Except for white Republicans in Congress opposed to home rule, few people outside of Washington, D.C. -- and even some white liberals who live in the District -- bother to pay much attention to Washington's local political battles.
But that changed briefly last month, when Mayor Vincent Gray and six members of the city council were arrested in high-profile protests against a Republican-driven federal budget deal that prevents the city from spending its own funds on abortions for low-income women. Congress has traditionally had authority over the Democratic-run District's budget, but rarely directly interferes in spending. "Why are we the sacrificial lamb?" Gray had asked. Progressive media outlets praised Mayor Gray for seeming to stand up to Republicans and their distorted budget priorities.
Yet Mayor Gray and much of the rest of the city council are moving on their own to make the city's disabled, youngest and neediest citizens the sacrificial lambs of the proposed new city budget, with two-thirds of the cuts targeting the poor. And those programs make up less than a quarter of all city spending. Yet as a first vote on the budget nears on May 25th, activists and progressive advocates for the poor wonder why there been has so little attention in the mainstream media to the plight of the homeless and low-income children affected by these pending deep cuts.
It's yet another troubling sign of the rightward shift of state and national Democratic Party leaders, abetted by either passive or compliant media outlets accepting right-leaning spin. It's a trend that can be seen everywhere from Democratic legislators in Massachusetts voting to strip public employee unions of the right to bargain collectively to national Democrats meekly accepting until it's too late GOP messaging on deficit cuts and tax breaks for the rich. Here in Washington, city services are already so strained before the proposed cuts that even families with young children seeking emergency shelter are routinely turned away, and have often been given instead bus tokens to ride the buses all night with their toddlers and infants.
One mother cried as she explained how that she, with her 3 children -- ages 5, 3 and less than a year-old -- in tow, was told by an employee of the Virginia Williams Family Intake Center that there were no shelter spaces for them and that she was given bus tokens so she could ride the city bus all night with her children in order to stay warm. Other mothers testified that they also were given bus tokens so that they could use the bus as a de facto shelter. (DC Law states that, if there is no shelter space available for a homeless family with small children, then they must be put into a motel room)
The Mayor's proposed budget would essentially close down all shelters for everyone except when the weather falls below freezing. The mayor's justification? " In some quarters, we have created a culture of dependency that does not encourage residents to take control of their lives," he declared in a speech nonetheless proclaiming a vision of a compassionate "One City" uniting all.
Unlike the original welfare reform plans passed by President Clinton, though, these new meat-ax approaches to social services don't provide any transitional assistance. As activist Kesh Ladduwahetty with the all-volunteer DC for Democracy, a DFA affiliate, asks, "How does turning people out into the streets and eliminating child care programs help residents to take control of their lives, educate themselves, and become self-reliant?"
Some councilmembers may seek to restore a portion of the $20 million to be cut in homeless services, but are doing relatively little to fight for $110 million in other vital services on the chopping blok, including mental health and other programs for the nearly one-third of District children who are poor. Prospects for protecting these programs are even worse than in the fights over social programs at the national level, because local safety-net advocacy groups are mostly under-funded, poorly organized and have no media savvy, making it even easier for the mainstream media to largely ignore the devastation these cuts would cause. Journalists here focus, at best, on councilmembers bickering over taxes. The Washington Post, for instance, doesn't even have a reporter anymore covering the social services beat.
The Mayor has asked for a slight rise in taxes for those earning over $200,000, but even that's being resisted by a deadlocked City Council claiming it would discourage businesses and upscale residents. All told, his revenue-raising proposals could add about $127 million, but other ways to boost revenues as much as $104 million more, including increasing taxes for the very richest and closing tax exemptions for buying out-of-state bonds, are considered by council insiders to be off the table.
This same city council spends more on itself -- both per resident and per councilmember -- than any other city in the entire country, according to the Pew Foundation. As the Washington City Paper reported: "The District came in first in costs in relation to both the number of city residents and the number of council seats. The council has a total budget of $19,434,000, including employee benefits--that averages out to $1,494,923 per seat, and $32.41 per resident." But they don't seem to mind kicking a few thousand people from shelters or cutting emergency assistance for the low-income disabled in order to preserve virtually all of their own perks -- and keep costs down for the city's richest citizens.
Indeed, at a city council meeting on Monday, council members even opposed raising fees for wealthy Washingtonians who own three cars or to increase downtown parking fees. As the influential Greater Greater Washington blog pointed out: "At times, the discussion became quite heated, particularly when some members were defending the rights of people who own 3 cars and make over $200,000, yet wouldn't consider driving downtown for dinner if it cost them $4 to park." Analyst David Alpert added, "In a budget that makes very deep cuts, there was more passion for keeping parking cheap and for keeping taxes on the wealthy low than anything for keeping people off the street and from going hungry."
Yet as one progressive, Mary Beth Tinker, an SEIU pediatric nurse and a DC for Democracy member, pointed out in her testimony (full document here) last week about the impact of raising taxes modestly on those earning over $100,000:
For the price of a cup of coffee, you can save childrens' lives. That is the increased cost in taxes per week, $1.80, that a DC resident making $125,000 would pay if their tax rate went from 8.5% to 9%.
For the price of a latte, you can retain essential services to DC's children. That is the cost in taxes per day, $3.60, that a DC resident making $350,000 would pay if their tax rate went from 8.5% to 9.5%.
You can judge a society by how it treats children...
The status of children in DC is a human rights shame by any indicator: infant mortality rates, graduation rates, soaring poverty rates. Amazingly, there are now proposals that would make things even worse: cuts of over $600,000 in programs to high-risk youth, cuts to summer school and grandparents struggling to raise their grandchildren, cuts in substance abuse programs for mothers. And, to put salt on the wound, there is even a proposal to cut $2.5 million in mental health services for traumatized children.
But we do have alternatives. We can raise funds for children by reversing the tax break given to upper income earners in 1999. All for the price of a cup of coffee.
On Wednesday, an alliance of progressive advocacy groups, including Save Our Safety Net and D.C. for Democracy, moblizied hundreds to attend a "Safety Net Reality Tour" to protest the cuts -- and they went straight to the heart of the D.C. government, the Wilson building on Pennsylvania Avenue. The alert asked, " Engage Councilmembers to remind them that we need additional revenue in order to restore funding to the programs that keep DC residents safe, housed, and healthy."
Yet that perspective gets little attention in the media or among Democratic politicians. Plus, business groups have also opposed plans that would close some loopholes allowing companies to pay lower taxes. And theater groups have opposed a modest 6% sales tax on tickets.
Presumably, the extra cost of tickets would somehow deter upscale patrons from attending searing dramas about social injustice. Naturally, the $2.3 million in revenue it could generate would be wasted on sheltering homeless mothers who don't have the good taste to appreciate Strindberg revivals. The clout of the theater crowd seems well on its way to overwhelming any lobbying by liberal advocacy groups, and council staffers say the proposal to tax theater tickets is all but dead.
All these pressures make restoring vital services to the needy even less likely, especially because advocates have to overcome the myth that businesses and residents are over-taxed compared to other jurisdictions. In fact, surrounding affluent suburbanites pay higher total taxes than D.C. residents earning over $150,000 do, and the city's tax burden is the 25th lowest of major cities. Right-wing leaning reports have also ranked the District as among the least competitive places because of high taxes. But as Natwar Gandhi, the chief financial officer of the city, has observed, " In the District, almost two-thirds of businesses pay only the minimum of $100 a year. When actual business taxes paid are ranked, the District falls in the middle of the pack."
Amazingly enough, the city population is so liberal and Democratic that a new poll by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute found that 90 percent of taxpayers earning over $100,000 favor raising taxes on the wealthy to help pay for social services. That's a level of affluent professionals' supporting raised taxes you'd be hard pressed to find outside of an Upper West Side cocktail party hosted by The New York Review of Books in honor of Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine.
Even so, D.C.'s African-American Mayor has proposed a draconian budget attacking the $330 million deficit that apparently borrows its underlying theme from Rep. Paul Ryan's GOP budget plan: balance the budget on the backs of the poor. "The similarity of our Democratic politicians with Republicans is that they put a greater emphasis on budget cuts,with the poor bearing the biggest brunt of it -- and the safety net is seen as something without value. It's just seen as a cost with no value," says Ladduwahetty, a leading organizer with DC for Democracy. This GOP-leaning tilt has been exacerbated by the vacuum of strong leadership coming from the White House and the Democratic Party in recent years defending the importance of government and safety-net programs; instead the ground has been ceded to Republicans on the issue of the deficit and tax cuts for the rich.
A startling two-thirds of all the $187 million in D.C. cuts are aimed at programs serving the most vulnerable residents of the city: the homeless, poor kids needing mental health services, working adults who need subsidized child care, the disabled and the very poorest families needing emergency cash assistance. Even before these cuts that could throw nearly 2,400 homeless families and single adults into the street , basic services have already been so shriveled that the city's primary intake center, the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, is turning away families seeking emergency shelter -- and just calling their relatives on their behalf or giving them bus tokens to ride the buses all night as a way to catch some sleep with their babies in tow.
One of those young women is Denise Gibson, a 26-year-old woman who was holding her month-old newborn in her arms when she testified in March at a hearing before Councilman Jim Graham, chair of the human services committee. After surviving as a ward of the state in foster care and other arrangements until 21, she's been homeless since 2006. "I've been a nomad," she said about her search for housing. Sometimes, she's able to stays inside her mother's one-bedroom apartment, but that only allows her to sleep on the floor with her baby boy and she soon has to leave. Most of the time, she explained, "Some nights I stay in my storage place, some nights I stay at the Greyhound like I'm waiting for a bus. Since December, 2010 when I went to Virginia Williams, they told us we can't stay anywhere [in shelters] unless it's hypothermia; there's no room at the shelter. They didn't bother to find us [temporary] hotels, they just give us bus tokens and send us off."
Earlier, officials at the intake center turned her away when she was pregnant, claiming that they couldn't help her until she was a single mother. After she gave birth,"They can't help me now that my son is here." In his first of month of life, he virtually never slept in a regular crib or bed.
Under supportive questioning by Graham, more disturbing details emerged of life for the poor in a city where, as in the White House and Congress located a few blocks away, austerity instead of compassion and job creation is accepted as a political fact of life.
But Graham, at least, wasn't accepting that philosophy and asked, "Where have you been living?"
Gibson responded, "I sometimes stay in my mother's apartment building."
"Do you go to your mother's apartment?"
"No, there's no security there [ in the building] and and it's easy for us to stay there. I go to the stairwell, and I have my bags."
The day before the hearing, she stayed all night at the Greyhound station, even after begging a "Miss Croft" at the Virginia Williams center for help in finding an overnight spot for her and her baby. A stunned Graham recapped: "You went to Virginia Williams with a baby, and you've been sleeping in a stairwell and a bus station and you spoke to Miss Croft, and there's nothing to do?"
He furiously called in front of him the acting director of the Department of Human Services, the same agency that Mayor Gray once led, and berated her for the agency's inaction. In typical bureaucratese, the interim director, Deborah Carroll ,explained, "During hypothermia season, any participant who meets the definition of homeless should get shelter. We'll have to investigate each case." Of course she left unspoken the reality that if the weather is below freezing the DHS officals feel free to ignore requests for shelter from families, let alone individuals Eventually, after pressure from Graham, a space was found in the city's one family shelter -- but it will be almost certainly closed down except in sub-freezing weather if the Mayor's budget proposal becomes law.
Her dramatic case has, so far,been ignored by all major broadcast and print media outlets in the city, except for the dedicated blogging of Eric Sheptock, the "homeless homeless" advocate working with a donated laptop and cell phone, building thousands of "friends" and "followers" on Facebook and Twitter. But his online advocacy doesn't start until after he walks or takes a bus each morning to get a breakfast handout four miles away.
Sheptock has a stark, up-close perspective on the DC government's new War on the Poor (as opposed to LBJ's War on Poverty): "To make a long story short, they want to push the poor out of the city," he says. "They don't want a place where the poor and homeless can come." He adds, "They won't want to wait to end the culture of dependence: they just want poor people to get out of town. They're defunding affordable housing, they're decreasing housing production, they're shutting down shelters, breaking down encampments. You don't prevent homelessness, you don't cure it, you don't want to shelter them." As a list-ditch effort in the face of political indifference, he's starting to try to organize the homeless themselves.
He also wonders, "I don't know why Mayor Gray is so callous."
Yet to today's new pro-corporate state and national Democrats, reflecting the winner-take-all political trends that have accelerated during the Obama era, "These people are seen as sort of dispensable, and don't deserve the social safety net. It's part of an increasingly conservative trend in the Democratic Party," says Kesh Ladduwahetty.
Janelle Treibitz, the chief Campaign Organizer for Save Our Safety Net DC adds, "We'd like council members to take a stronger stance opposing cuts." A few councilmembers, especially Jim Graham, have been very outspoken, but most of the efforts to restore some cuts are being done behind closed doors with little effort to rally the public behind them. Advocacy groups, including DC for Democracy and Save our Safety Net, have a total of a few thousand supporters, and while they've generated hundreds of emails, they haven't been able so far to deluge the government with phone calls, reframe the debate or garner extensive media coverage. That could start to change next week, when S.O.S. is organizing with its allies next Wednesday, May 18th what it's calling a "All-Hands-On-Deck-Action Day" inside the DC government main building, the Wilson building.
But the harsh realities of the new Democratic politics remains, even in this most liberal of cities.
At a hearing on the budget this week, led by by the scandal-plagued Chairman of the City Council, Kwame Brown, best known for demanding a "fully loaded" $1900- a- month leased SUV from city officials, activists challenged his opposition to raising taxes, the deadlocked council's complacency, and the council leadership that has ignored public opinion favoring preserving social programs. "Some members of this Council have stated their opposition to any income tax increase. They owe the public an explanation as to why they would sooner ask a homeless person to live on the street rather
than ask our wealthiest residents to pay taxes in line with their suburban counterparts," Kesh Ladduwahetty argued.
Even an otherwise liberal council member, Mary Cheh, a respected law professor who represents the 70%-plus white Ward 3 that's the city's richest, opposes raising taxes even to save social services. While declining to be interviewed for this article, she posts on her website for constituents her GOP Lite opposition to raising taxes, mixed with vague promises to find revenues elsewhere. "It is vital for our continued growth and prosperity that we shed our reputation as a high tax jurisdiction, and we have struggled very hard to do that over the past few years. Increasing the rate on incomes over $200,000 will send precisely the wrong message," she says. "But, rather than support the income tax rate increase, I am looking at other ways to generate revenue or save money that will allow us to avoid the hike in income tax rates and restore some of the human services cuts." On Saturday, Cheh is scheduled to meet her constituents at the Palisades Farmer's Market at 9:00 a.m in northwest Washington, and she may face some tough questioning from voters who have long supported her.
Jeremy Koulish, who chairs DC for Democracy's budget committee, directly challenged Council Chairman Kwame Brown and his allies on their allegiance to what used to be Democratic Party values. Noting the poll that showed 85% and above approval for raising taxes, he declared, "Certain politicians and a chunk of the city's establishment are not listening. Who are you listening to? Grover Norquist? The Chamber of Commerce? The Wall Street Journal editorial page? They're all powerful forces, but that goes against the concerns of the people who live here. What we're hearing from you is the kind of rhetoric we hear from Republicans."
And, like the fate of the national budget fight, the ability of local progressive groups to effectively organize will not only determine the outcome of this one local budget, but become a symbol of what's needed to get even Democratic cities and states to serve people in need, not just corporations.
On Wednesday, the "Safety Net Reality Tour" gathered hundreds of protesters to the D.C. government's headquarters, the Wilson building, to raise concerns about the deep cuts to important programs serving the poor, low-income children and the disabled. As Save Our Safety Net reported:
Speakers at each stop offered powerful accounts of some of the potentially devastating effects of the proposed budget cuts: 7,000 families, including approximately that many children, will have TANF payments cut, despite repeated efforts to find jobs through participation in local (broken) job training programs; 300 homeless families and 1,500 homeless single men and women will be unable to find shelter within our city's boundaries, except during hypothermia season; and thousands of residents will lose access to temporary cash payments while awaiting eligibility determinations for federal Supplemental Security Income benefits.
But the best-read paper, The Washington Post, offered only some brief online coverage of the event and the political tide is drifting against against raising revenues to save safety-net programs. Part of the broader awareness problem is that there's been little attention paid by the mainstream media to the human impact of the cuts, except for citing the political conflicts in City Hall.