There are D.C. commissions on Latinos, on gays and on food and nutrition, and if several members of the D.C. Council have their way, there will soon be one on poverty as well.
The commission, which was discussed yesterday at a public hearing, would focus on such things as how the poor are educated and where they work and bank, and it would make recommendations to city leaders on how to improve the lives of people who are struggling to survive even as the city experiences a period of sustained growth.
"We need to bridge the gap between rich and poor," said council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), a candidate for mayor, after the hearing.
Consideration of the poverty panel was initiated by council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who has long staked out a position as a defender of the poor. A 2003 study by the Brookings Institution found that although concentrated poverty -- communities in which more than 40 percent of the people fall below the poverty line -- had become less common across the nation, the loss of middle class families in several neighborhoods had caused concentrated poverty to rise significantly in the District.
"We've been abandoned," said Absalom Jordan, a community activist who said at the hearing that he is a single father who receives monthly government assistance.
Several advocates for the poor said that although they support the idea of a commission, officials need to guard against creating an entity that ends up doing little beyond pushing paper around.
"A study of poverty that does not attempt to answer the questions surrounding why people are left behind in our . . . systems will result in more attempts to address the effects," said Dana M. Jones, chief executive officer of the nonprofit United Planning Organization. "The issues that persons in poverty face are not single-focused. There's no magic solution. . . . They require a commitment that goes beyond studying."
Sharon Baskerville, executive director of the District of Columbia Primary Care Association, was even more cautious.
"We see far too many blue-ribbon panels, planning councils and commissions for this or that," Baskerville said. "I should know; I end up being appointed to many of them. Too often, these groups sit behind closed doors, sometimes even coming up with a good idea here and there, but they don't have the ability to implement a single recommendation."
As envisioned by its proponents, the commission would have 11 members, eight of whom would have qualified as poor under federal poverty guidelines within the past two years. Among other things, the panel would comment on city and federal legislation, help groups apply for city grants, hold forums and offer regular suggestions to city leaders.
Fenty said that although the need to help the poor is immediate, forming the commission does not necessarily mean spending more money.
"Right now, we've got a combination of leaders in the city who are ready to implement solid programs for poor and working class people," he said.