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Are we really willing to fix what ails D.C.?

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Friday, January 21, 2011

A tale about the poor, and what's in store for D.C. taxpayers.

Most District residents would probably say they are glad there is a foster care program for children who can't live safely with their families. That sentiment is understandable. But it's a benign view of social conditions in this city. Conditions, I might add, that affect our low-income residents, the quality of life in our nation's capital and the wallets of all who reside within.

Foster care, welfare and the growth in the number of pregnant teens, fatherless children and locked-up youth are intertwined. And they are pulling us down.

In fiscal 2008, 2009 and 2010, some 2,197 children entered the D.C. foster-care system. Think about it. More than 2,000 children so neglected or abused by their biological parents that the city had to remove them from their homes and place them, at least temporarily, in the care of someone else.

The fact that an equal number of children left the system during that time because they were either too old to remain there or because they rejoined their parents, other relatives or adopted parents doesn't negate the terrible truth of what got them taken out of parental custody in the first place.

Neglected and abused children aren't the only cause for concern. The city's welfare rolls are on an upward trajectory - a development that was underway even when the local economy was booming.

Data obtained this week from the D.C. Department of Human Services, which administers the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, paint the picture.

In fiscal 2007, the TANF program had an average of 15,171 cases. Those numbers have increased. As of November, the average number of cases had jumped to 17,608. Today, there are 31,479 children in the program, an increase of 2,711 since 2007.

Fueling the growth in the welfare rolls and foster care are, of course, births to unwed teens - an unpleasant District truth discussed in a column two weeks ago.

Last year, the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, in a study of youth crime in the District, observed: "For every five black boys between age 10 and 17 [in 2009], three would not graduate high school on time. One was officially truant from high school. And one was arrested as a juvenile."

The report linked juvenile crime with the lack of classroom success. There are, however, more connections to social failure.

The tragedy is that the various networks and bureaucracies in the District that serve children, teens and young adults don't seem to get it. There is no coordinated strategy to solve these interlocking problems. As the Lexington Institute's report noted, city agencies "even function as silos that work against each other."


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