Angela Jones's job is to fight for children who have only the dimmest of futures. Under the classic definition of such a job, she would spend her days lobbying politicians and bureaucrats for more money and more programs.
As director of DC Action for Children, a nonprofit that advocates for kids in a city that is not exactly child-friendly, Jones does her share of begging for dollars. But after seven years on the job, Jones has concluded that money is not the answer.
The questions remain the same: Why is Washington the only major city in the nation in which child poverty became more common in the past decade? Why does the city still run a school system whose graduates too often are dismissed as unemployable? Why is it acceptable to carry nearly 3,000 children in a foster care system that sends young adults into the world who were never adopted, who drifted from one group home to another, who have few, if any, skills?
"There have been days where I just say, 'Enough' -- it's not getting better, people don't care, where's the urgency?" Jones says. "All the usual tools that advocacy groups use -- suing, media exposure, public embarrassment -- don't work in D.C. because so many parts of the system are in trouble." Agencies collapse to the point that the courts intervene, and then the issue becomes how to fight through the legal thicket rather than how to help kids.
Jones, who has no children of her own, grew up in the District. She was in the first graduating class at Banneker, the city's "academic high school," a bit of terminology that's all too revealing of the system's ills.
Despite her pride in Banneker, Jones, 38, knows that many parents leave town as their kids reach school age. "Even though I'm a product of DCPS, I doubt I would send my kids to the D.C. schools," she says. (DC Action "doesn't work in the school system because it would consume us entirely as an organization," Jones says. The schools "are the least willing collaborator in any project.")
Neither the schools nor the child welfare system seems to improve as resources are added. "As an organization -- and personally -- we are at the point of ultimate frustration, because this is not a question of having enough money," Jones says. The city's sustained real estate boom has delivered one big surplus after another, and the budget keeps soaring. Yet social ills don't appear to diminish.
Only in the District can a budget that skyrockets 19 percent in one year be described as fiscally prudent. Council Chairman Linda Cropp, who dreams of taking over the mayor's office next year if Tony Williams bows out, would have us believe that the $4.95 billion budget the council has approved is tight and clean.
But can anyone say with a straight face that anything in the city -- let alone the intractable social problems that keep many children from rising above their circumstances -- will improve by 19 percent next year?
"We've never said the problem is just money," Jones says. "It's incompetence in government agencies. You see the same people being recycled over and over. They're the placeholders, and they've been there forever."
Growing up in Anacostia, she says, "I was poor, but I wasn't aware of it because people in the neighborhood took care of you." What changed? People who had the wherewithal to leave did. Thus, the evolution of Prince George's County. The exodus from the cities was a story not of good and evil but of opportunity and consequences. "But everybody can't leave," Jones says.
She has. Jones recently moved from LeDroit Park in the heart of the city to Sterling in Loudoun County to live with her fiance -- the first time she's lived outside the city. To her surprise, she likes the suburbs -- the quiet, the sense of security, the privacy.
Jones's three nieces live in Washington and too often attend funerals of friends who were shot. This, Jones notes, was not a part of her childhood just 20 years ago. Like many who can move away from that reality, Jones has, so now, she lives with the teachers and social workers who zip into town for work, then head back out to the suburbs, "where their kids do just fine."
She has learned that answers, like money, don't grow on trees -- not in Sterling, not in the city. So Jones does what she can: She fights, from wherever she may be.