D.C. Council members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), David A. Catania (D-At Large) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) recently introduced legislation to create a commission to "serve as an advocate for persons in poverty." At least eight of the commission's 11 members and all of its staff would be drawn from those living in poverty or those who have lived in poverty within the past two years.
The District has been changing rapidly. For many of its residents, life has improved -- crime has fallen, cultural opportunities have increased, development is booming and baseball has returned, all as a result of government policy.
Unfortunately, life has only become harder for the one-fifth of the D.C. population that lives below the federal poverty line. In 2004 alone, 12,000 units of affordable housing were lost and replaced by 15,000 high-cost rentals or high-value homes. Neighborhoods in which poor and moderate-income families can afford to live have shrunk, economic integration has declined and the concentration of poverty has increased.
The District has a higher rate of child poverty than any state, with nearly one-third of its children living below the federal poverty line. The average annual income for a family in the poorest 20 percent of the population is just a little more than $6,000, while the average annual rent for a two-bedroom apartment is more than $14,000.
Despite unprecedented budget surpluses, the District's cash welfare payment is lower than those of 30 states. The payment has not increased since 1994, when it was reduced from $420 per month for a family of three to $379.
Many people in D.C. government care deeply about the poor, but as we learned from Hurricane Katrina, neglect can be as deadly as deliberate harm. The commission is an intriguing idea. I took forward to a body that measures its success by the number of families moving out of poverty rather than by the number of poor families moving out of the District.
JONATHAN M. SMITH
The writer is executive director of the Legal Aid Society.
I was grateful to see the Oct. 20 Metro article "At Shelter, Pleas for Reform," about the D.C. Council hearing at D.C. Village Emergency Family Shelter.
More than 3,100 families with nearly 6,000 children apply for emergency shelter in Washington annually. Many wait more than six months for entry, sleeping on the streets or in cars or bus stations until space becomes available. When families enter D.C. Village, their small children are forced to share bedrooms, bathrooms and open showers with strangers.
The conditions of the shelter violate the D.C. housing code and are unfit for infants and children. Many parents are separated from their children because doctors and social workers will not approve of the children living in the deplorable shelter conditions.
The city should dedicate itself in the legislative, executive and public arenas to improving shelter conditions, increasing services and building the apartment-style shelters and housing units that were promised years ago.
EMILY A. BENFER
Arnold & Porter Equal Justice Works Fellow
The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless