Wanted: Politicians Who Talk About Poverty This election season, everyone discussed gentrification and no one talked about actual poverty

Shelter Stasis: The former D.C. General hospital is used to house homeless families.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Pop Quiz: Name the director of D.C.’s Department of Employment Services? How about the director of the Department of Human Services? No peeking at dc.gov. And no, Cathy Lanier and Michelle Rhee don’t head up these agencies. No luck? No surprise. Our collective inability to turn these agencies’ main tasks into high-profile election issues is a reason why this campaign season was such a bust.

In January, the District’s unemployment rate stood at 12 percent. The rate has since fallen to 9.8 percent. It was 6.5 percent five years ago. We’re doing only slightly better than Baltimore. But the unemployment numbers only tell part of the story. In 2009, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reported that an estimated 11,000 additional residents fell into poverty—families of four earning $21,800. The growth in the District’s poor was the largest year-to-year jump in 14 years. At the same time, the number of affordable housing units has shrunk by a third since 2000.

Boring, wonky issues? Sure. But the story of D.C.’s underclass also includes tales that have grabbed media attention. The Banita Jacks case, in 2008, turned the spotlight on the city’s long-troubled Child and Family Services Agency. The agency had been supposed to be checking up on Jacks’ four daughters. They turned up dead, murdered by Jacks. It was an enormous story. But two years later, the only time juvenile social-services issues are discussed on the campaign trail is when people attack Peaceoholics, the nonprofit activist group closely tied to Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Thus the contentious 2010 mayoral race between Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray will be remembered for go-go shows, crank calls, frat brothers, lottery contracts, Gray’s change in eyewear, and Fenty’s late decision to apologize for everything. The Washington Post’s endorsement of Fenty doesn’t mention the city’s unemployment rate, its expanding underclass, or Banita Jacks. In fact, the only debate we’ve had about the city’s social-welfare performance concerns how DHS did in the early 1990s, a period when Gray led the agency and which Fenty has decided is ripe for attack ads.

You won’t hear the candidates talking about it, but those bad old days look a lot like today. Too many homeless families? Check. Residents forced to live in the streets? Check. Homeless living in trailers? Check.


This past winter, the number of homeless families overwhelmed the emergency shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital. On Feb. 4, there were 163 families—double the number from the same date in 2009. A month later, there were 200 families—comprised of 851 residents, including 400 children. The families slept in the cafeteria and bunked in common rooms. Some spent nights sleeping on hallway floors next to trash cans, and used their belongings for pillows. In the past two years, two babies died at the shelter.

And yet there are folks for whom D.C.’s own Superdome remains a sought-after address. On Aug. 2, Marta Beresin, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, testified before the D.C. Council that by mid-July, 543 families were on the waiting list just to get into the D.C. General shelter. Twenty-seven of those families were sleeping in cars and at bus stations.

Maybe it’s not surprising that non-homeless residents, worried about jobs and schools and neighborhoods, aren’t obsessing about people sleeping in cars. But it’s a bit more jarring that the city’s ample supply of activists haven’t used D.C. General for so much as a protest backdrop, press conference locale, or YouTube video—the sort of thing that could shame candidates into dealing with the issue.

Some of them tried. Sort of. This past spring, Save Our Safety Net held rallies, interrupted a Fenty press conference and D.C. Council business—all in the name of addressing proposed budget cuts to DHS and CFSA. The group lost its biggest fight, promoting a tax on the city’s top wage earners. But they at least got politicians talking about the most vulnerable residents.

“I felt like we lost beautifully,” says Joni Podschun, a Save Our Safety Net organizer. “We accomplished a lot—to have things talked about publicly that wouldn’t otherwise have been.”

But as soon as the budget debate ended, Podschun says that her organization ran out of funding. In the process, reforming the tax system also fell off the radar.

Once the campaigns started up in earnest, D.C. went back to talking what we’ve been talking about every election cycle since the late ’90s: gentrification. We have these silly proxy wars over streetcars and bike lanes and dog parks. Fenty’s answer for everything is a shiny new school and a shiny new rec center. Gray’s answer is a shiny new taskforce and vocational program. Both candidates suggest that 30 percent unemployment in Ward 8 is an intractable problem that will only get fixed decades from now.

Perhaps poverty and jobs are just too complicated a subject for political rhetoric. “The question is if you know a Metro is coming in or a streetcar is coming in, what do you do to capture the increased wealth to help people stay,” says Ed Lazere, executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. “It’s fair to say no leader has thought through that. What are we going to do when a streetcar comes to help people stay there? It’s a pretty complicated conversation. It’s the kind of conversation that should be happening.”

The vacuousness on poverty was even on display at the one candidates’ forum of the campaign season that was explicitly supposed to focus on poverty. During that August debate, attended by the candidates running in the D.C. Council chairman and at-large races, participants were unable to address the current state of the shelter system, from capacity issues to out-of-date facilities. Midway through the forum, I asked one of the debate’s organizers what she thought of the candidates’ answers so far. She put her finger in her mouth and pretended to gag.

It’s not like the candidates were going unchecked. Just as Save Our Safety Net went dormant, the nonprofit Defeat Poverty DC campaign, in which Lazere plays an active role, was started in order to push pols to discuss poverty. They launched a website, produced videos for a YouTube channel, set up booths at forums, and passed out stickers. But they had only about $200,000—not enough, apparently, to wean pols off their long-running obsession with posturing over gentrification. At some forums, their booth looked like the loneliest place to be. Its YouTube channel hasn’t had a video with more than 104 views.

Defeat Poverty DC sent out a questionnaire to all the candidates running for office. By the end of August, only the two major mayoral candidates’ responses had been posted. Recently, more responses have trickled in—often as pat and superficial as campaign mailings. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham merely produced a list of his accomplishments.

But maybe this is just what the voters want. Aaron McCormick, a former D.C. General resident, had been one of the biggest agitators for shelter reform. He had spoken out repeatedly on the poor living conditions at the old hospital. Late this summer, he and his family finally found an apartment and moved out of the shelter.

He wrote me to say that he had gotten a job with the Gray campaign. Alas, he wasn’t tasked with organizing around the one issue he knew best. Instead, he’d been asked to organize a go-go show.

Our Readers Say

Your obsession with poverty borders on a love of, and interest in continuing, poverty for specific social groups.

The phonies at "Save our Safety Net" are in dire need of poor people because so many people have left situations of poverty that they won't have charity jobs left if everyone has a good job, can pay their bills, and can rent or own a decent place to live at the market rates.

Simply put, this is poverty porn for people whose jobs exist to help (but never ever cure) the underclass. These people (and you too Jason) live to give a man a fish but both you and these people NEED the underclass to exist and will do nothing to make sure their children become wealthy.

A few things about me:
1. I volunteered with Mitch Snyder in the 1980s. I volunteered with kids in the 1990s. I volunteered with a homeless shelter in the early part of this decade.
2. I am left wing. But I need to make it clear- I want the children of drug addicts to live clean lives, go to college, buy a house with a big yard and be financially successful. I do NOT want the kids of the homeless to do nothing more than have crappy jobs that help other homeless people.
3. I believe that racism is wrong and class is entirely fluid. Many people involved in homeless issues believe that people of color will NEVER be rich and actively attempt to make sure the children of these poor people go into fields like social work or daycare providers that will render GENERATIONS of poor people instead of getting these kids into business and sales positions that are capitalistic in nature but much more guaranteed to create cross-generational wealth.
4. These people are leeches who demand donations instead of creating capitalistic enterprises where the homeless create quality products, including art and music, that can be sold at market rates BECAUSE THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT DAMAGED AND CAN FUNCTION AT THE SAME LEVEL AS WHITE PEOPLE.

This poverty porn must end. The entire philosophy behind this article is quasi-racist. The idea is that Black people should stay poor and the government should set up systems to keep them poor (such as Section 8 housing) rather than Black People can be as wealthy as whites. In 2010 Jim Crow is alive and well at the City Paper.
I'm surprised by your comment. I'm pissed that we haven't moved on from warehousing poor people in huge shelters like the one Mitch Snyder founded. Or housed the homeless in decrepit old facilities like D.C. General.

It astounds me that there are so many more homeless in the city considering Anthony Williams, prior to leaving office, made it a point to require affordable housing units to residential development plans.

Case in point 2323 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE is an entire building (new building) that has income restrictions. There is not a market rate unit in the building and it is not the only income restricted facility in town. It appears, rather, that the people that are priced out of the rental market are the middle class. Perhaps this may be a part of the reason that the poor have fallen off the radar.

D.C., under this Mayor, has all but decimated the working class.
Northwesterner needs to check his/her facts. Two of the three primary goals of the Defeat Poverty DC campaign are Making Work Possible and Making Work Pay and the aim of these two goals is to help low-income individuals secure jobs that will allow them to achieve self-sufficiency and enter the middle class. That's a sustainable solution to poverty that seeks to break the cycle of poverty in the very way that Northwesterner recommends. It's too bad that NW jumped to conclusions rather than taking the time to understand where NW's interests and those of the Defeat Poverty folks align.
Northwesterner, I understand your extreme disgust with organizations that troll for populations to fill the needs assessment of their next federal grant application.

Northeasterner, I understand your frustration with ppl who jump out there and castigate without all of the facts.

DCDem, I understand your ire for stretching the definition of "affordable housing" to the point that said meaning would lose its elasticity, if it were a rubber band.

All of this said, Northwesterner has a very valid point about the lack of social entrepreneurship--and the potentially, positive impact such a movement would have on DC's very poor, poor, and working poor populations.

Why can't we teach people how to develop, operate, and market a business, give them some seed money for marketing, let them develop credit through accounts receivables financing, and let them feed themselves? OMG...when I put it like that, it sounds like too much work. Too damn bad. That's life and that's what productive, tax-paying citizens can do. Find a need and fill it.

Here's the need: employment for DC's underclass
Here's how to fill it: help people turn their God-given talents into viable businesses.
Why can't we teach people how to develop, operate, and market a business, give them some seed money for marketing, let them develop credit through accounts receivables financing, and let them feed themselves?

One-third of adults in Washington, D.C. are functionally illiterate, which is generally defined as unable to use reading, writing, and computational skills efficiently in everyday life situations. The functionally illiterate are well-represented among the ranks of the poor.
Ending poverty begins with improving education. Improving education is not just shiny schools or teachers who are held accountable, it's parents who tell their kids everyday that the most important think they can do everyday is learn something.
Though we think that poor people are not entrepreneurial, they are. They might not be doing things above board, but they are entrepreneurial and they are working to survive. Has nothing to do with literacy, though that is important. People have skills and people have desire that we simply don't recognize because we're so used to seeing poor people as incapable of having any ability.

We don't need to teach people to be entrepreneurial, we need to teach them how to work the system. That's what everyone else does.
Jason, this article was amazing. Thanks so much

It does ring a bell though. Like ten years ago, when DC General was getting shut down, activists tried to mount a defense of the hospital and then eventually launched an attempt to clearly define a good use for the space. The immediate response from establishment politicians and commentators (Marc Fisher was the biggest dick) was to brush them off as dinosaur relics, which is exactly the same thing we're hearing now.

And of course, the situation is still horrible.
The problem is this: that 10% unemployed? It's largely comprised of the chronically unemployable. Because of history and regional incentives, DC has a much higher proportion of those folks than MD or VA. Largely when folks hit absolute rock-bottom, they move into the city for the services. When they move into the middle-class, they move out to MD or VA.

The *only* way to get these folks to employment is to give them guaranteed city jobs--which is what we did for many, many decades. Instead what we should be doing is offering generous wrap-around services for their children ala the Harlem Children's Zone. Those folks are fucked, sorry to say, and the only way to address the greater problem is to try to break the cycle of poverty with their kids.
as long as negroes vote for democrats like bongo and buy into the bullshit that it's whiteys fault you will be stuck on the welfare plantation for ever.
A tip of the hat to Mr. Cherkis. Still not sure why WCP endorsed the guy who was less concerned with poverty, but nonetheless, if WCP didn't cover real poverty, no one would.

Truth be told, WCP does for D.C. what NPR does for the U.S. Perhaps we should float some tax dollars WCP's way to ensure the solid reporting lives on ;-)

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