DC Poverty Rate Ticks Down (Maybe)

September 19, 2013

Hard on the Census Bureau’s Income, Poverty and Health Insurance report come results from the American Community Survey. And, as the headline indicates, the overall D.C. poverty rate seemingly dropped — but barely. So little, in fact, that the percent difference from 2011 is within the margin of error.*

More detail on that, plus some other gleanings from the survey.

Poverty Rates a Mixed Story

The poverty rate in the District apparently declined from 18.7% in 2011 to 18.2% in 2012. This left about 108,860 residents below the very low poverty thresholds — just $23,283 for a two-parent, two-child family. And, as I noted, the margin of error — 1.3% — casts doubt on real improvement.

Assuming a real drop, the poverty rate was still 1.8% higher than in 2007, just before the recession set in. It was also 3.2% higher than the national rate.**

The extreme poverty rate, i.e., the percent of residents living below 50% of the applicable threshold, effectively flat-lined at 10.4%. In other words, more than 62, 200 residents were devastatingly poor, especially when we consider the high costs of living in D.C.

As in the past, the child poverty rate was much higher than the overall rate. It was 26.5% last year. So nearly 28,590 D.C. children were officially poor. Well over half of them — 15.8% — lived in extreme poverty.

Both the plain vanilla and the extreme poverty rates for children were lower than in 2011 — the former by 3.8%. But they were both higher than in 2007, when the child poverty rate was 22.7% and the extreme poverty rate for children 12%.

They were also both higher than the national rates. These, as I earlier reported, were 21.8% and 9.7%.

Race/Ethnicity Gaps Still Very Large

Well, let’s just say One City we ain’t — not, at any rate, from the story the ACS figures tell. For example:

  • The black poverty rate was nearly three times the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 25.7%, as compared to 7.4%.
  • For blacks, the extreme poverty rate was 14.5%, while for non-Hispanic whites only 5.2%.
  • For Hispanics, the poverty rate was 22.1% and the extreme poverty rate 10.2%.

We see similar disparities in median household income.

  • The median income for non-Hispanic white households was a very comfortable $110,619.
  • For black households, the median income was barely more than a third of that — $39,139.
  • Hispanic households did better, on average, with a median income of $51,460.

The white, non-Hispanic household median was notably higher here than the nationwide, by $53,610. The medians for black and Hispanic households were also higher, though by much smaller amounts.

Some Clues to the Poverty Rates

Needless to say (I hope), unemployment and under-employment go far to explaining the persistently high poverty rates in the District.

In 2012, nearly half (48.1%) of poor residents between the ages of 16 and 64 didn’t work at all. An additional 25% worked less than full-time or intermittently.

But that leaves about 8,618 working-age residents who were employed full-time, year round and still not earning enough to lift them out of poverty — or at least, not them and dependent family members.

It’s a fair guess that these are mostly residents who don’t have the formal education credentials that living wage jobs here, as elsewhere, increasingly demand. This is probably also the case for some of the part-time and some-time employed.

What we do know is that the poverty rate for adults 25 years and older who had just a high school diploma or the equivalent was 22.8% last year — and for those with less, 34.5%.

By contrast, the poverty rate for those with at least a four-year college degree was just 5.1%.

What Could Narrow The Gaps?

Well, we won’t solve the unemployment problem overnight.

Even if Congress restored the federal jobs lost to sequestration (highly improbable), the local near-term unemployment rate would probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of 8%, judging from Gray administration estimates.

And it would probably be considerably higher for the least educated residents, if the trends the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reported for 2012 continue.

Getting more residents qualified for high-skill jobs would surely help. But we’d still have a very large low-wage sector — all those hotels, restaurants and other retail businesses.

The brouhaha over the Large Retailers Accountability Act, a.k.a the Walmart bill, has spun off into what seems to be serious consideration of raising the District’s minimum wage — and its tip credit wage too perhaps.

A full-time, year round minimum wage worker currently can’t earn enough to lift a three-person family over the poverty threshold — even if s/he never takes even a few hours of unpaid time off because of illness.

So a reasonably robust, comprehensive increase would be a step in the right direction. Granting tipped workers a right to some paid leave would help too.

Far from a total answer, but things the DC Council could do right now.

* Because the survey sample size for the District is relatively small, the margins of error, i.e., the amounts the reported percents could be too high or too low, are sometimes more than 1%. In the interests of simplicity, I’m reporting the percents as given.

** As the Census Bureau advises, I’m using the results of the Current Population Survey for the national figures. The national ACS figures are somewhat different.


DC Mayor Gray Muddles Anti-Sequestration Message

September 12, 2013

Last week, Mayor Gray held a press conference purportedly to flesh out the negative impacts of sequestration on the District of Columbia.

I say “purportedly” because both he and his deputy for planning and economic development spent a good bit of time celebrating economic growth in the city — 60 cranes on the skyline, new construction here, new construction there, etc.

The presser did, however, provide data on sequestration impacts. What the Mayor and his people chose to present was interesting. What they didn’t was as well, in part because it left lots of unanswered questions about how sequestration has affected — and will affect — D.C. residents.

Judging from the presser, the big thing that makes sequestration bad is its effect on employment in the District — and as a consequence, on tax revenues.

So far as employment is concerned, the presentation hammered at the loss of government jobs — mostly federal, we were told. (Reductions in the District’s own workforce went unmentioned.)

Now, it seems, the public-sector job losses are dampening private-sector job growth. The private-sector number actually dipped a bit in July, according to one of the presser graphs that Washington Post reporter/blogger Mike DeBonis published.

The Deputy Chief Financial Officer attributes the slowdown to a fall-off in consumer spending — the usual result of job losses, job security anxieties and furloughs.

The end result is that the unemployment rate, which had dropped from 10.3% during the Mayor’s first months to 8.4% at the end of last year, has ticked back up to 8.6%.

But for sequestration, the rate would be either 8% or 8.2%, according to the Department of Employment Services’ projections. Not a big difference, as the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development acknowledged. But he worries about losing momentum.

And, of course, joblessness depresses tax collections, both income and sales. The Deputy CFO cited a loss, due to sequestration, of $30 million this fiscal year and $60 million in Fiscal Year 2014.

This would still leave the District with an estimated $6.23 billion to spend — about $900,000 more than this fiscal year. So “loss” doesn’t actually mean “less.”

Barely mentioned, except by one reporter, is the fact that the private-sector job growth has been heavily weighted toward low-wage occupations, e.g., retail sales, food preparation and service, hotel front desk operations.

Not mentioned at all is the fact that the labor force, i.e., the number of people working or actively looking for work, seems to be shrinking, as it is nationwide.

If it were the same size as it was in March, when the unemployment rate was also 8.6%, there’d be 3,725 more residents working — not necessarily full-time, of course, or earning anything like what it costs to live in D.C.

Which bring me to the sequestration impacts that got short shrift — cuts in what must be a very large number of federal grants, including those intended to benefit low-income and other vulnerable people.

The Mayor said that the District will lose some $30 million in the upcoming fiscal year. His budget director provided specific figures for the five agencies he said would take the greatest hits — $24.1 million of the total.

Details on what the cuts would mean in human terms for only two agencies. Just general references to what the other agencies use their grant monies for.

So, for example, we were told that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education channels grant funds to charter and regular public schools and to early childhood education programs. But that doesn’t tell us what sequestration will do.

Maybe less for special education, early childhood ed. and free and reduced-price lunches, the Mayor’s press release says.

The last, however, are not subject to sequestration. And I don’t see sequestration-related damage to the other two in the District’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget. If children will be hurt, we need to know how.

Damage there will be to the federally-funded housing voucher program that the DC Housing Authority administers. Here we were given a concrete impact — a “freeze” that will deny an estimated 200-250 families this form of housing assistance in the upcoming fiscal year.

But then the presser reverted to how sequestration would put a crimp in the Mayor’s wildly successful economic development strategy — and all because the federal government is shedding jobs,

Well, that’s not going to make a bit of difference to members of Congress, except perhaps our non-voting representative.

And it’s not going to help the many organizations that are working hard to show the potentially persuadable members why they should end sequestration.

I’m inclined to think the Mayor knows this and, as De Bonis suggests, had other political motives for his presser.

But I was truly disappointed.

Even if, as seems likely, the Mayor and the DC Council have taken advantage of recent and projected revenue growth to shore up programs that will lose federal funds, sequestration will still mean lost opportunities to extend benefits and services to residents in need.

That, I think, is what the Mayor and his officials should have talked about if they wanted to support the campaign against sequestration.

Sequester Scarier Than Washington Post Claims

July 8, 2013

A catchy headline in a late-June issue of the Washington Post. “They said the sequester would be scary. Mostly they were wrong.”

“They” are the Obama administration, which, as the reporters say, “issued specific — and alarming — predictions” about what would happen when the across-the-board cuts began.

The article cites a half dozen, then says, “But none of these happened.” The casual reader would surely infer that the administration blew the whole sequester thing out of proportion.

In fact, it’s hard to read the piece as saying anything other than the sequester isn’t all that bad, though it does casually acknowledge “real hardship to many people.”

It rightly points out that Congress averted some of the predicted harms. In a couple of cases, it provided some additional funds. In others, it let agencies move money around, rather than cut every program and activity equally, as the law initially required.

But none of this means we should breathe a sigh of relief. Even the Post‘s research shows this, though we have to burrow into the details elliptically offered via a graphics box on the front page.

Here we find that the Post generally began with predictions that federal agencies had made in response to a request from the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

It then apparently contacted the agencies to find out whether 48 of the predictions had come true. No explanation of why it chose these. My best guess is that it picked only potential impacts the agencies had quantified — and only those that might already have come to pass.

Thus, for example, the Post checked the Labor Department’s dire (and accurate) prediction of impending federal unemployment benefits cuts, but not what it said about lost employment and training services or weaker enforcement of worker protections.

And it checked none of the Education Department’s predictions because most of them address the upcoming school year. Dire, but unverifiable. So we’re not even told what they are.

Predictions agencies confirmed were said to have “come true.” And, of course, predicted impacts that Congress and/or the agencies had altogether averted were counted as not coming true.

But the Post also counted predictions in the “did not come true” category merely because a numerical estimated proved too high — at least for now.

The federal judicial system, for example, did — or will — furlough public defenders, but not initially for as many days as it earlier thought it would.

So there will be an impact. And pretty scary, I think, for low-income defendants who are behind bars, possible denied their right to a speedy trial and relying on lawyers who’ll have less time to prepare their cases.

The Post‘s approach also minimizes sequester damages because it takes no account of the impacts of cuts agencies made to avert — or partly avert — the impacts they’d predicted.

I note, for example, that the Social Security Administration has reduced the hours its field offices are open. Hard to believe this hasn’t affected frail seniors and people with disabilities, who already had long waits for help with benefits — and subsequent red-tape tangles.

The Defense Department will preserve health services for eligible beneficiaries who aren’t on active duty by furloughing 650,000 civilian employees.

How many of them and their families can easily get along on less income than they were counting on? What will happen to our economy as they cut back spending?

More importantly, over a quarter of the selected predictions couldn’t yet be verified, including those for major programs that serve low-income people’s needs.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, reportedly “declined to provide” new estimates for the number of formerly homeless people who’ve lost their housing or their beds in emergency shelters.

Ditto for the number of households who won’t have federally-subsidized housing vouchers.

The Health and Human Services Department says it doesn’t yet know how many children won’t have access to Head Start services — or how many teachers and aides will lose their jobs.

Nor does it know how many seniors will get fewer — or perhaps no — meals home-delivered or served in a group setting, e.g., at a church or community center.

Yet we already have considerable, if fragmentary evidence that the sequester is, in fact, shrinking access to these and other critical services.

The Coalition on Human Needs has been publishing weekly collections of news reports on sequester impacts since early March.

I don’t recall a week without several on Head Start programs that will be serving fewer children — and few weeks without an item on cutbacks in Meals on Wheels and related food-service programs.

The Center for American Progress has also been publishing a weekly series on sequester impacts. Again, we see contractions in Head Start programs, as well as other heterogeneous impacts.

Economist/blogger Jared Bernstein posts still another weekly set of sequester impact news clips.

Some of the reported impacts are prospective because local agencies and nonprofits are still figuring out how they will handle the funding losses. But some aren’t.

Federal agencies can’t yet compile totals to verify all their earlier predictions. Nor can advocates pull together reliable, nationwide numbers. But that doesn’t mean the sequester really isn’t all that bad.

This is especially true because the cuts aren’t a one-time thing. Congress is supposed to cut next year’s appropriations for non-defense programs by $37 billion — this on top of the cuts already in effect.

And, as Bernstein points out, agencies won’t have the same opportunities to blunt the effects, e.g., by counting leftover funds they couldn’t spend.

What the Post had done is okay so far as it goes. But its framing of the results strongly suggests that we can discount what the administration will say when it “seek[s] to make the threat reappear” in an effort to mitigate the next round of cuts.

Need I say that would be a big mistake — even if it turns out that fewer than 70,000 low-income children have thus far been denied access to Head Start and Early Start?

Blame Game Not the Real Sequestration Story

February 18, 2013

The manager of a LinkedIn group I belong to asked whether Congress should delay the sequester the President “had demanded as part of the Budget Control Act.”

This set off a long string of responses — and long answers from the manager. As you might guess from the original question, the debate centered largely on whom to blame and why.

I mention this back-and-forth because it resembles much of the news coverage of the impending across-the-board cuts — and the op-eds as well.

We get blow-by-blow reports on who said what, who’s got the upper hand and how we got into this mess to begin with.

We get justifications of the President’s call for a balanced alternative. We get rehashes of the Republicans’ talking points. See, for example, this classic by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer.

Now this isn’t the whole of the media stream, of course. We’ve also had coverage of how sequestration will affect the economy as a whole — often, though not always combined with its impacts on the labor market.

Also some fearsome warnings about how the defense cuts will cripple our national security.

Defense contractors have been very busy folks. So much so that the economy-jobs coverage often focuses on the jobs they’ll cut — and, thanks to the Pentagon, on civilian layoffs in the Defense Department as well.

We haven’t been hearing nearly as much about the impacts of the across-the-board cuts to the many and varied programs inelegantly lumped into the “non-defense discretionary” category.

Even more importantly, we haven’t been hearing much about the people these cuts will harm — unless you count the gross job loss figures.

In point of fact, the cuts will potentially harm us all.

The Food and Drug Administration won’t conduct as many food safety inspections. And it’s already not conducting nearly as many as it should.

Our communities may have fewer firefighters and the emergency personnel we perforce count on during and after natural disasters.

Our public schools will lose teachers — either that or our state and local governments will have to pick up the costs of keeping them. That would undoubtedly mean either higher taxes or, more likely, cutbacks in other programs and services we value.

A bare handful of examples.

Those who want to get a fuller picture can read a letter to colleagues by Congressman Norman Dicks or a report, both more and less comprehensive, by Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Services and Education.

The figures in both of these documents are outdated because they were issued before Congress decided to postpone sequestration until the beginning of next month.

But each, in its own way, helps us understand that the real story of sequestration isn’t — or shouldn’t be — about who’s to blame for the fact we’re facing it or who will get the blame if it happens.

It’s about the people across this country who will be adversely affected — and above all, the people who can least afford more adversity.

I’m talking, of course, about low-income people who rely on safety net programs and other publicly-funded programs that offer them and their children a chance to gain a toehold in the middle class.

I’ve been struggling to tell this story for well over two weeks and haven’t been able to corral the many, many figures — the dollar losses and the losers — into a reasonably tidy post that makes them meaningful.

As fallback, here’s another bare handful of examples — these pulled from a recently-issued White House fact sheet.

  • Approximately 600,000 mothers and young children will lose the specially-tailored nutrition assistance, education and health care referrals they get from WIC.
  • Approximately 70,000 children will be dropped from Head Start and Early Start programs, losing the diverse services that help them enter kindergarten as healthy and ready to learn as their better-off peers.
  • Nearly 1.2 million school-age children will lose access to programs and services designed to help them overcome learning disadvantages associated with poverty, limited English proficiency and other factors.
  • Long-term jobless workers and their families will face unemployment benefits cuts as high as 9.4%.

These aren’t the only imminent threats to the well-being and future prospects of low-income children.

For example, some large, though unknown number of children may become homeless, since the White House says that 125,000 families are likely to lose their federally-funded housing vouchers — an even larger number than the estimate I recently cited.

At the same time, they’ll be less likely to receive short-shot assistance that could help them move to cheaper housing — and even less likely than now to gain access to shelter or housing subsidized by homeless assistance grants.

I suppose journalists will find stories in the across-the-board cuts once families start losing their housing subsidies, frail seniors their home-delivered meals, veterans their shelter access, etc.

Perhaps enough of these stories will make the impending cuts a brief, unhappy episode in our history.

Perhaps next year’s budget will, to borrow from the President, give low-income people a fair shot at a better future — and a fair enough share of our country’s great wealth to meet their basic needs.

Perhaps, but as doubtful, I fear, as the Republicans agreeing to tax increases now — or Democrats to an alternative that’s non-defense spending cuts alone.

More and Less Money for Affordable Housing in DC

February 11, 2013

Well, Mayor Gray finally said what a majority of District of Columbia residents at his One City Summit implicitly called for a year ago. He’ll invest in affordable housing.

Local advocates have long been beating the drum for a bigger commitment, most recently at the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development’s Housing for All rally.

Now it seems the Mayor has enough confidence in the upward revenue trajectory — and enough confidence that the Chief Financial Officer will acknowledge it — to propose a $100 million investment in preserving and creating more affordable housing.

Affordable for whom is an unanswered question. The Mayor cited seniors, District employees (specifically police officers, firefighters and teachers) and “the most vulnerable residents, like people who are homeless and those with disabilities.”

Needless to say, what’s affordable for a teacher is far from affordable for a homeless family. And we’ve got seniors at all income levels — up to and above the $69,530 that would qualify a couple for housing that could be officially designated as affordable here.

Also unanswered is what the promised investment will achieve. The Mayor cited 10,000 affordable units. A little back of the envelope math shows that would mean, on average, $10,000 per unit.

You can’t produce housing for that, says Bob Pohlman, CNHED’s Executive Director.

Nor would any units created be affordable for the District’s lowest income residents if the investment the Mayor talked about weren’t paired with housing vouchers.

These, notes the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s housing expert Jenny Reed, require annual funding. And, as she tactfully doesn’t note, it shouldn’t be taken out of another affordable housing program, as the last two budgets have done.

The Mayor’s recognition that a city so flush with cash shouldn’t keep hoarding it all is welcome, however, as is his recognition of those “most vulnerable residents.”

DC General — the District’s main shelter for homeless families — had no vacant units, as of early last month, according to a new, profoundly disturbing report by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

The Department of Human Services won’t provide any family with a safe place to stay unless freezing temperatures give it no legal option or there’s room at DC General

And when the winter season officially ends, families with no place to stay will again be on their own, unless some of the units DHS originally planned to use this winter are vacant.

They would be, of course, if families now occupying them could afford to move into housing.

Ironically, both the Mayor’s announcement and the Legal Clinic’s report come at a time when the federal government — long a weak housing partner — is poised to further reduce funding.

The across-the-board cuts I’ve gloomily forecast will include housing assistance programs. Also homeless assistance grants, though it seems reasonable to expect an uptick in homelessness as housing agencies retrench.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities gives us specifics for the nation as a whole and for the District, as well as each state. Briefly:

  • The Housing Choice vouchers cut will leave an estimated 111,233 families without this form of housing assistance. Here in the District, 530 fewer families will have these vouchers, according to CBPP’s estimate.*
  • Public housing funding will be cut by $298 million, leaving less for both ongoing operations and expenditures to keep — or in some cases, make — facilities livable. The District will lose more than $2.9 million.
  • Funding for HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS) will be cut by $15 million. For the District, this will mean about $694,800 less to house and serve one of our highly vulnerable populations.
  • Homeless assistance grants will be cut by a total $100 million. The District’s share will be $1.1 million — this on top of original $7 million shortfall that DHS is trying to make up for.

These are far from the only federal fund losses the District will sustain unless Republicans and Democrats in Congress come together on a plan to halt sequestration — or rather, a plan that doesn’t make even larger cuts on the non-defense side of the budget.

Even the sample here, however, shows that the Mayor and DC Council will have challenges barely hinted at in the State of the District address.

Will they view them as occasions to tap the reserves the Mayor is so proud of building, even at the expense of vulnerable residents’ urgent needs?

Or will our rip roaring economy yield enough revenues to close the gaps — and still leave enough for the Mayor’s new affordable housing commitment?

Or will he seek to fulfill that commitment no matter what happens to the homeless individuals and families who need long-term affordable housing right now?

As with the impacts of the commitment itself, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

* The Director of the DC Housing Authority told me several weeks ago that she thought sequestration would require DCHA to hold back about 200 vouchers rather than reissue them when households no longer needed or were eligible for them. I sent her the CBPP report, with a request for her views. She has thus far not responded.

UPDATE: CBPP has just slightly revised its estimates of the total spending cuts for programs subject to annual appropriations, as the various kinds of housing assistance and homeless assistance grants are. This means that the dollar figures above may be somewhat too low.