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Report finds rise in D.C. poverty to nearly 1 in 5 residents

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010; B04

Nearly one out of five District residents lives at or below the poverty line, a statistic that helps expose a widening gap between the rich and the poor in the nation's capital, according to a study released Tuesday by social justice organizations gearing up for the 2010 elections.

The study, undertaken by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute on behalf of a coalition of more than 40 local organizations, concludes that last year the District experienced its biggest single-year increase in poverty since 1995.

Based on unemployment rates and other data, the coalition estimates that the city has 106,500 residents -- up 11,000 in a year -- living at or below the poverty rate, which in 2009 was $21,800 for a family of four.

"With D.C.'s unemployment rate of 12 percent, it's very likely poverty is also on the rise in 2010 and a decline could be a long way away," said Jenny Reed, a policy analyst at the institute.

The coalition notes that the District's official rate won't be known until more census income data are released later in the year. But the report is designed to sway the political debate in the District this year, when voters will elect a mayor, a D.C. Council chairman and six council members.

The institute, DC Appleseed, the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia and more than three dozen other organizations have teamed to form Defeat Poverty DC. The group hopes to force candidates and elected officials to make combating poverty a central focus of their campaigns.

"D.C. has struggled with this persistent poverty for years and years," said Michael Edwards, the campaign director for Defeat Poverty DC. "We are going to be looking for elected officials to identify how they would address these issues and bring us back down."

Despite the District's pockets of wealth, the report said, nearly one in three D.C. children lives in poverty, about double the national average.

The overall poverty rate in the District rose to 18.9 percent in 2009, up from 16.9 percent the previous year, according to the report. In contrast, the Census Bureau has reported a steady increase in median household income in the District, estimated at $58,000 in 2008. But there are big disparities between white and black families. Although white households had a median income of about $101,000 in 2008, the median income of black households was about $39,000.

"We have some of the worst numbers in the nation, by any measure, when it comes to poverty," said Walter Smith, executive director of DC Appleseed.

Smith and other leaders of Fight Poverty DC say they don't blame Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) for the city's rising poverty rate. They said it has been a problem for decades in the city, worsened recently by the national recession.

But the revised poverty estimates could be more uncomfortable news for Fenty, who has been battered by criticism that he has not focused enough on the District's neediest residents. An administration spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This month, The Washington Post reported that the District is being overwhelmed by a rise in homelessness, resulting in about 200 families jammed into a shelter meant for 35. A Post story in January reported that D.C. service centers that process welfare and other aid applications were so crowded that some applicants had to wait for days to try to get assistance.

With the District facing a $500 million budget gap in fiscal 2010, the city's social service network could be hit with more budget cuts this spring.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, said the city can't tap reserve funds to close the shortfall without risking its credit rating on Wall Street. Evans also noted that the council raised cigarette, sales and income taxes to help fill a budget gap last year.

"You are left with human services, public safety and education, and the mayor told me he is not cutting education," Evans said.

Staff writer Carol Morello contributed to this report.

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