Could DC Inclusionary Zoning Benefit Neediest Residents?

November 23, 2015

I’d never though much about the District of Columbia’s inclusionary zoning program. For one thing, it hardly made a dent in the affordable housing shortage during the first four years after the District completed final program rules.

The program’s generating more units now — 600 open and roughly 1,120 more on the way, I’ve heard. Still not a large impact in a city that’s lost roughly 31,880 units that rented for $1,000 or less in 2002.

More importantly, given my interests, such affordable housing as the program has produced isn’t affordable for the lowest-income residents — those with incomes no greater than 30% of the median for the D.C. metro area.

That’s a feature of the law, not a bug. IZ, by design, benefits households that are technically low-income, according to the definitions used by public agencies and analysts, but not really low-income at all.

Consider, for example, that the vast majority of units thus far produced are priced for households at 80% of the area median — currently $78,624 for a three-person family or nearly four times the federal poverty line.

A brief by a local coalition nevertheless makes a good case for IZ as a program that can benefit the lowest-income residents. It also recommends some rule changes the Zoning Commission could make.

How the IZ Program Works

The IZ program offers private-sector developers an incentive to include some affordable units in new or significantly renovated and expanded multi-family housing. Instead of directly subsidizing their projects, it permits them to pack in more units than zoning would otherwise allow, thus making the projects potentially more profitable.

In exchange, developers must set aside a modest percent of the residential floor for units that will rent or sell at prices those technically low-income households can afford.

The IZ units must remain affordable, according to the same income standards for as long as the building remains residential. Only recently has any other District housing program preserved affordability beyond a date certain.

Why IZ Doesn’t Mandate Units Affordable for Extremely Low-Income Residents

The story here is fairly simple. Rents affordable for the lowest-income (technically extremely low-income) households don’t cover the costs of operating and maintaining a building. Owners need ongoing subsidies in the form of vouchers to compensate for the shortfall.

That, of course, requires continuous funding. And the money would have to come out of the District’s budget because federal policymakers aren’t going to plow enough extra into so-called project-based vouchers to support a growing number of affordable units — at least, not in the foreseeable future.

Even the President’s proposed budget would merely cover the costs of vouchers already in use. This steady state funding seems to date back to at least Fiscal Year 2010 — except when the voucher program, like all programs dependent on annual appropriations got whacked by the across-the-board cuts in 2013.

We do need increasing investments in project-based vouchers. Better, the argument goes, to pair them with the financial support the shored-up Housing Production Trust Fund provides. By law, 40% of the funds spent must help finance units affordable for ELI households.

How IZ Could Benefit Extremely Low-Income Households

The very structure of IZ means its not inclusionary for ELI households. Yet it can benefit them, supporters say.

The notion here is that moderate-income families will move to the new units they can, in theory, afford. Those units will attract them because they’re more conveniently located, spiffier, close to high-performing schools and the like.

That will free up cheaper units they’re occupying now and/or make them less likely to rent or buy them when they decide to move. It’s surely the case that a goodly number live in those units now.

About a third of rental units District ELI households could have afforded roughly four years ago were occupied by higher-income households, according to an in-depth Urban Institute study.

This is one, though far from the only reason that 64% of ELI households spent at least half their income for rent in 2013. They’re disadvantaged in the competition for the low-cost units, the Institute says, because landlords tend to prefer renters with “greater financial stability,” e.g., steady, well-paying jobs, strong credit records.

IZ arguably reduces the competition by luring those renters to housing that affordable for them, but not their lower-income counterparts.

Not THE Answer, But an Answer

What I think we see here is that no one program can solve the acute and growing affordable housing problems in the District — or in many other communities. IZ shows instead how affordable housing programs are — or should be — thought of together.

As with some of our household repairs and more ambitious projects, we often need more than one tool to get the job done.

I didn’t see how IZ could help do the job for the District’s lowest-income residents. But I’m persuaded now, though I also see how the Zoning Commission could make the tool more effective.

The coalition has half a dozen recommendations, many of which would shift the program toward less well-off households — and even ultimately the ELI. Seems like a blueprint for reform to me.

Glitch in Law Leaves Former Foster Care Youth Without Health Insurance

November 5, 2015

Kaiser Health News leads off an article with the story of a young woman who’d aged out of foster care and moved to another state, where she soon came down with a bad ear infection. She went to a hospital and discovered she was no longer covered by Medicaid.

So this young adult, now on her own, had to clean out her bank account and borrow to pay for the antibiotics she needed. And all because of another drafting glitch in the Affordable Care Act — a wrong word buried deep in the 974-page text.

Limited Parity for Former Foster Care Youth

As you probably know, the ACA allows young adults to remain covered under their family’s health insurance plan until they’re twenty-six. This has protected some 5.7 million of them from the risks of insufficient health care and/or catastrophic bills.

But it’s of no help to young adults whom a state assumed responsibility for because it decided that their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t fulfill their responsibilities. The ACA tries to extend protection to these youth.

It requires states and the District of Columbia to cover them up to twenty-six under their Medicaid program if the youth had been in their foster care program when they reached the age of “emancipation” from the child welfare system.

But it doesn’t require states or the District to cover these youth if they move to another state. Nor to transfer them to their Medicaid programs when the youth move in.

This, at any rate, is how the federal agency responsible for Medicaid interprets the wording, though the drafters clearly intended to provide parity for all young adults.

No Continuous Coverage … or Perhaps Any

Former foster care youth can secure Medicaid coverage, if they’re eligible according to their new home state’s standards. But they have to go through the whole enrollment process just like any other adults.

In the best of cases, they’ll have no health insurance for awhile — perhaps longer than most because the state may insist on checking information that could be hard to verify, e.g., income, residency.

In the worst of cases, no health insurance period. That’s most likely in the 19 states that won’t expand their Medicaid programs to cover everyone (except some immigrants) with an income no higher than 133% of the federal poverty line — actually, 138% because of a technicality in the ACA.

If our former foster care youth have incomes at or above 100% of the FPL — and the savvy or assistance needed — they can purchase subsidized health insurance on the exchange for eligible residents in their new state. That too could leave them without coverage for awhile.

But some will fall between the cracks. Fifteen states exclude all childless adults from their Medicaid programs, including those too poor to buy on an exchange. An additional seven cover only those who meet criteria set by approved pilot projects.

The Letter of the Law, Not the Spirit in DC

We can generally look to the District for enlightened healthcare policies. But unlike thirteen states, it’s decided not to recognize the Medicaid eligibility of former foster care youth who become residents.

The Department of Health Care Finance says it can’t readily verify their eligibility because there’s no national database. True enough. But couldn’t the agency ask the youth’s former home states to verify? That doesn’t seem to me so “administratively burdensome” as it claims.

Couldn’t it at least develop some agreement with Maryland, where I’m told many of the District’s aged-out foster care youth move? (No agreement with Virginia would be needed because it’s one of the thirteen that’s exercised its flexibility to provide continuous Medicaid coverage.)

Health Care Finance needn’t assume any burden, however. At least one state just takes a youth’s word for his/her former foster care status and Medicaid enrollment — an option the federal administrative agency expressly allows.

A Nationwide Fix

Bills in both the House and Senate would correct the drafting error so that all former foster care youth have the protection Congress intended.

All they’d do — because all that’s needed — is change “or” to “and” in one paragraph “the” to “a” in two other paragraphs of the Social Security Act that the ACA amended.

Are the bills going to go anywhere in this Congress, with Republican majorities intent on dismantling the ACA? A rhetorical question, of course.

So at least for the time being, former foster care youth must depend on state and District officials for the affordable health insurance they need. Seems to me the District should be out in front here, instead of doing the least it legally can.

Interim Shelter Plan for Homeless DC Families a Plus, But Lacks Protections

October 8, 2015

I dealt last week with one of two changes in the Homeless Services Reform Act that Mayor Bowser wants the DC Council to approve — a license to open new dormitory-style shelters for families.

The other change relates to interim shelter placements that the Department of Human Services plans to institute. It doesn’t need new legal authority for them. The administration does, however, need a change in the law to authorize an extra-speedy appeals process for families denied shelter for a longer term.

What Families Must Do to Gain Shelter

Parents who seek publicly-funded shelter in the District must meet three criteria for eligibility. They must be District residents, have children in their care and no safe place to stay. They’ve got to prove all three to the satisfaction of a caseworker.

As things stand now, staff at the intake center decide whether they’re eligible when they apply for shelter — unless it’s freezing-cold outside. In that case, they may have three days to come up with the residency proof.

Ordinarily, however, they either prove they’re eligible or are turned away to fend for themselves as best they can. If they have further proof, they must go back to the intake center and start the process all over again.

What DHS Wants to Do

DHS wants to place families in shelter for up to twelve days if they’re not clearly eligible (or ineligible) or if some alternative to shelter might afford them a safe place to stay.

Some of you may be saying to yourselves, Wait a minute. Isn’t this what the Council, encouraged by advocates, rejected during the Gray administration? Not exactly.

First off, DHS has contracted with nonprofits to handle diversions from shelter. They’re to consult with the families and try to work out an alternative when they think that might be possible. A contractor might, for example, try to resolve — at least, for the time being — a conflict between a parent and a relative the family was staying with.

It might come up with some financial aid or the equivalent that would persuade a friend or relative to host — or continuing hosting — a family. Or it might link the family to resources that would make doubling up unnecessary, e.g., help in finding affordable housing.

The interim placement scheme recognizes that exploring such alternatives and then actually trying to negotiate them can take awhile. In the meantime, as DHS has emphasized, the family is safe.

The agency has referred to other features that would distinguish its plan from the Gray administration’s provisional placement proposal.

For example, the Director has said that a family could get into shelter without going through the whole intake process again if the alternative the nonprofit negotiated didn’t pan out. This, however, is not part of the bill the administration wants passed. It instead allows as how the Mayor may allow the family to bypass a second application process.

DHS also, I understand, spoke of a minimum time limit for so-called community placements, i.e., doubled-up arrangements. This too, however, didn’t make its way into the bill.

So a family could be told it could either spend a weekend with an aunt who’d said that was all she could manage or have no shelter at all. Then back to the nonprofit — or perhaps the intake center — for what could prove another extremely brief placement.

Even less bouncing around than families could experience poses problems for both parents and kids. That’s just the nature of housing instability.

How the Administration Wants the Law Changed

The HSRA establishes a process by which homeless people denied shelter may appeal. They may appeal both initial decisions that they’re ineligible and later decisions to turn them out.

The Bowser administration proposes some unusually tight timeframes when families granted shelter on an interim basis want to appeal decisions to deny it for a longer term. Attorneys who’ve often represented homeless families generally like the concept, but see some bugs in the bill.

The most significant is that it fails to guarantee families shelter until they get a final decision on their appeals — a protection homeless people otherwise have, under the law.

Both the bill as drafted and the Mayor’s cover letter provide for continuing shelter only until DHS renders its opinion on their appeals — the first official decision in the two-stage process.

What the Bill Fails to Do

Most of the concerns raised, however, relate to missing protections in the interim placement process itself. I’ve already cited a couple — a right to shelter if the community placement doesn’t work out and a minimum time length for such a placement.

There are others. For example, the bill doesn’t ensure that families will be diverted only to doubled-up arrangements that pose no predicable risk to their “health, safety, or welfare” — the standard the HSRA sets for quasi-permanent housing.

So, at least in theory, a family could be sent to live with someone whose electricity and/or water had been turned off. More likely perhaps, a family could be told to go to a home where the parent knows an abuser lives — or drops in for more than quick sec every once in awhile.

And like the provisional placement proposal, the bill fails to ensure that someone a family is sent to stay with doesn’t wind up homeless because hosting extra people violates the terms of the lease.

Virtually all the problems I’ve cited stem from omissions. So they seem readily fixable — and less contentious — than the administration’s proposal to shelter most homeless families in private rooms, rather than apartment-style units or anything in between.

Proof of the pudding, of course, is how the Mayor and her people respond to recommended revisions in the bill.

DC Mayor Wants Law Changed to Allow New Dorm-Style Family Shelters

October 1, 2015

Mayor Bowser has formally asked the DC Council to approve two changes to the Homeless Services Reform Act — the law that establishes the framework for the District’s policies and programs for homeless people.

One would allow the administration to open new family shelters without apartment-style units. The other would alter the regular appeals process in cases where the Department of Human Services shelters families temporarily and then denies them shelter for a longer term.

The administration links the changes to the recently revived policy of sheltering homeless families with no safe place to stay year round, rather than admitting them only in freezing-cold weather, when the law says it must.

Seems the Council — and the rest of us — are to view the changes as an “all or nothing at all” package, though the bill itself would leave in place the current, much more restrictive right to shelter.

I want to give the issues the space I think they deserve. So I’ll confine myself here to the shelter units. Still a lot to grapple with, as you’ll see.

Why the New Shelter Plan Hinges on an Amendment

The HSRA generally requires the District to provide apartment-style shelter units for homeless families — separate bedrooms for parents and children, plus bathrooms, “cooking facilities” and related equipment for only the family. This has been honored more in the breach than the observance for a long time.

Families at DC General, the main family shelter, are in single rooms, barely converted from what were once hospital rooms. The motel rooms DHS puts homeless families in when DC General is full are just that — not suites with kitchenettes. The legal out in both cases is that the HSRA permits private rooms if no apartment-style units are available.

The administration plans to replace DC General with smaller shelters scattered around the city, picking up on the plan of sorts issued late in the Gray administration. It too wants only private rooms in the shelters.

No legal out in this case, since a shortage of apartment-style units wouldn’t apply. So the administration wants a change in the law that would allow it to choose either apartment-style or what’s essentially dormitory-style.

Why the Administration Has Opted for Private Rooms

The bottom line is the bottom line, as DHS Director Laura Zeilinger’s presentation to a “listening session” made clear. The choice, in other words, is cost-driven — in two ways.

The first is what the administration would have to pay for shelters built from the ground up or created by renovation. They’d obviously cost more if all the units were apartment-style, as the HSRA defines it.

Yet a slide in a series Zeilinger used at the session indicates that the extra cost wouldn’t be all that great. We see estimates for 200 units, equally divided into four new shelters. Apartment-style units for all of them would cost roughly $16.6 million more.

Not chump change, but hardly beyond the pale, since the capital budget — the source of the new shelter funds — is about $72.3 million. On the other hand, the Mayor can’t just dip into that budget for anything she chooses.

Cost estimates, of course, reflect not only the type of units, but the number. DHS claims it would need more if they were apartment-style because they wouldn’t turn over as fast. It’s got several slides showing that families stay longer in them.

The only local data presented do seem to support this. But they don’t necessarily indicate that families feel so at home that they don’t try to find housing — or accept it when offered.

The data could instead reflect where DHS has focused its housing placement efforts and/or the fact that families got apartment-style units for reasons that make affordable housing for them unusually difficult to find.

“I’m not saying we want to make shelter uncomfortable,” Zeilinger told us at the listening session. But it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.

What Troubles Advocates

Attorney Amber Harding, speaking for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, says they’re concerned about “lowering the floor for health and safety.” Health because germs spread — endangering all, but especially parents and children with conditions that compromise their immune systems.

Also because families would have to eat whatever DHS provides. Parents at DC General have long complained that they or their children can’t eat what the agency has trucked in for them, in part because of food sensitivities or special dietary needs.

Safety refers partly to the fact that children would have to share bathrooms with adults who may have perverse sexual proclivities and/or uncontrolled tendencies to violence. Unreasonable to expect them to use a bathroom only when a same-sex parent can chaperone.

Beyond the issue of actual physical danger, we should consider what Tamaso Johnson at the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence referred to as “acute concerns for safety.” These are understandably common among victims of domestic violence, as well as people, including children who’ve experienced other traumas.

For them, strangers in the bathrooms they’d have to use and in other “intimate settings,” as Johnson called them, could trigger anxieties they wouldn’t experience in apartment-style units — or at the very least, less communal arrangements.

What Standards Would Apply

Zeilinger says we need to look at the bigger picture. The flexibility the administration wants if part of “a larger plan to improve resources for struggling families,” including “better quality rooms” than what they have at DC General.

This seems to me a very low bar. And, in fact, the amendment the administration seeks would license another warehouse for homeless families because it sets no minimal standards.

DHS has shared two possible layouts, reflecting “principles” or “prototypical design elements” of a new shelter. These include several types of bathrooms, including at least one unit per floor with its own.

But all the administration would have to comply with is the “private room” definition the Council set after the Gray administration contended that screened-off spaces in recreation centers qualified — four permanent walls, a ceiling, a door that locks, lights that can be turned on an off from inside the cubicle and access to a hot shower.

The heart of the debate, I think, is how much more flexibility the DC Council should build into the HSRA. The Mayor and her lead officials may have all the best intentions. They may tweak the design principles to accommodate some concerns.

But who knows that will happen to them, tweaked or otherwise, if officials can’t contract for enough replacement units without compromising them?

The proposed amendment does require the administration to maintain apartment-style units. But there’s nothing to ensure it will lease up enough for all the families that would suffer harm during even a brief stay in a single room. Zeilinger’s focus on lengths of stay could make one queasy.

In short, it seems prudent for the Council to balance relief from the apartment-style unit mandate with some legally-binding constraints.

Alternatively, it could find the funds for apartment-style units or, at least, some compromise. What about rooms with private bathrooms, plus some food storage and prep equipment, for example?


Will We Have DC Families Living on Less Than $2 a Day?

September 28, 2015

Short answer to the question the title poses is we already do, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports. And about a year from now, we could have well over 6,000, including about 13,000 children with no cash income whatever unless Mayor Bowser comes up with a lifeline that the DC Council approves.

“This is the single most important moment for poverty in D.C.” since the birth of DCFPI in 2001, Executive Director Ed Lazere told a group of us meeting to discuss the crisis those families may face.

What Has Driven So Many Families Into Such Deep Poverty

Families who’ve participated in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of 60 months or more have exceeded the time limit District law now sets. It provides for a benefits phase-out leading to zero in October 2016.

The Council suspended the phase-out after the first cut, but then let it resume. So a three-person TANF family now receives a benefit equivalent to 9% (not a typo) of the federal poverty line.

What Federal Law Has to Do With the Time Limit

No state or the District must have a time limit. We can trace the reason virtually all do to the law that established TANF. It generally prohibits states from using their federal block grant funds for cash assistance to adults or minor heads-of-household after they’ve been in the program for 60 months. Exceptions allowed, however (of which more below).

What We Know About TANF and Work

Parents do, by and large, seem to have a sense of urgency about finding work. Extremely low benefits, as well as imminent cut-offs help account for this, though we shouldn’t ignore aspirations and values they share with the great majority of Americans.

Staying in the workforce — and in a job that pays more than the very low maximum for TANF eligibility — is another matter.

We know from past research that adults who leave TANF for work or because work they had began to pay more often return to the program — about one in five during the late 1990s, when the labor market was considerably more favorable than it is now.

A more recent audit of the District’s longest-term participants casts severe doubts on their employment and earnings prospects. Fewer than half the parents who’d received job training and/or placement help got a job of any sort. And only a tiny fraction still had those jobs six months later.

These dismal results probably reflect, among other things, reasons they’ve come up against the time limit. A deplorable lack of current research here.

But we know from a 2002 study of the District’s TANF caseload that most parents who’d remained in the program for three years faced multiple barriers to work, e.g., less than a high school education, little (or no) work experience, mental health problems, recent and severe domestic violence, sick children or other family members they had to care for.

These findings generally conform to others. An evaluation of a Minnesota TANF employment program, for example, found, among other things, that about two-thirds of participants had a physical or learning disability, a mental health problem and/or responsibility for an incapacitated family member.

What the District Could Do

The District had no time limit until 2011, after soon-to-be Mayor Gray pushed through a bill during his last days as Council Chairman — a license for him to revert to his earlier benefits phase-out plan.

And indeed, he did, but with none of the relief options federal rules allow. For example, the District could extend benefits beyond the time limit for up to 20% of its average caseload and still use federal funds to pay for them so long as the families met criteria for “hardship,” however it chose to define that, or had a member who’d been “battered or subjected to extreme cruelty.”

Most states extend benefits when parents, for various reasons, can’t be expected to immediately find work — because they’re victims of domestic violence, for example, sick or incapacitated or caring for family member who is.

As of mid-2013, 14 states provided extensions when parents were “cooperating,” i.e., doing what their plans said they should, but couldn’t find work. This would seem especially relevant to the District’s at-risk families.

Though we don’t know how many of the parents have less than a high school diploma or the equivalent, we do know that working-age residents (25-64 years old) without the credential have very high unemployment rates — nearly 14.6% last year, according to the American Community Survey. Probably even higher for younger residents.

We also know that parents in the District’s TANF program are still on waiting lists for job training and placement services — about 300, the new head of the agency responsible for TANF told us at the meeting.

More to the point perhaps, parents waited, on average, 11 months for such services last year. But the clock kept ticking toward the time limit.

And some of them were pretty far along before the Department of Human Services rolled out improvements in both the training component and the assessments used to decide which services would best prepare parents for work. Time in the old problem-riddled program still counts.

What Will Happen Next

The budget for the upcoming fiscal year pushes back the benefits cut-off that was originally set for October 2015 in part because the Mayor wanted DHS to have some time to develop an extension policy — something it should have done four years ago.

One can hope the policy recognizes the fact that the vast majority of TANF parents aren’t to blame for remaining unemployed — or so egregiously under-employed as to still be income-eligible.

Nor to blame if some unforeseeable barrier arises after they’ve passed the time limit, e.g., an eruption of domestic violence or stalking, a debilitating illness. Needless to say, children aren’t to blame, no matter what.

All this calls for not only liberal extensions, but a rollback of the benefits cuts that have caused such dire hardships for the 60-month families.

Yet even the best extension policy and fully restored benefits can’t make up for flaws in the basic structure of the federal TANF law — the main reason some 1.5 million families have had to get by on, at most, $2 a day.

When No News Isn’t Good News: Hunger Edition

September 24, 2015

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the food insecurity rate last year was so little different from the 2013 rate as to be statistically the same — 14%.

That’s about 17.4 million households or a total of 48.1 million people without “consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living.”

There was also no measurable change in what USDA calls the “very low food security rate,” i.e., the percent of households where at least one member sometimes didn’t have enough to eat due to lack of resources, including SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

More than 6.9 million households — 5.6% of all in the U.S. — fell into this category. And in 422,000 of them, children were sometimes hungry, had to skip meals or even went a whole day without anything to eat. No statistically significant change in this rate either.

These figures almost surely understate the actual extent of malnutrition and hunger in this country because the survey they’re based on doesn’t include homeless individuals or families. They’re nonetheless troubling. And the news doesn’t get more cheering as we drill down.

Food Insecurity Over the Longer Term

The nationwide food insecurity rate peaked in 2011, when it was 14.9%. The latest rate is lower than that, by a meaningful amount. But the very low food security rate isn’t.

Looking back over a longer time period, the food insecurity rate in 1999 was 10.1%. It rose every year, but one thereafter until 2012. At the same time, the very low food security rate inched up, though not yearly until 2009.

We see a slight drop then, but a return to the prior rate — 5.7% — the following year. And, as the foregoing indicates, that’s basically where it’s stuck.

Food Costs and SNAP

The typical U.S. household spent $50 a week per person for food last year. This is 17% more than the costs of the Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining SNAP benefits.

But the percent is considerably higher for households with incomes of at least 185% of the federal poverty line, the income eligibility cut-off for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and for reduced-price school meals.

These households spent $52.50 a week per person or 30% more than what the Thrifty Food Plan would allot them. As in the past, these figures are among the many that tells us SNAP benefits are too low.

The more telling, however, are the food insecurity rates among households that received these benefits for the entire 12 months the survey covered.

More than half the households — 51.9% — were food insecure. And well over half of these — 25.5% — had very low food security. Both these rates are somewhat higher than in 2012, the last full year before the premature expiration of the SNAP benefits boost the Recovery Act provided.

Food Insecurity in the District of Columbia

USDA reports three-year averages for states and the District to compensate for the relatively small number of households surveyed each year.

During 2012-14, 13.2% of D.C. households — roughly 41,315 — were food insecure. Of these, 4.9% — about 15,335 — couldn’t always afford to buy enough food of any sort for everyone to have enough to eat.

Both these rates are essentially the same as the national rates for the same time period. And both are essentially the same as the District’s rates during 2009-11. They’re considerably higher, however, than the rates during 2002-4, when they were 10.2% and 2.9%.

The just-released results of the American Community Survey don’t yet include current three-year averages for SNAP. We do, however, learn that 14.4% of District households received SNAP benefits last year. This is somewhat higher than the nationwide rate. But it apparently doesn’t translate into less food insecurity.

Don’t know what to make of all of this beyond the obvious. While SNAP benefits are too low everywhere, they’re especially insufficient in high-cost cities like the District, as research I’ve previous cited shows.

SNAP households are expected to spend 30% of their own money on food. Even that much probably wouldn’t make up for the shortfall between SNAP benefits and the costs of even the unrealistic Thrifty Food Plan.

In any case, a family doesn’t live by food alone. High housing costs and extraordinarily high childcare costs dwarf the estimated amount a family would need for food in the District.

So one has to assume that at least some families spend less on food than what’s supposed to be their share because that’s the only way they can pay the rent — and the only way they can work if they’ve got children who can’t be left to fend for themselves or with a friend of family member.

We’ve got a broad network of nonprofits that provide free food and/or meals to low-income District residents. But as Bread for the World’s president has said, “We can’t ‘food bank’ our way out of hunger.”

The new USDA figures confirm this not only for the District, but elsewhere. Yet we’re a long way from long-advocated increases in SNAP benefits — and a long way as well, it seems, from federal appropriations that would increase the reach of other anti-hunger programs.

In fact, we’ll be lucky if the news from Capitol Hill is no news.



DC Poverty Rate Dips Down

September 17, 2015

Hard on the results of the Census Bureau’s latest annual Current Population Survey supplement come the vastly more detailed results of its American Community Survey. As the headline says, they indicate what seems a drop in the overall poverty rate for the District of Columbia — down from 18.9% in 2013 to 17.7% last year.*

In human terms, this means that roughly 5,120 fewer District residents lived in poverty, as the Census Bureau’s official measure defines it.

At the same time, fewer residents lived in deep poverty, i.e., with household incomes no greater than 50% of the applicable poverty threshold — 9.1%, as compared to 10.3% in 2013.

These figures are obviously good news. But they’re hardly good enough to pop a champagne cork for. Several major reasons we should remain very concerned.

First, as I’ve said before, the poverty thresholds are extraordinarily low. A single parent and her two children, for example, were counted as poor only if the family’s pre-tax cash income was less than $19,073 — this in a city where the family’s basic needs cost roughly $104,000. Perhaps even more, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has noted.

Second, the District’s poverty rate is still high, even comparatively. The national poverty rate, according to the ACS, was 15.5% last year. The District’s poverty rate also exceeds all but 11 state-level rates.

Third, the poverty rate for children in the District is far higher than the rate for the population as a whole — 26% or more than one in four residents under 18 years old. The deep poverty rate for children is also higher — 12.4%.

True, these rates are lower than in 2013, when they were 27.2% and 16.2%. But we’ve got more children in the District now. So the rate dips — for plain vanilla poverty in particular — reflect less progress than they seem to.

Fourth, we still have large gaps among major race/ethnicity groups in the District — one, though far from the only sign of persistent income inequality, rooted in discriminatory policies and practices. For example:

  • The new poverty rate for blacks is 25.9%, as compared to 6.9% for non-Hispanic whites.
  • 12.7% of blacks lived in deep poverty, while only 4.8% of non-Hispanic whites did.
  • The rates for Hispanics fall in between, as they have in the past — 16.9% and 7.5%.

We find the same sort of divide in household incomes. The median for non-Hispanic white households was $117,134 — $57,512 higher than their median nationwide. The median household income for black residents was barely more than a third of what non-Hispanic whites here had to live on — $40,739.

For the poverty rates themselves, we can find some ready explanations in other ACS figures. For example, the poverty rate for District residents who were at least 25 years old and had less than a high school diploma or the equivalent was 33.7%, as compared to 5.8% for their counterparts with at least a four-year college degree.

Only a small fraction of working-age (16-64 year-old) residents who worked full-time, year round were officially poor — 2.1% — while 45.9% who lived in poverty didn’t work (for pay) at all.

They presumably include residents too disabled to work and dependent on Supplemental Security Income benefits. These, at a maximum, left a single individual about $3,660 below the poverty threshold.

But that leaves 23.4% who worked for at least part of the year, less than full time or both. They were not, by any means, all workers who chose part-time and/or temporary work, as a recent report by DCFPI and partners tells us.

The report includes some policy recommendations to help low-wage hourly workers who are now jerked around — and economically disadvantaged — by unpredictable, erratic work schedules. One can readily find other policy proposals that would, in various ways, significantly reduce poverty rates in the District and nationwide.

Though the ACS gives us new numbers, neither the story they tell nor the solutions they imply are new. Still worth knowing how the prosperity we witness in our gentrifying neighborhoods, as well as our traditionally upper-income havens has egregiously failed to reach so many District residents.

* All the ACS tables include margins of error, i.e., how much the raw numbers and percents could be too high or too low. For readability, I’m reporting both as given. However, the high side of the margin for the overall rate could mean no change from 2013.



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