The District of Columbia's poverty problem received much-needed attention recently with reporting on how D.C. General has become a home for hundreds of homeless parents and children. The over-crowded and abandoned hospital-turned-homeless shelter has become a testament to D.C. benevolence, ushering in an outpouring of comment, contribution and caring. This is all well and good, but poverty is easier to care about when it comes in concrete and fixable forms. D.C. General is no different. It gave us something tangible to target.
The problem, however, is much more pervasive than one hospital. Will the District's good intentions rally beyond one hospital? The poverty problem is bound to get worse with upcoming funding cuts from the federal government's "sequester," triggered earlier this month, trimming a good 5 percent across the board. I'm a proponent of increased federal efficiency -- both financial and programmatic -- but the hit to the District of Columbia's social programs is particularly worrisome.
The timing is particularly bad. This week, Mayor Vince C. Gray's affordable housing taskforce released its report, after which taskforce chair Harry Sewell, who is the director of the D.C. Housing Finance Agency, said that between $500 million to $1 billion would be needed to fix just one part of this poverty problem. These monies may now be particularly difficult to scrounge up given the sequester cuts.
In reaching out to the mayor's office and city councilmember offices to find out more, they were not entirely clear how great the damage would be, but there are a few early warning signs -- and most of them have to do with D.C. General-type trends.
We know, for example, that the biggest sequester-related cuts to the District of Columbia will hurt affordable housing the most, with homeless and educational assistance suffering a close second. Gray's pledge earlier this year of $100 million for 10,000 affordable housing units, the math of which remains fuzzy, will be a critical counter to some of these trends. But much more will be needed to stem the oncoming tide. Take a look.
D.C. Housing Authority's voucher program, which helped my next-door neighbors survive for a few years while unemployed with disabilities, will have to cut over 500 families from the program. This is according to estimates by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who charted how each state's housing and community development programs will be impacted by the sequester. For D.C., that's hundreds more people potentially going homeless, in a city with a burgeoning homeless problem.
The financial hit to D.C. public housing is also particularly painful. The city will have nearly $3 million less in federal aid for our District's most needy who can't afford skyrocketing rental rates. And there are many. As of late last year, the waiting list for the District's 8,000 public housing units and approximately 11,000 subsidized housing vouchers is already 64,000 names long. That's over three times the number currently served. Now, more than ever, we need a permanent housing council to monitor the city's efforts to improve this situation, as Robert Pohlman, executive director of the D.C.-based Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, already suggested as part of the taskforce report release.
Lastly, D.C.'s homelessness assistance, which helps fund emergency shelters like D.C. General, will witness over $1 million in sequester cuts. Additional programs that reach low-income communities, such as the Housing Opportunities for Persons with Aids, will see a nearly $700,000 cut, a critical setback for a city still struggling with some of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in America. And education funding for D.C.'s students living in low-income situations or needing special education services, will see cuts of a half-million and nearly one million, respectively.
The good news is that the District of Columbia can easily cover these cuts, given the $400 million budget surplus it announced earlier this year. The outstanding question, however, is whether or not Mayor Vince Gray will be an advocate for this city's growing poor population and this city's growing unequal.
Ward 8 Councilman Marion S. Barry Jr. (D) has already challenged Gray (D) on this front, noting publicly that the monies behind the mayor's meritorious green sustainability agenda for the district would be better spent creating jobs for the city's unemployed population (which is as high as 35 percent in Barry's Ward 8, where I live). Green jobs aside, Barry has a point. Gray has not made the eradication of poverty a priority, and he should for moral and political reasons.
Low-income communities, and communities concerned about D.C.'s growing gentrification problem, elected Gray to "restore integrity and leadership." He was the "one city" man. Yet, the racial disparities -- economically and educationally speaking -- are only getting worse, not better. We are two cities growing further, not closer, together.
Using a chunk of that $400 million change, therefore, to not only stop the sequester-induced bleeding but to stop the sickness of poverty, through aggressive workforce training, job placement and educational assistance, is how Gray and the City Council could rebuild its own reputation while building a new District legacy.
As the city struggles with its dual identities, rampant development, and tumultuous socio-economic change, a pair of streets epitomize this struggle best: On North Capitol this week we witnessed over a dozen wounded in a single drive-by shooting, while on South Capitol they are putting the final touches on new, overly-priced condo units in the increasingly gentrified Navy Yard. Mayor Gray could help bridge this yawning economic divide if he wanted to, and there are 400 million ways to do it. Let's hope he chooses at least a few million of them.
Michael Shank is adjunct faculty at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and senior fellow at the French American Global Forum. This article originally ran in the Washington Post.