November 12, 2013 | by Jim Graham
We need a war on rats, not on poor people
Jim Graham, Washington, D.C., gay news, Washington Blade

D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) (Washington Blade file photo by Jeff Surprenant)

We welcome all of the newcomers to Ward 1. Drawn by all the advantages of close-in living, vibrant entertainment areas and well-designed new apartments, they are coming in the thousands. Many are LGBTQ.

Recently I attended the dedication of the memorial for AIDS caregivers at the old Whitman Walker building at 1407 S St., N.W. Afterwards, I toured one apartment, now on the market for $10,000 per month. It had been a group of small offices back when I was executive director.

The newcomers should also be attracted to this neighborhood because of rich diversity, a diversity that I have worked to preserve and nourish. I want Ward 1 to continue to be a place where all mix harmoniously in mutual respect and appreciation.

A key element of that diversity is economic. And with that comes the need for the right response to challenges that arise from an inner city urban place. In Ward 1, one in five of the people live below the federal poverty level.

For example, I recently met with 50 Ward One residents in a public housing community. Security was the topic of the meeting — but this was not the typical “security” meeting calling for more police. Residents were feeling attacked by live rats falling from the ceiling panels, odors from dead rats accumulating in the walls and rats scurrying around the hallways and in their children’s bedrooms at night.

One resident commented, “We are poor.  People want us to disappear. We know the rats are coming from the condominium construction sites … condos that we can’t afford.”  Many shook their heads in agreement. We are hard at work on that problem.

But there are 144,000 District residents, which includes half of all D.C. children, eligible for federal food stamps. On Nov. 1, the federal government cut benefits despite widespread agreement that it is one of those rare “everybody wins” programs that government should be proud of: the consumer is healthy, the grocery store operators and employees work and the farmers produce.

When you have little or nothing, $30 less for food makes a huge difference.

The D.C. government has also cut welfare (in each case, with me voting “no”) without having the programs in place to move the poor from dependency to self-sufficiency. Since April 2011, 10,343 District children 13 years old and younger and 6,150 families have had their meager income slashed by welfare cuts. Many of these children are managing to get through their day with less sleep, less food, less time with a loving adult, and less prepared for school. Today a family of four receives about $250 a month in D.C. welfare. I want families to be self-sufficient.

But there are real barriers to finding jobs and self-sufficiency — mental illness, substance abuse, illiteracy and physical disabilities. We need effective programs to meet families where they are and not where we think they should be. With only 50 percent of welfare families engaged in work-readiness programs after almost two years of “reforms,” we must do better. Less money means more homelessness.

There will be a 10 percent increase in the number of District families who will qualify for emergency housing this winter. The real solution is greater investments in affordable housing for the working poor and supportive housing for persons living with debilitating mental illnesses and behavior needs.

Finally, there is a widening wage gap in the District and in the Ward that I represent.  A CFO report issued just last month found that 42 percent of District residents earned less than $30,000 per year in 2011. Another report published by the National Low Income Housing Council, finds that a resident earning D.C.’s minimum wage of $8.25 has to work 132 hours per week or earn $27.15 per hour to afford any two-bedroom apartment in D.C.

With my support, the Council passed a bill that required the largest, most profitable retailers in the District to offer a minimum wage and benefit package equal to $12.50 per hour. But the mayor vetoed it.

Now the Council is considering several bills to increase the minimum wage across the board. There is agreement that a well-paid workforce is a reliable workforce. Poverty wages aren’t good for anyone.

We need a war on rats, not a war on poor people. And every newcomer needs to be conscious of, and engaged in, that struggle for economic justice.

Jim Graham represents Ward 1 on the D.C. City Council. Reach him at jim@grahamwone.com.

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