Leaders and experts in the nonprofit and education sectors in Washington, D.C. discussed the persistent state of poverty in the District, as well as strategies to break the poverty cycle, in an event hosted by the McCourt School of Public Policy and the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership last Friday in Lorhfink Auditorium.
The event, titled “The War on Poverty: Then, Now & The Future,” aimed to situate the discussion within its historical context, develop a shared understanding of the current state of poverty, identify current and future challenges and opportunities to assure economic security for all citizens and to promote action through the discussion of latest innovations in combatting poverty.
James Gibson, a senior fellow-in-residence at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, moderated the panel and began by thanking the young people in the audience, whom he believes will be active in solving the problem of poverty.
“You will end up carrying forward whatever remnants the rest of us will leave, and you will have to make the corrections we couldn’t,” Gibson said.
History and music professor Maurice Jackson said that the current poverty rate has significantly increased from previous decades.
“In 1959 the poverty rate in D.C. was 22.4 percent… In 1969 the poverty rate was 17 percent,” Jackson said. “How can you explain that poverty is worse now than it was in 1959?”
D.C. Fiscal Poverty Institute Executive Director Ed Lazere said that some government programs are effective in tackling poverty, citing the growth of programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and the success of earned income tax credit and food stamps.
“Right now, our safety net lifts about half of everybody who would otherwise be poor out of poverty each year,” Lazere said.
According to Lazere, D.C. has one of the highest minimum wages in the country at $9.50, and its healthcare programs cover one in three residents in addition to recently adopting paid sick leave.
However, Lazere said that income disparity is a worrying issue in D.C., which has one of the highest wealth gaps among major cities in the country.
“All we’ve known is growing income inequality, so much so that we take it for granted,” Lazere said. “The figures are especially stark here in Washington, where at the bottom of the income scale, average incomes are about $10,000 each year, while in the top percent, average incomes are over half a million dollars each year.”
Lazere said that this income disparity is driven by an economy that is not producing jobs and an unequal recovery from the recession.
“For workers who don’t have an advanced education, in many ways, the recession is still here,” Lazere said. “One out of three D.C. residents without a college degree is either unemployed, underemployed, meaning they would like to work more hours than they do, or so discouraged from looking for a job that they have just given up.”
Lazere then addressed the housing crisis, a fundamental challenge that continues to worsen in Washington. The combination of stagnant incomes and rising costs continues to make housing unaffordable.
“Just last week, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute put out a report, and our conclusion is that there really is no low cost housing anymore in the private market in the city and that the only affordable housing we have left is housing that has some form of subsidy attached to it,” Lazere said.
Lazere concluded by expressing hope in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s commitment to addressing the issue of homelessness, which is a result of rising housing costs.
“In two weeks, the mayor is going to put out her budget, and she’s been very clear that that budget will include a substantial increase in funding for the housing trust fund, which helps build affordable housing, and that it will include plans to replace the D.C. general shelter,” Lazere said.
Leonard D. Schaeffer Chair in Health Policy Studies Alice Rivlin reflected on the war on poverty as one full of hope and naivety.
“The preponderance of the new folks in the city are higher income and white…and that is often seen as a bad thing for low income people,” Rivlin said. “It’s not if we do it right. This is a chance to rebuild our tax base and our school system.”
Rivlin suggested that policymakers should focus on connecting young people to jobs in the city and preserving affordable housing, especially in areas of gentrification. .
“This is a growing region with plenty of jobs, but they are jobs that take more skill than the lower income population has, and we have lots of effort on this front to do job training,” Rivlin said. “Unfortunately a lot of it hasn’t been effective.”
Bread for the City Chief Executive Officer George Jones discussed poverty through the lens of racial inequality. Bread for the City is a nonprofit organization that provides free food, clothing, legal, medical and social services for D.C. families living in poverty.
“It’s a complicated conversation,” Jones said. “The real answer is how to help people who live here in poverty to be a part of the conversation…these folks want to talk about how race matters in their lives.”
Health Promotion Manager at Mary’s Center for Maternal and Child Care, Inc. Rosa Goyes said that D.C.’s minimum wage does not support families.
“Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. How do we expect people to move up the pyramid to self-actualization if we do not pay for people to barely cover their basic psychological needs such as rent, healthcare and food?” Goyes asked.
President of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation Nicky Goren said that there is a lack of cooperation between the government, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions and the business sector in the war on poverty.
“We’re not really truly and genuinely making a commitment to working together,” Goren said. “It’s individual organizations from individual sectors deciding individually what needs to happen…but many of these conversations about all these programs are often happening without everybody who is relevant to the conversation at the table.”