must be in a community where 50% or more of the children qualify for free or reduced-price schools meals or have, as enrolled participants, at least 50% who meet this standard.

This is no problem for programs in high-poverty areas, but it tends to exclude programs in areas with pockets of poverty.

Reimbursement rates are a second barrier. Except for rural and “self-prep” sites, i.e., those that actually prepare what they serve rather than getting meals from a central source, breakfasts are reimbursed at $1.78, lunches and suppers at $3.18 and snacks at $0.73.

These are slightly higher than the school-year reimbursement rates, but still very low relative to the costs of balanced, nutritious meals. FRAC says that rising food costs are forcing sponsors to drop out, cut back on sites or compromise on quality. They are also probably a reason that many sites don’t operate all summer long.

Transportation is another barrier, especially in suburban and rural areas, where sites are widely scattered. Communities that want to serve as many eligible children as possible have to fund transportation or put their sites on wheels to get to where the kids are.

There are also start-up and outreach costs. Parents need to be informed, on an ongoing basis, that free summer meals are served and where. Here I again tip my hat to D.C., which has a very good online summer program search.

Congress will have an opportunity to revisit the summer meal programs as part of its reauthorization of the Children’s Nutrition Act. Clearly, it needs to address the 50% area eligibility requirement and the meal reimbursement rates. Feeding America also recommends expanding a pilot program that helps rural communities overcome transportation barriers.

And shouldn’t poor children be able to get free suppers, as well as lunches, year-round?


DC Summer Youth Employment Program In Trouble Again

June 21, 2009

Last year, the District’s Summer Youth Employment Program turned into a scandal. A cost overrun of about $40.5 million over the original budget. At least 3,000 people receiving paychecks who were ineligible to participate, had been fired or never shown up in the first place. And that’s only part of it.

As Mayor Fenty acknowledged, the program hadn’t been “managed or administered the way the residents of the District of Columbia expect.” (Classic understatement!) As he didn’t acknowledge, program staff were overwhelmed because he decided to eliminate both the registration deadline and the cap on enrollment.

For this summer’s program, the City Council appropriated $23 million and specified an enrollment of no more than 21,000 youth. The Mayor apparently didn’t take this seriously. On May 1, he triumphantly  announced that nearly 24,000 youth had registered. The budget apparently wouldn’t have covered even the mandated maximum because program costs are now estimated at $45 million.

So the Mayor wants permission to tap the National Stadium Community Fund. As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute says, the fund was intended to cover important unmet community needs, not over-extended programs.

The Mayor says that the SYEP qualifies because young people have to be breadwinners in these tough times. Long-time children’s advocate Susie Cambria has a sharp response to this.

A majority of the City Council voted instead to cut the program from ten weeks to six–the length it was before the Mayor extended it. However, more than a majority (nine votes) was required to make the change immediately effective.

So here we are at the beginning of summer with many more young people expecting to work than there’s money to pay for.

This is more than a symptom of the tensions between the Mayor and the City Council. And more than a question of how to manage a cost overrun in this tough budget year.

Experts doubt that the SYEP can ensure a successful experience for anything like the number enrolled. In a posting on the Mayor’s proposed budget, Martha Ross of the Brookings Institution estimated the maximum at fewer than 15,000.

Ross and several other experts have joined in an open letter to the City Council that puts the issue in a nutshell: “The goal of providing income and something to do during the summer months for as many youth as possible appears to have supplanted the goal of developing a meaningful, high-quality youth employment program.”

They recommend that the District operate this year’s program within budget and run a smaller, perhaps shorter program in 2010 so that the Department of Employment Services can focus on changes that will provide participants with meaningful preparation for the world of work.

They also recommend enhancements to the city’s year-round workforce development program, with a focus on “disconnected youth,” i.e., young people who are out of school and out of work. Funds for this would be available if, as Ross urges, the District  focused its youth employment efforts on quality, not quantity.

What’s so troubling about this is that it’s all old news–the issues, the recommendations, the commitments to improvements. And meanwhile young people, especially those from low-income families, are being shortchanged by a program we’re being asked to throw more money at.


Poverty and the Race Factor

June 17, 2009

Several recent reports call attention to something we all know but perhaps don’t talk about as much as we should. Poverty is not an equal opportunity condition.

No matter what measure you look at, racial minorities (except for Asian-Americans) rank well below whites. Blacks, along with Native Americans, generally fare worst. Here are a few of the many examples in the Applied Research Center’s new report on race and the recession:

  • In March 2009, the unemployment rate for blacks was 13.3%, as compared to 7.9% for whites. (Figures for May are 14.9% versus 8.6%.)
  • In all but 4 of the past 15 years, the rate of blacks who were under-employed, i.e., employed part-time though they wanted full-time work or unemployed but no longer looking for a job, was twice the rate for whites.
  • The recent median weekly earning for blacks was $577, as compared to $785 for whites.

It’s conventional to attribute these gaps to ongoing race discrimination. And that’s certainly a factor. For example:

  • The ARC report shows that blacks without a high school diploma earn 76 cents for every dollar whites without the diploma earn. For those with an advanced degree, the gap is just 1 cent less.
  • A study out of Princeton found that blacks without a criminal record were less likely to be called back after a job interview than whites with a criminal record.

But the root causes of the inequities are more complex than persistent race discrimination. A new book by sociologist William Julius Wilson signals his view in its title–More Than Just Race.

Wilson argues that inner-city blacks are poor due a combination of systemic causes–principally the legacy of past discrimination and changes in our economy that have significantly reduced living-wage job opportunities for people without more than a high school education.

An issue brief by the Center for Economic and Policy research adds more factors:

  • The share of manufacturing jobs held by blacks has steadily declined–from 23.9% in 1979 to 9.8% in 2007.
  • For this and perhaps other reasons, their union membership has dropped from 31.7% in 1983 to 15.7% in 2007.

Add to all these the fact that black males are significantly more likely than white males to be incarcerated–and thus to have a major strike against them when they later try to get a job. A new report by the Center for American progress puts the black/white incarceration ratio at 7/1.

A pre-recession report by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute documented the large and growing race gap here in Washington, D.C.

  • In 2006, blacks were 5 times more likely to be unemployed than whites–the greatest disparity since the mid-1980’s.
  • Only 51% of blacks were working, as compared to 62% in 1988.
  • The median income for black households was slightly lower than in 1980, while the median income for white households had increased 68%.

Lack of postsecondary education was–and still is–a primary factor here. According to a 2008 report co-authored by DCFPI and DC Appleseed:

  • In 2003, only 32% of D.C. minority residents had a postsecondary degree, as compared to 93% of non-Hispanic whites.
  • Only 70% of minority adults had  even a high school diploma, as compared to 1% of non-Hispanic whites.

Our local economy is somewhat unusual. But I think it’s in some ways a forecast of things to come–a shift to what DCFPI characterizes as a “high-skills, knowledge-based economy,” combined with a growing demand for at least some postsecondary education and/or specialized skills training.

But will black youth come out of our public schools with the basic competencies they’ll need to cope with postsecondary-level coursework or other training that will qualify them for good jobs, with opportunities to advance?

For many, the prospects don’t look good. I’ll return to this in another posting.