Why So Many People at Risk of Hunger in DC and Nationwide?

May 19, 2016

We may all be Washington, D.C., as the Mayor’s slogan implies, but we’re not all sufficiently fed. In fact, 90,900 (13.8%) of us don’t always have enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle because we can’t afford it, according to Feeding America’s latest Map the Meal Gap report.*

The “us” here includes 29,820 children (nearly 26%) of those living in the District in 2014, the most recent year Feeding America could get data for. They’re not necessarily underfed, but they live in food insecure households and so are, at the very least, at risk of hunger.

Troublesome as these figures are, they’re better than those for the prior two years — especially 2013, when the food insecurity rate for all District residents was 15% and, for children, 30.5%.

On the other hand, the child food insecurity rate is 5% higher than the national rate, though the overall rate is slightly lower.

What can we tease out to explain such relatively high food insecurity rates in the District? First off — and this is true everywhere — families with children are more likely to be hard up for food money than families without them.

They’re still short, even with SNAP (food stamp) benefits and other federally-funded nutrition assistance, e.g., WIC, free or reduced-price school meals. Or so it seems.

Here in the District, nearly three-quarters of food insecure residents have incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line — the threshold Feeding America uses because the District has taken advantage of an option that allows residents with incomes this high to have their eligibility for SNAP considered.

Doesn’t mean they’ll all qualify. Their income, after deductions must still be no greater than 100% of the FPL But broad-based categorical eligibility, as the option is called, does seem to make a difference.

For children, Feeding America uses 185% of the FPL — the maximum income for WIC and reduced-price school meals. By this measure, somewhat over two-thirds of food insecure children qualify for nutrition assistance.

The flip side of these figures, of course, is that a quite high percent of food insecure District residents, including children have household incomes too high for any federally-funded nutrition assistance.

Both those aided and those not face a problem that the Feeding America report is really about — what it calls the meal gap, i.e., the difference between the per-meal cost of food and what individuals and families can afford.

It does some complex number-crunching to arrive at the gap — or more precisely, gaps. The end result for the nation as a whole is $2.89.

The meal gap in the District is notably higher — $3.49 per meal or more than $73 a week, assuming three meals a day, every day, as Feeding America does. This surely goes a long way toward explaining the high food insecurity rates.

On the one hand, as I’ve said, many food insecure District residents have incomes to high to qualify for SNAP, which would supplement their own budgets.

The city is also home to residents who’ve got incomes well below the threshold, but don’t qualify because they’re undocumented immigrants — or documented, but haven’t lived in the country long enough.

On the other hand, those who do qualify won’t have enough to cover the costs of reasonably healthful meals all month long. A parent with two children, for example, can get at most $511 a month — or about $1.87 per meal for each family member.

Closing the local meal gap would have cost roughly $56 million two years ago — and more than $24.5 billion nationwide. That’s a lot of money. Which tells us why Feeding America maps the gap.

The organization, as you may know, supplies food to a national network of food banks. Some of the food comes from federal agencies, it says. The rest — and far greater portion — comes from private-sector sources, e.g., food processors, grocery chains and monetary donations it uses to buy food.

The banks, in turn, channel the food to nonprofits that serve prepared meals and/or distribute groceries to poor and near-poor people in the area they serve. They too may get food from private-sector sources and buy more, using cash or cash-equivalent donations.

And they may get some from the Emergency Food Assistance Program — a variable mix that the U.S. Department of Agriculture parcels out to state agencies and they, in turn, to the banks and/or community action agencies.

Here in the District, 132 pantries, dining rooms, other programs that serve meals and/or snacks and the DC Central Kitchen, which prepares meals for some of them, depend in part on what they receive from the Capital Area Food Bank.

Narrowing the meal gap will obviously require more food — and more money to not only buy it, but distribute, store, prepare and deliver it.

We surely can’t look to this Congress, though we can hope it doesn’t widen the gap. That’s what House Republicans would do if they succeeded in converting SNAP to a block grant, as their budget plans have repeatedly envisioned.

It’s what their latest plan would probably do, even without the block grant, because it puts a tighter squeeze on non-defense programs that depend on annual spending choices. This already-shrunken part of the budget includes WIC, parts of TEFAP and several sources of funds for free or low-cost home-delivered meals.

Highly doubtful we’ll see the cuts this year. But it’s obvious that the meal gap will remain — and probably grow, as it already has — without more public funds to shrink it.

* The food insecurity rates Feeding America reports for states and the District are slightly higher than those USDA reported. This apparently is because the agency uses two-year averages to compensate for the relatively small size of its survey sample.


Homeless DC Families Push Total Count to Record High

May 11, 2016

The just-released report on last January’s one-night homeless count in the Washington area may deliver a shock to even those who’ve followed the homeless family crisis in the District.

The count identified more homeless families than in any year since the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments first reported them separately.

The number of homeless individuals who had no children in their care ticked down again. But the increase in adults and children counted as family members was so large as to push the homeless total up to the highest level since the counts began.

Highest Homeless Total in Thirteen Years

The count found 8,350 homeless people in the District — 1,052 more than only a year ago. This represents an increase of 14.4%.

Looking back to 2004, when the District, like other communities that receive homeless assistance grants, first had to conduct one-night counts, the total increased by nearly 43.3%.

Far More Homeless Families

The count identified 1,491 homeless families — 360 more than in 2015, making for an increase of 31.8%. The new number is about two-and-a-half times as many as in 2008, when the recession first set in and the count reports began including the family number.

The homeless families included 1,945 adults and 2,722 children they were caring for, representing increases of 36.2% and roughly 31.9% respectively.

The total number of homeless persons in families, as the report refers to them, was thus 4,667. This is twice as many as in 2004 — and an increase of about 154.2% since 2008, the lowest count on record.

About a quarter of the persons were adults no older than twenty-four — about the same percent as last year, but a higher raw number. These so-called transition age youth account for about 60% of the increase in adult family members counted.

Count of Homeless Singles Dips Again

The number of homeless singles, i.e., those who don’t have children with them, declined from 3,821 in 2015 to 3,683 this year. The new number is also somewhat lower than the counts for 2013 and 2014, but not by much.

We clearly had more homeless singles when the Great Recession hit and in the years immediately thereafter. Since then, the numbers dropped and then rose again, though not markedly. The differences may have more to do with count conditions, e.g., weather, than the homeless population.

Continuing Downward Slide for Chronically Homeless Singles

Among the singles were 1,501 in the chronically homeless subgroup, i.e., people homeless for a long time or recurrently and with at least one disability.

The District’s goal, like that of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, is to effectively end chronic homelessness by the end of 2017. It seems unlikely to achieve that. But it’s well on the way. The count identified 92 fewer chronically homeless singles than in 2015 — the fewest then since 2011, when the numbers began steadily dropping.

So we’ve got a clear downward trend, as we don’t for any other subgroup the report breaks out — except, more recently, veterans, who often have disabilities and so get counted as chronically homeless. Shows again what money can do.

Not Quite So Many Young Homeless Singles

Also among the singles were 201 transition age youth — a few more than in 2015, when communities first had to report them separately. But they’re still a small fraction of this vulnerable age group.

As is generally the case with homeless people counted as singles, some may have a spouse or other partner. Neither the count nor the homeless services system recognizes families who’ve got no children with them, as I’ve remarked before.

Perhaps Not That Many More Recently Homeless Families

The District attributes the increase in homeless families to the undeniable shortage of affordable housing in the city, but not only that.

It also cites an “increased demand for stable housing assistance that is brought to bear on the homeless system” and the recent reversion to the long-standing policy of granting shelter to homeless families year round, instead of only when they’re at risk of freezing.

What this suggests, though I doubt it means to is that the District probably under-reported homeless families in the recent past because some knew not to seek help when they needed it and so had no records in the information management system used for the counts.

That, of course, merely means that District policymakers — and everyone else concerned — has a better fix on the crisis now. But not the whole of it.

Always More Homeless People Than Counted

As I usually say when citing homeless figures based on counts, they understate the number of people who have no home of their own.

This is partly because the counts must used the limited definition of “homeless” that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development must use for its homeless assistance grants.

So they include homeless people in shelters, transitional housing and places “not meant for human habitation,” e.g., cars, subway stations, underpasses.

But they don’t include everyone living doubled up with friends or relatives because they can’t afford housing or those making do in cheap motels, unless they’ll become homeless, according to HUD’s definition, within two weeks.

And the counters have no way of finding them or knowing that. Nor are they likely to find everyone who’s unsheltered. The count, recall, is partly a one-night search.

And homeless people don’t all cluster together in places where they’re easily found — understandably, since the District and other communities have taken to clearing out such places and taking whatever belongings the owners can’t swiftly remove.

Many homeless people don’t want to be found for other reasons — especially those who are minors, since they’d be either returned to the homes they fled or relegated to foster care. Perhaps also parents who justifiably fear losing their children.

All the more reason the DC Council should feel an even greater sense of urgency to invest more in affordable housing, including both the permanent supportive type and locally-funded housing vouchers.

And an even greater sense of urgency to change Temporary Assistance for Needy Families policy, lest even more families become homeless by next January.


Childcare Costs a High Barrier to Access for Low-Income Kids in DC and Nationwide

April 28, 2016

Picking up where I left off, access to child care is one of the big issues facing parents and policymakers. Low-income children, especially the youngest apparently don’t have equal access to the sort of care that would give them more equal opportunities during the rest of their lives.

So how might we parse access?

In one sense, it obviously means having enough slots in childcare centers, home-based and publicly-funded programs for all children whose parents want them there.

The slots must also, of course, be for their children’s age group and where parents can get their kids to them fairly quickly and at a reasonable cost.

But an age-appropriate slot in a conveniently located program will mean nothing if the parents can’t afford it. Nor if the program doesn’t provide care during the hours they themselves can’t.

We know how costly unsubsidized child care is nationwide and in each state, plus the District of Columbia, which racks up the highest costs of all.

Care for an infant in a local daycare center, for example, cost, on average, $22,631 last year — more than what a single parent, working full time, year round at a minimum wage job earned. Only about $4,790 less for a four-year-old.

The parent is technically eligible for a voucher. But the priority list for awards casts doubt on whether she could get one.

Even if she could, finding a slot could be hard because the District’s reimbursement rates are so low that providers either won’t accept children with subsidies or limit the number they will — a long-standing problem the District still hasn’t remedied.

The District also, however, has Early Start — a spin-off from Head Start for infants and toddlers in families with incomes no higher than the federal poverty line, plus some who may have more, but not enough to get by.

Little hope for poor parents here, it seems. The program enrolled only 12% of eligible children, according recent Census data.

For somewhat older children, the District has Head Start — an enrollment figure reportedly over 100% of those eligible. It also has pre-K programs in its public school system. These, of course, are also free.

But none of the programs operates on weekends or during evening and nighttime hours, when low-income parents must often work. Nor during summer months. So the programs may be accessible, but they don’t fully meet the need.

I’ve focused on the District, but we see generally the same problems in communities across the country — except, of course, for wealthy enclaves. Head Start and Early Start don’t provide nighttime care for children anyplace, for example.

Last year, child care was the single largest family expense, Care.com reports. But that’s only for parents who could scrape up the money — an average nationwide of about $9,775 a year for just one child in a center.

Obviously an access barrier for many others, unless they got vouchers to subsidize child care.The main federal funding sources subsidized care for only 15% of eligible children in 2012, the latest year we’ve got reliable figures for.

More recent figures from CLASP suggest that the gap between need and access has grown since, though we don’t — and to my knowledge, never had — a hard number for this.

We do, however, know that low-income parents must often make do with makeshift arrangements — sometimes parking a child with a relative, sometimes with a neighbor, sometimes just where they can keep an eye on their kids or not even that.

Most such arrangements may keep children safe, fed and the like. But they probably don’t provide the early learning experiences that a high-quality childcare program does. Money isn’t enough for that, but it’s the foundation.


Bowser Budget Shorts Vouchers, Leaves Huge Affordable Housing Gap

April 7, 2016

The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that the District of Columbia has only 40 apartments affordable and available to rent for every 100 extremely low-income households and only 30 per 100 for the deeply low-income.

ELIs have incomes no greater than 30% of the area median — at most, $32,600 for a four-person family in D.C. For DLIs, the maximum is 15% of that median.

The NLIHC figures actually understate the affordable housing shortage here because the area includes well-off communities beyond the city line. Several years ago, the District’s own median was 23% lower.

Even so, clearly a yawning “housing gap” — a shortage of more than 30,600 units two years ago, when the Census Bureau conducted the survey NLIHC used.

It helps explain why nearly two-thirds of the District’s ELI households and nearly three-quarters of the DLI subset had to spend more than half their income for rent, plus utilities — commonly (and aptly) referred to as a severe housing burden.

The gap also, of course, helps explain why the District had so many homeless individuals and families — and still does, though we’ll have to wait a bit for new hard numbers.

The report confirms what everyone has known for a long time. The District sorely needs more housing that’s affordable for its lowest-income residents. And the District government must invest local tax dollars to create it — and preserve what remains.

The Mayor’s budget includes another $100 million for the Housing Production Trust Fund, which helps finance both construction and preservation, though not exclusively for ELIs and DLIs.

But developers can’t afford to build or renovate housing for them without an ongoing source of funds to help pay operating costs. That’s why the District also needs enough housing vouchers of the sort that’s attached to specific units — so-called project-based vouchers.

At the same time, it needs more tenant-based vouchers — those that make up the difference between what low-income people can afford and the market-rate rent of units landlords will lease to them.

Don’t look to the federal government to fund more vouchers. The current budget at best barely sustains those already in use. And the District hasn’t gotten anything like the number of vouchers it needs for many years.

That’s why its policymakers created the Local Rent Supplement Program — a source of vouchers modeled on the federal.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has raised concerns about proposed funding for LRSP in next year’s budget. There’d be only enough more to provide affordable housing for some 200 formerly homeless individuals and families, it says.

These would be tenant-based vouchers. They would replace some of the short-term vouchers individuals and families have through rapid re-housing and/or enable either or both to move from permanent supportive housing because they no longer need such intensive services.

The Mayor proposes no additional funds for the project-based type. How then could the Production Trust Fund actually produce more affordable housing for ELI residents — let alone the subcategory NLIHC has created?

The Fund, by law, is supposed to spend 40% on ELI housing every year. It hasn’t always in the past. But the head of the Housing and Economic Development Department said she’d ensure it did. And the latest awards seem to confirm that.

But developers may not respond to all the new opportunities the Fund will create if the Bowser administration can’t assure them of the ongoing subsidies project-based vouchers provide.

This isn’t the only problem with the significantly smaller LRSP increase the Mayor proposes. If all the tenant-based vouchers go to residents in rapid re-housing and/or PSH, there’ll be none for the ELIs and DLIs with housing burdens that put them at high risk of homelessness.

NPR recently profiled a single mother who’d just narrowly escaped eviction, but can’t rest easy because her monthly rent is about $335 more than what her job pays.

She knows that she should move the family to a more affordable place. but even the no-bedroom apartments she’s found rent for barely less than what she makes.

She applied for a housing voucher eight years ago. The family is now “1,000 something” on the DC Housing Authority’s waiting list, she says. There are about 40,000 families behind her. And there would be more if DCHA hadn’t closed the list three years ago.

The problem NLIHC documents is hardly unique to the District. The shortages it documents are actually larger nationwide, as are the severe housing burdens. We can, I think chalk this up partly to investments of local funds.

But that’s hardly a source of comfort to District families who can barely come up with the monthly rent and money for the electricity bill — or who can’t, but manage to stay housed, heated and the like by putting off first one and then the other.

These families are obviously one loss of working hours or other new strain on their budgets away from homelessness — or just one more late rent payment.

The District may rapidly re-house them. But few will be able to pay full rent when their short-term subsidies expire — or find an apartment they can afford. And the proposed budget would by no means fund LRSP vouchers for all that will need them to remain securely housed.

The Mayor has embraced the goal of making homelessness a rare, brief, one-time experience in the District. So it’s perplexing to see that she’s proposing a smaller real-dollar increase for LRSP than budgeted in any recent year but one.

Not much of the “fair shot” her budget promises for those residents on the waiting list and the severely housing-burdened who aren’t because they couldn’t apply.

 


DC Mayor Leaves TANF Families Dangling Near Bottom of a Cliff

March 28, 2016

Mayor Bowser said, in her State of the District address, that she would ask the DC Council to raise the local minimum wage to $15 an hour. She wants to “make sure that more families … can earn a decent wage … [s]o that when their time on TANF has ended, they can afford to stay in the District of Columbia.”

Meanwhile, a reform of some sort “will keep families working their plans from falling off a cliff.” This, I take it, refers to families headed by parents who are putting in the required number of hours on their required work preparation and/or job search activities.

The Mayor’s proposed budget quashes whatever hope her speech raised. It would, once again, just push back the benefits cut-off for families who’ve participated in TANF for 60 months or more.

Better than pushing them out of the program six months from now. But they’d still receive only the drastically lower cash aid intended to lead up to the cut-off — perhaps with a very small adjustment to compensate for inflation.

A family of three now receives $156 a month — $1.71 per person, per day. Seems to me they’re already pretty near the bottom of that cliff.

One could understand the cut-off delay if the notion of extending benefits indefinitely for some at-risk families were altogether new such that experts in the Human Services Department had to start developing a proposal from scratch.

If they had no precedents in other states to look at, instead of those in forty-four. If the notion of preserving benefits for all the 13,600 or so children who’d get only a temporary reprieve had never crossed the Mayor’s radar screen before.

If no research had found that children in extreme poverty suffer irreparable damages that put them at extremely high risk for a lifetime of poverty.

The Mayor knows, as do many of you, that the Council already has a pending bill that would qualify families for extensions if cutting off their TANF benefits would leave them penniless — or in less dire cases, short of enough wage income to cover their basic needs.

The same bill would extend a lifeline to all children, even those whose parents didn’t qualify. And it would restore the cash benefits they and reprieved parents would receive if not up against the time limit.

That’s hardly enough to live on, even with other safety net benefits, but a whole lot better than what the Mayor intends. Our family of three would have $288 more a month — and could look forward to an increase next year, if still not earning enough to boost it over the income cut-off.

Strengthening the safety net, as the bill proposes, would cost roughly $30 million during the upcoming year — $20 million more than the Mayor’s kick-the-can-down-the-road-again approach.

She chooses instead to give more than half the total to businesses through another cut in the franchise tax and to the beneficiaries of estates, which would have no tax levied until the value, after deductions exceeded $2 million.*

The Council triggered these tax cuts — and possibly others — in its latest budget-related legislation, but she could have asked it to defer them.

I have nothing like the expertise to say where else Bowser and her budget experts could have found the funds needed for the TANF extensions. But they’re surely somewhere in that $13.4 billion budget.

I realize I’m not giving the Mayor credit for a number of fine budget proposals — $13.1 million to move the plan to end homelessness forward, for example, another $100 million commitment to help finance construction and/or preservation of affordable housing, further investments in public education. And so on.

But I can’t get over her decision to leave nearly 6,600 poor families hanging by a thread when she has such a clear, justifiable alternative. And I don’t think Councilmembers should go along when they could, at least in this respect, make the budget live up to its billing as “a fair shot.”

* Current law exempts assets that pass directly to surviving spouses and/or charitable organizations. So the larger tax break wouldn’t benefit them. It would benefit other heirs if either or both received some of the assets because the taxable value doesn’t include them.

UPDATE: I’ve just seen the Chief Financial Officer’s (unpublished) cost estimate for the short-term reprieve. He puts it at $11.6 million, based on an estimated 6,200 families and no cost-of-living adjustment, as I had thought there might be.


Will DC Policymakers Subject Children to Brain-Damaging Toxic Stress?

March 21, 2016

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute is celebrating its fifteenth year as a lead advocacy organization for low-income District of Columbia residents — and an invaluable source of research and analysis for many other advocates, including yours truly.

It highlighted the occasion by putting yet another plank in a platform that it and like-minded allies have been building for well over a year. And now they hope we’ll join them.

The plank was a series of brief presentations on why District policymakers shouldn’t cut the “lifeline” for nearly 6,600 very poor families. “The biggest issue in DCFPI’s history,” said Executive Director Ed Lazere. One can understand why.

The families, as many of you know, have reached (or exceeded) the rigid 60-month time limit the District now sets for participation in its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Most of the parents are by no means ready to find — and keep — jobs that pay enough to support them and their children. Yet they could soon lose their only source of cash income, as well as other critical benefits and services.

You who follow this blog know I’ve learned quite a bit about TANF, the time limit and why it’s so wrong-headed, thanks in large measure to DCFPI and its parent organization, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The anniversary event nevertheless gave me a better understanding of some prospective harms to the 13,600 or so children in those at-risk families. They may, in fact, already be suffering those harms.

But policy changes can, to some extent, reverse the effects — this the hopeful code to an otherwise dismaying presentation by pediatrician and child health advocate Dr. Lee Savio Beers.

The harms are results of what medical experts call toxic stress — stress that causes physiological damages because it’s acute and experienced often or for long periods of time.

Not going to delve here into the various bodily reactions to stress — partly because they’re more various and complex than I understand. (Those of you who want to can find a technical explanation in this report by the American Academy of Pediatrics.)

Basically, I gather, a perceived challenge or threat triggers the release of certain hormones and other chemicals. When they keep surging, they affect the way our bodily systems work. We become more susceptible to a range of mental and physical illnesses, for example.

But toxic stress does other damages to children, especially in their early years because it affects the way the genes they’re born with shape the way their brains develop — and don’t.

On the one hand, the part of the brain that processes stress goes into a permanent hyperactive mode. On the other hand, portions of the brain that handle functions like thinking, learning and controlling emotions remain under-developed.

And if they don’t develop when they’re supposed to, they won’t. So there’s a limited window of opportunity to avert the effects of toxic stress. The key here is whether experiences that can trigger stress are “buffered” by nurturing attention from adults.

Conversely, abuse, even if only verbal or directed at another family member, and neglect, even if only inattention, trigger stress responses. If acute and/or prolonged, they’re toxic. Links to high levels of stress caregivers experience are obvious.

So toxic stress is communicable, though it’s technically not a disease. And relieving caregivers from conditions that stress them will protect children from it — and thus from becoming toxically-stressed parents themselves.

Lots of things can acutely stress parents, of course. But having no money or safety net benefits sufficient to compensate, as they generally aren’t, stresses any parent who’s sane and sober enough to have a child in her care.

So the District has these 6,600 or so families who’ll soon have no cash income, except what they can scrape together, plus SNAP (food stamp) benefits that rarely cover a full month’s worth of groceries and Medicaid, which will still leave the parents stuck for co-pays if they and/or their children need prescription drugs.

Many of those who aren’t already homeless soon will be, since fewer than a third live in subsidized housing (not counting housing subsidized by short-term vouchers, which will surely expire while the parents still can’t afford the full rent.)

A recently-published study that I (and many others) have referred to tells us how families get along on no more than $2 a day per person. Basically, they sell whatever they can — sex, for example, their plasma or, much as they don’t want to, their SNAP benefits.

They’re in “a constant, perpetual state of crisis,” says one of the coauthors. In other words, in a state that produces toxic stress in both parents and their children.

TANF, as another panelist said, offers states and the District a lot of choices. In the next few months, the Mayor and DC Council can choose to preserve a lifeline for many of the families now at risk — and others that will reach the current 60-month limit as time goes on.

Or they can choose to expose very poor children to more acute and prolonged toxic levels of stress, as well as the everyday hardships that fuel it and the long-term consequences of those.

As I’ve written before, a bill now pending in the Council would extend benefits beyond the time limit to families headed by parents who face unusually high barriers to work, plus some others — and to all children.

This wouldn’t only relieve impending toxic stress. It would relieve stress already caused by the benefits phase-out — a state of perpetual crisis, one assumes, since a mother and two children who could soon lose what remains of their benefits are already living on less than $2 a day.

Relief because the bill would restore the benefits families would have now if the District had granted them extensions from the get go. It wouldn’t altogether undo damages already done. But the relative security families would gain could lay the groundwork for reversals because the brain can modify its own structure, especially when children are young.

What’s needed now is the broadest possible expression of constituent support. Both individuals and organizations can sign a pledge endorsing the principles the bill reflects. I hope fellow District residents will seize this opportunity.

 

 


How Much Would DC Minimum Wage Workers Gain From $15 an Hour?

March 7, 2016

The Economic Policy Institute has answered a question long on my mind: How much are minimum wage increases actually worth when they’re phased in over time? The answer, as one would guess, is not as much as they seem because inflation erodes purchasing power.

EPI does more than confirm the hunch, however. It reports actual dollar values, using three different inflation estimates for minimum wage increases that will be on state ballots in November — and one that might be on the District of Columbia ballot.

Set aside the if and the why. Here’s what we learn about how much minimum wage workers would actually gain if voters had a chance to decide. How that if would pan out seems fairly certain.

As with one of the California proposals, they’d get a relatively big bump the first year — $2.00 more it would seem, if measured from the current rate. Inflation would take a bit of a bite, however, leaving them with somewhere between 23 cents and 47 cents less, depending on which estimate we look at.

Annual increases then get smaller, and inflation chugs on. So by 2020, the apparent $15.00 is worth somewhere between $13.76 and $13.41 in today’s dollars. In other words, what looks like an increase of nearly 43% for the District’s minimum wage workers could actually be about 15% less.

This isn’t to say that the campaign should be fighting for a significantly higher minimum wage. Nor that voters, if they can, should decide that the proposed new minimum wouldn’t make a enough of a difference to risk the job losses, cutbacks in hours, etc. that the Chamber of Commerce and its business association allies warn of.

For one thing, they always sound off when minimum wage increases are in the offing. And the alarms have thus far proved so much hot air — or mostly that.

We can’t altogether discount job losses and the like because, as economist Jared Bernstein has said, “the research doesn’t have a lot to say” about such a large minimum wage increase.

Harry Holzer, another leading labor economist, leans toward caution, but also concludes that the research on past minimum wage increases doesn’t supply grounds for a clear, reliable prediction.

We’re on surer ground when we look at the known knowns. For example, if the District’s minimum wage were $15 today, a full-time, year round worker earning that would have virtually no money left after paying the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

If the worker were a single mother with two children, she’d be short about $6,000 a month for basic needs, plus taxes, according to EPI’s family budget calculator. On the other hand, she’s short $800 a month more at the current minimum wage rate.

The minimum wage is one, though hardly the only reason that income inequality in the District is greater than in any state — and almost every large city, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute recently reported.

Households in the top fifth of the income scale have, on average, 30 times the income of those in the bottom fifth, though they’ve lost a negligible amount since the Great Recession set in. Households in the middle fifths have more in real dollars now.

But those in the bottom fifth have nearly 14% less — a mere $9,300, on average. This is far less than what a full-time, minimum wage worker gets paid, clearly indicating the need for a broader range of remedies than the proposed increase.

For one thing, converting the hourly wage to full-time, year round probably overstates a family’s income because so many retail employers schedule workers only when customer traffic indicates they need them.

Looked at from these several perspectives, the $15 an hour minimum wage seems a modest proposal — a necessary, but not sufficient measure to reduce income inequality by lifting what the bottom fifth has to live on.

DCFPI, which has favored the increase in the past, has some other recommendations, including what I infer are limits on the just-in-time scheduling practices that a bill the DC Council is considering would set.

The District would still need a strong safety net — and not only for residents whose incomes now drag down the average for the bottom fifth. Some low-wage workers might lose their jobs if employers had to pay them $15 an hour — even if they regularly receive tips and can thus legally be paid as little as $2.77 now.

We simply don’t know, but we shouldn’t pretend there’s no risk. Nor should we assume that workers active in the Fight for $15 campaign and its allies do.

As Bernstein argued awhile ago, they may have weighed the potential costs and benefits and decided they’d “be more likely to come out ahead” with the large increase they’re demanding. The District as a whole, including its yawping restaurant owners would too.


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