Audio Transcript: DC’s Recent Poverty Increase Deserves More Attention

This appeared as a commentary on October 10, 2006 on WAMU-88.5 FM, a local NPR affiliate.  The audio archive for the commentary can be found at

You’ve probably heard the classic, philosophical question about a tree falling in the woods and whether it makes a sound if there is no one to hear it. Well, lately I’ve been thinking about my own variation on that question: When 11,000 more DC residents fall into poverty but nobody hears about it, will anyone address the problem?

Unfortunately, my question is not theoretical. The Census Bureau recently announced that the number of District residents in poverty rose from 93,000 to 104,000 over the past year.  That’s 11,000 more DC children and adults living in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold ‘ or less than $16,000 for a family of three.

For reasons that escape me, this news received scant coverage from DC’s major media outlets, including WAMU. Instead, the focus was on exploding wealth in DC’s suburbs, on families living in million-dollar mansions in Loudoun County.  

The affluence of Washington’s suburbs is among the things that make DC’s poverty increase so troubling. Our regional economy may be the strongest in the nation. Our unemployment rate is lower than any other large metro area and job growth has been phenomenal.

It’s not as if the District hasn’t benefited. We see construction cranes every where, and “luxury condos” have spread like kudzu.  The Census Bureau says the number of jobs within DC’s borders grew a healthy 68,000 since 1998. The problem is that not many of those jobs seem to be going to DC residents. The number of working DC residents’ including those who work in the city or in the suburbs’ has grown just 7,000 since 1998 or only about two percent.  

The Mandarin Hotel is an example of our problems. You may not know it, but that fancy-schmantzy place was built with about $50 million in DC tax dollars. City politicains agreed to subsidize the project because they thought it would be good for economic development. Yet despite a requirement to hire mostly District residents for the hotel’s union jobs, the vast majority of the Mandarin’s workers live outside the city.  Something is seriously wrong here.

Persistent poverty in the midst of economic growth is perhaps the most fundamental problem the District of Columbia faces, because poverty contributes to a broad range of social ills.  Poor children don’t succeed in school at anywhere near the rates of their more affluent counterparts.  People living in poverty often suffer from poor nutrition and bad health as well. And the stresses of poverty contribute to higher-than-average rates of depression and child neglect.

It is almost certain that Adrian Fenty will be the District’s next Mayor.  If he wants to make a serious dent in DC’s problems, tackling poverty would be a good place to start.  Fenty looks fondly to the ideas of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, especially on education.  Did you know that Bloomberg also has declared that poverty reduction is one of his top goals? A report he commissioned was released just last month.  I hope Mr. Fenty will follow Bloomberg’s lead and establish measurable goals for reducing DC’s poverty rate over the four years of his term, followed up by a series of strategies to get there.  Helping more DC residents find well-paying jobs has got to be part of the solution.  

Thanks to WAMU, I can now say that DC’s increasing poverty is no longer an issue that is going unheard. And now that we’ve heard, it’s up to all of us listeners to do something about it.

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