Amid unprecedented prosperity, D.C.’s children grow poorer

Petula Dvorak
Columnist August 7

Let’s go back 25 years — D.C. 1989.

The city had just become the nation’s murder capital. The FBI was about to spring the infamous crack cocaine sting operation against then-Mayor Marion Barry. And President George H.W. Bush gave a speech holding a bag of crack cocaine sold to undercover drug agents by a teen dealer in the park outside the White House.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Washington wasn’t a place the rest of America wanted to even drive through, let alone buy a condo in.

Things are different now, right? The District is a boom town, with the soaring population and housing prices to prove it. But amid all this new wealth, there’s a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. And the have-nots include more children than in 1989.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the numbers released last week by Kids Count, the annual survey of America’s children, which offers a then-and-now comparison of what life is like for the District’s kids. Among the findings:

●More children are living in poverty today than before the boom. The poverty rate for those under 18 is 8 percent higher than it was 25 years ago.

●Nearly half of the District’s approximately 110,000 kids live in households that have an unhealthy housing cost burden — in other words, they live in places where the rent (or the mortgage) is too darn high. That’s up 45 percent from 25 years ago, when housing didn’t devour so much of the family budget.

●The number of D.C. kids on public assistance hasn’t budged in 10 years, and the number of homeless families is at a crisis level.

●More kids now than a decade ago qualify for subsidized lunch programs at school, and the number of teens who have dropped out of school and aren’t working has grown.

●Obesity, drug use, sexually transmitted diseases and the number of HIV/AIDS cases have all increased among teens over the past decade.

“This is the thing. D.C. kids aren’t benefiting from the economic boom,” said HyeSook Chung, executive director of DC Action for Children, an advocacy group that crunches the data on this report every year. “Our poor children are getting into deeper poverty.”

Being poor in the coolest city

This is a little stunning to those of us watching 1,000 new residents move into the city every month, and the median house price in the city rise to $530,000, a record high.

We’re the coolest city in America, according to Forbes Magazine. There are hot restaurants, hot people, a pop-up cinema where you can order white truffle popcorn and a Spanish cava with your indie flick.

And plenty of kids are thriving amid all this prosperity. Check out the new playground in Brookland, a Northeast Washington Taj Mahal complete with a mini parkour course and squirting Hatteras lighthouse.

‘Better off 10 years ago’

“Kids have it pretty good in D.C.,” said Kebede Taye, 55, a taxi driver who has lived down the street from the playground since 1992 and has watched his part of the city transform from a place where his kids couldn’t safely play to a paradise for his grandson.

But drive a few blocks south and you get another story. Right in Brookland, in the courtyard of a subsidized apartment building, you’ll hear a different take.

“I think kids were better off 10 years ago,” said a 56-year-old mother of three who didn’t want her name in the paper. “There were more schools for our kids. The summer jobs were better. There were not as many drugs.”

A hallmark of this economic boom is the patchwork of hope and despair the city has become.

On Capitol Hill, there are parks and arts-based schools mere blocks from the shame of the city, an abandoned hospital housing as many as 600 homeless children in conditions no better than some refugee camps.

‘The weight of the world’

Clarence Alston Jr., 43, sees the disparity pretty clearly.

He was one of the dads playing with his little boy at the awesome Brookland playground this week. He’s lived in Washington for 20 years, and he and his wife took their time before buying a house and deciding to have children in the District.

“We wanted to make sure it was the right place to raise children, and we watched that happen,” he said.

He lives in Ward 8, which isn’t booming with economic prosperity, but he’s seen some positive changes in schools and playgrounds in his neighborhood. He also sees the children who have been left behind.

“I see it every day at school, kids literally hunched over from the weight of the world on their shoulders. I know, as an educator, there is a direct correlation between poverty and success in school,” he said.

Alston is a high school history teacher. And while he lauds the prekindergarten programs and fabulous playgrounds for his little boys, he also confronts the despair of the young people in his classroom.

“We still have a long way to go in this city,” Alston said. “In an industrialized nation, in such a prosperous city, the kids should have it better, not worse.”

Twitter: @petulad

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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