What About the Poor?
By Michael Powell
The leading mayoral candidates have talked of tax cuts and school reform, of cracking down on quality-of-life crimes and cutting red tape for businesses. They've talked of tax codes and clean streets.
But those candidates rarely speak of services that directly affect the 15 percent of city residents who live in poverty. Every leading mayoral candidate has proposed or voted for budget cuts that have left thousands of Washingtonians without day care, drug treatment, home health aides and burial allowances, and put programs for the homeless in disarray.
And welfare reform in the District remains all but stillborn -- and rarely remarked upon in the mayoral campaign.
It amounts to a remarkable turnabout in a city that long was the epitome of civil rights generation liberalism, where politicians promised a generous safety net and paid rhetorical allegiance to the city's poorest. By contrast, the leading mayoral candidates this year reflect the pro-business, upper-middle-class consensus that has driven most of the D.C. financial control board's reforms.
Since 1992, according to D.C. Action for Children, 65 percent of the city's budget cuts have fallen on programs affecting the poor and children.
"We're moving more and more towards a class ideology in this town," said the Rev. Lionel Edmonds of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church. "Many of the reforms show a complete disregard for the working poor, and none of the candidates are speaking to that."
There is a dollop of cold political calculation in the candidates' middle-class appeal as well.
With Mayor Marion Barry (D) on the verge of political retirement, few politicians in the city can count on persuading the city's poorest to troop to the polls to support them. In a recent D.C. Council election, fewer than 1,000 residents of Ward 8, the city's poorest precinct, turned out to vote, even though one of the candidates hailed from Anacostia.
And recent studies find many poor residents decamping for Prince George's and Montgomery counties. That leaves an ever more decisive vote in the hands of the middle class, black and white.
"The poor in Washington have never been more marginalized," said Tom Wells, a longtime political activist and director of the Consortium for Child Welfare. "This race could easily be determined by Washington Post readers and NPR listeners."
That said, if candidates take a more jaundiced view of social programs in the city, their change of heart cannot be attributed simply to political expediency. Even many advocates acknowledge that Washington's social programs have grown fat with patronage in the last two decades and that Barry built a political machine predicated more on creating jobs for middle-class bureaucrats than on delivering services for the poor.
To talk now about job training is to evoke an image of politically connected contractors who placed precious few people in jobs. To talk of building homeless shelters summons memories of sweetheart contracts given to mayoral allies. And mention housing and economic development and thoughts turn to $55 million in unspent federal community development funds.
The D.C. Council played a role in this decline. It never rejected the mayor's nomination of a department head. It held but a few oversight hearings as foster care, and the public housing agency slid into court receiverships in recent years. All of the council members now running for mayor -- Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), Harold Brazil (D-At Large) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) -- served on the council during this period, albeit sometimes speaking in opposition to Council leadership.
"Unfortunately, the performance of city government has discredited vital programs for the poor," said Elizabeth Siegel, of D.C. Action for Children.
At a recent mayoral forum convened by a coalition of human services agencies, and in later interviews, the candidates spoke of those issues at length for the first time and revealed differences of approach and philosophy.
Evans and Brazil took a neo-liberal line, arguing that the city had bankrupted itself by taking a far too ambitious view of its responsibilities to the poorest. They said that the budget cuts -- and similar cuts in unemployment and disability benefits -- reflected an overdue correction.
And Evans said he would not restore a dime to poverty programs.
"I don't think the cuts went too far. . . . The decisions were correct, and I'm pleased with our approach," Evans said. "I don't favor adding any funding back."
Brazil, who spoke sparingly at last week's forum of his proposals for poverty programs, did not return calls seeking elaboration.
Chavous has most aggressively courted Barry's political base among low-income voters, and has spoken often of the widening disparity between rich and poor in Washington. He says low-income schools are "short-changed" in comparison with schools in middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods -- although he has not offered evidence to support this assertion.
Chavous, who did not return phone calls seeking more details of his views on social programs, also favors requiring developers working downtown to pay for development along impoverished commercial strips.
D.C. Statehood Party candidate John Gloster argued for an expanded social safety net, saying the city can best restore itself by reinvigorating services to programs for the poor, children, prisoners and students at the University of the District of Columbia.
Chavous, Schwartz and former chief financial officer Anthony A. Williams voted for or proposed most of the cuts in social programs. But they now argue that some of the slashing went too far and that a budget surplus allows for some careful rethinking.
"I would focus money on welfare to work, and preschool programs," Williams said. "If we intend to take advantage of a booming economy and get welfare families to work, we need to invest in day care, transportation and health care."
Evans has chided his rivals, arguing that they are flip-flopping and desire only to please low-income voters. But Williams replies that Evans is party to a foolish consistency. And he proposed to foot the bill for much of the additional spending by drawing on unspent federal funds.
"Yes, we were in a crisis, and we did what we had to," Williams said. "To say that we should now invest in social resources is not a bad thing. It will redound to everyone's benefit."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company