“Are you hiring?” Joy Hicks-Parker asks the young blond man serving her a small coffee that, she repeatedly marvels, costs $2.20.
“We’re not,” he tells her, but he adds awkwardly that it’s always good to check.
“Nobody’s hiring,” she says. Gesturing at the new condo building where public housing once stood across the street, the 34-year-old says she tried to check out an apartment and was asked by the concierge how she would pay rent. Looking out at a once-familiar strip now filled with fancy bars and cafes, she sighs: “Coffee is the new crack.”
The people left behind by the District’s rapid regeneration have not cast much of a shadow over this year’s mayoral race, with candidates Muriel E. Bowser (D), David A. Catania (I) and Carol Schwartz (I) promising to deal with the unemployment and homelessness that have risen in tandem with incomes and rents. But none of the three are discussing a dramatic change in the city’s welfare program that could drag many poor families into further distress at a time when their number has risen dramatically.
A single mother with four children ages 7 to 17, Hicks-Parker lives on $168 each month in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Under a 2010 law imposing a five-year limit on TANF payments, her benefits have been shrinking steadily.
They could soon disappear. If the law doesn’t change, more than 6,000 D.C. families will see their cash assistance end on Sept. 30, 2015, with more to follow.
“Neither Bowser nor Catania has really said what they would do,” said Ed Lazere of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Poverty in the city has risen 25 percent since 2007, according to new study from his organization. Nearly one in five District residents is living below the poverty line, defined as making less than $24,000 a year for a family of four. One in 10 is living on less than half that amount. Economists working for the District found that by one measure, inequality in the city is worse than in any state and many countries.
Mayoral candidates have focused on finding employment for the city’s poor rather than restoring their direct financial support. The District was one of the last places in the country to impose TANF limits, and at the time, D.C. Council members argued that letting residents live off welfare indefinitely did more harm than good.
Council members Bowser (Ward 4) and Catania (At Large) have focused on job initiatives; his 130-page policy platform does not mention TANF. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Schwartz, a former council member, told The Washington Post that she would prioritize job initiatives for those about to lose their benefits.
“In February 2008, we saw the change,” said Nechama Masliansky, a senior advocacy adviser at So Others Might Eat. The nonprofit serves free meals daily in its dining room; its visitor traffic spiked that year and stayed there, she said.
The impact has been almost entirely on residents with limited education. Close to 40 percent of those without a high school diploma are poor. So are 27 percent of those who went no further than high school and 17 percent of those with an incomplete college education. Only 5 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher are poor.
The impact is also concentrated. In the central part of the city, poverty has dropped by a third since 2007. In wards 7 and 8, almost entirely east of the Anacostia River, it has gone up by more than that amount.
Hicks-Parker lives, reluctantly, in a subsidized building in Ward 8, near the border with Maryland, where teenagers make noise on the street all night and violence is common. Her four children are in school in Northwest and spend their afternoons at the Kennedy Recreation Center in Shaw, which features a shiny new playground and water park.
She has loved the neighborhood since visiting her aunt’s beauty parlor at 11th and U streets as a child. But she can’t find affordable housing there.
The D.C. Council has voted several times to delay the TANF cuts, with both Bowser and Catania in favor. City lawmakers have argued that the job training and mental support that are supposed to accompany the removal of funds have been so poorly managed that they might as well not exist.
There is a three- to six-month waiting list for job training as part of the TANF program, and there is wide agreement that those programs have been troubled. Of the 6,637 residents who had been on TANF for more than five years, only 470 had found full-time work for more than six months. The Department of Human Services couldn’t say what had happened to 3,000 of those recipients.
“The truth is, our training programs don’t align well with jobs available for D.C. residents,” Bowser wrote in her campaign platform. Representatives from the hotel and construction industry agree.
The training program selection “very rarely includes the end job provider, and therein lies the gap,” said Solomon Keene Jr., president of the Hotel Association of Washington D.C.
The D.C. Department of Employment Services has begun developing a new strategy to deal with “the cavernous education and skills gap” in the city, a spokeswoman said.
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), a longtime opponent of the cuts, introduced legislation this month that would extend benefits for many recipients. Bowser has signed onto another Graham bill that would repeal 2015’s reduction.
“It’s just going to be horrendous, what’s going to happen,” said Graham, who will leave the council at the end of the year after losing his bid for reelection during his party’s primary. “We’re destroying whatever existence these folks have.”
Most TANF recipients receive food stamps as well. But food stamps won’t pay for clothes, utilities, bus fare or rent for those who haven’t been able to get into subsidized housing. Last year, the District’s public housing agency closed a waiting list with 72,000 names, on which a new applicant can expect to wait decades for an apartment.
In his final budget, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) proposed an increase in TANF benefits over the next three years. But the bulk of that money would come in 2017, leaving it in the hands of future city leaders.
Trista Dunlap, 45, saw her check shrink to $95 a month before disappearing because her 13-year-old son now receives $127 a month in disability from his father. She has been on and off welfare since 1997, whenever she was taking care of one of her three kids. But she’s also “been working since I was 14.”
Then, in 2012, she lost her job, and she has not found one since. Her two adult children are homeless while working at the salad chain Sweetgreen. She says she cannot afford to keep them in her home because their salary would cut her rent voucher — her only income.
“I’ve applied to everything from McDonalds to the government,” she said. “I’m devastated.”