Disposable Bag Fee Hits Low-Income Residents In the Pocket

January 4, 2010

The Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act. Big news in the District last June and again now, as the proverbial hits the fan.

Brief review: The bill the DC Council passed established a 5-cent fee on virtually every plastic or paper shopping bag used to pack customers’ purchases at retail food establishments, including grocery stores, drug stores, convenience stores, street vendors and liquor stores.

The intent, as signaled by the name of the bill, was to secure funds to clean up the Anacostia River and protect it from further trash build-up. The funds were to come from the disposable bag fees, though retailers could retain 1 cent per bag–or 2 cents if they offered customers a 5-cent credit for each carryout bag they provided.

Lots of enthusiasm for this legislation. The Council vote was unanimous. Councilmember Jack Evans, not usually a fan of new taxes, said the bill was a “first step to address” the fact that “our country’s becoming inundated with plastic bags and bottles.” Mayor Fenty called plastic bags “a menace to our waterways” and said the legislation would “have measurable impact almost immediately.”

Some, however, raised concerns about the impacts on low-income residents. These were generally discounted–in part because the most vocal source was the plastic bag industry. Besides, Councilmember Tommy Wells, who co-sponsored the legislation, pledged an ongoing supply of free reusable bags for distribution to those for whom every penny matters.

Fast forward to January 1, the day the fee kicked in.

The city had committed to providing 122,000 bags for low-income residents and seniors. News4’s Tom Sherwood reports that it had distributed 20,000 by December 29. An additional 80,000 were on order but not expected for weeks. Nothing about the 22,000 bags the city will still be short.

Bread for the City, which had planned to serve as a free bag distribution center, has posted a plea for donations because the city didn’t come through. But who knows how much its clients and other poor people will have to spend, either on bag fees or on reusable bags–even if the city gets the promised bags out the door by month’s end?

I’ve done a little back-of-the-envelope calculation. My husband and I bring home a minimum of six full bags from our weekly grocery shops. That’s at least three bags per person. According to the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, there were about 96,640 District residents below the federal poverty line in 2008. There are probably more now.

So it would seem that at least 290,000 bags would be needed to protect the poorest D.C. residents from ongoing bag fees–or a minimum initial expenditure of $4.20 (99 cents per reusable bag, plus tax). And what about next year and the year after that? Reusable bags wear out. They get contaminated by leaky food packages. They get lost or stolen.

Yes, the District is legally obliged to clean up the Anacostia. And reusable bags reduce other pressures on the environment. But did anyone really think through what the bag tax would do to the budgets of the poorest households–or what would be entailed in delivering effective relief?


Are Poor Parents Bad Parents?

November 15, 2009

Surely the vast majority of poor parents do the best they can for their children. Still, a disproportionate number of them wind up losing their children to child welfare agencies.

One reason seems to be that more child abuse and neglect actually occur in poor families. According to the latest U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, children in families with incomes below $15,000 a year were 14 times more likely to be harmed by some form of abuse and 44 times more likely to be endangered by physical neglect than children in families with annual incomes of at least $30,000.

Data like these have led the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform to call the view that child mistreatment cuts across class lines a myth. After all, it says, child abuse is linked to stress, and poor families tend to be under more stress than rich families.

But, as NCCPR goes on to argue, many child protection laws virtually define poverty as neglect. In Illinois, for example, it’s failure to provide “care necessary for [a child’s] well-being.” Here in the District of Columbia, negligent treatment is “failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical care.”

The D.C. law goes on to make an exemption for deprivation due to lack of financial means. But there are reasons to believe this is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Consider, for example, that 34 children were put into foster care last year because of “inadequate housing.”

Perhaps other reasons were linked to poverty as well. More than half the 2008 foster care placements the Child and Family Services Agency reports were because of “neglect (reported/alleged).” There’s a lot of room here for judgments based on how well children fare when their families are poor.

Now we all know what happens when child welfare agencies leave children in homes where they shouldn’t be. But there’s also a lot of evidence that children are taken away from their parents when other options would be better for them.

What if the parents who lost their children due to “inadequate housing” had received housing vouchers or other assistance to improve their living conditions? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that a number of studies indicate that children are seriously damaged by foster care placements. For example, a large study of young adults who’d been in foster care found that they had twice the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder as Iraq war veterans. A third of them reported some form of maltreatment by an adult in the foster care home. Only 20% of them could be said to be “doing well.”

And then there are the horrible cases of children who died from abuse or neglect in foster care homes.

So when we see an exponential increase in foster care placements, as we have in D.C., we shouldn’t conclude that the child welfare system is working. We should try to find out more about the cases. Were the children being abused or willfully neglected? Or was the “neglect (reported/alleged)” something that could have been readily addressed by safety net programs or other services?

Or do a fair number of the placements reflect misjudgments on the part of the caseworkers? Professor Matthew Fraidin at the University of the District of Columbia Law School recently testified that 60% of the cases handled by his students resulted in the children’s being returned to their homes because, when confronted, CFSA agreed they weren’t being abused or neglected.

Was any racial prejudice involved? According to the latest CFSA assessment by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, as of January 2009, 98% of the children in out-of-home placements whose race was known were black. That’s about a third more than the percent of D.C. children who are black. Seems like an awfully big point spread to me. And here again we’ve got studies that make the question worth asking.

Unfortunately, neither we nor interested experts can get a good fix on whether children are being taken away from their parents because of their poverty and/or race. Here in D.C., as in most states, child welfare proceedings and records are closed to everyone not directly involved in the case.

What would happen if we let some sunshine in?

NOTE: I’m deeply indebted to Professor Fraidin for calling my attention to this issue and taking the time to educate me. The sources reflected here came largely from him. The analysis and errors, if any, are my own.


Congress Approves Free Suppers For Poor DC Children

October 9, 2009

A piece of good news in the midst of so much doom and gloom. The just-passed final version of the Fiscal Year 2010 Agriculture Appropriations bill makes the District of Columbia eligible for federally-subsidized suppers for low-income children in after-school programs.

As I wrote awhile ago, D.C. was added to the eligibility list in the bill the House of Representatives passed. But it was dropped in favor of Wisconsin in the bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee–maybe, just maybe because the chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Committee represents Wisconsin.

The version the House and Senate agreed to includes both D.C. and Wisconsin, plus Nevada and Connecticut, which was also in the House bill and is, not coincidentally the home state of the chair of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

In view of the politics here, a lot of credit goes to our non-voting representative in the House and to D.C. Hunger Solutions, which worked hard behind the scenes to get the District’s need for free suppers on the radar screen.

What the Director of D.C. Hunger Solutions says is true not only for D.C. families, but for families nationwide. Parents who are working extra-long or non-traditional hours or struggling to get into (or back into) the workforce need extended after-school care for their children. These children need more than a snack, even if their parents have the time and resources to serve a nutritious evening meal at home. And many don’t.

So, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, I hope Congress will go on to consider the unmet needs of poor children in the 37 states that still aren’t eligible for the subsidized supper program.

That’s only part of the unfinished agenda. Congress needs to change the program eligibility requirements because poor children can’t get even a subsidized snack, let alone supper, in an after-school program, except one operated by a school, unless they happen to live in an area where at least 50% of school-age children are poor. That may not be much of a problem in D.C., but it certainly is elsewhere.

And surely Congress should do something about the reimbursement rates too. Hard to see how an after-school program can serve tasty, nutritious suppers when the maximum reimbursement rate is, as for lunches, just $2.85 per meal.


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.