DC fails to protect its children

OFFICIALLY DECLARED the nation’s first Human Rights City by our local government in 2008,  DC has egregiously failed to protect its children’s human rights, health, and well being by tolerating public policies which enable high rates of child poverty and ongoing exposure to lead, especially coming from household water taps.

Some context. According to the most recent data available from the USDA, DC has the highest income inequality and homeless rate compared to the 50 states, while its child poverty rate was the third highest in the nation.1 DC also has a big racial gap in wealth, with the median white household having 81 times the wealth of the median Black household, as Erica Williams (DCFPI) emphasized in a blog post last year titled “DC’s Extreme Wealth Concentration Exacerbates Racial Inequality, Limits Economic Opportunity”.  

Infant mortality is shockingly high in Wards 7 and 8, with DC’s, with the gap between Black and white residents having grown over the last two decades.2  This fact alone demonstrates the utter failure of trickle-down economic policies of DC’s government to address persistent racial and economic disparities. In a speech earlier this year, President Biden stressed the need to move away from a top-down approach of trickle-down economics. However, our Mayor and Council trickle-downers continue this policy to the detriment of  DC’s children.

As the budget deliberations for FY 2024 have now passed, it is time to consider once again how our DC government has failed to protect the health and welfare of its children, particularly Black children living east of the river with the highest poverty level in DC. While the DC Council restored some of the cuts in the Mayor’s budget proposal, this is still an austerity budget that prioritizes protection of the big developer and corporate sector over the basic needs of Black and brown working-class communities.

For example, low TANF income support is the major reason why so many children live in poverty in DC. In 2022, the DC TANF income support level for a family of three was 34.7% of the federal poverty level (FPL), a reduction from 38.4% in 1996.3 The harm caused by child poverty has many dimensions, including poor health, stress, and bad school performance. As a column in the Baltimore Sun observed earlier last year, “Research has shown that child poverty increases crime rates, swells health care costs, worsens educational outcomes.”4

Most DC TANF recipients are Black, and the consequences of DC’s failure to address inherited child poverty in DC has intergenerational implications. Successful implementation of this intervention has the potential to move us closer to achieving racial justice in DC. We already have strong evidence of the effectiveness of direct cash assistance provided from the THRIVE program, as reported in the Washington Post on March 7, 2022. Note that the Urban Institute evaluation of the Thrive program indicated that 43% of recipients also received TANF income support.5

Of the things our city can do to address this crisis, funding a DC child tax credit would be one of the most effective. Pending additional support from the restoration of a generous federal child tax credit by Congress, DC could virtually eliminate child poverty with its own Child Tax Credit (CTC) applied to all families, regardless of whether they earn income or receive TANF benefits. The cost of less than $400 – 500 million per year would be far outweighed by the benefits of roughly 30,000 children now on TANF, their families, and the community at large.6 And DC has a more than adequate tax base to generate this revenue targeted to those most in need. For example, this revenue can come from a hike in the income taxes of DC millionaires, a wealth tax on high-valued homes, and a shift in present subsidies going to developers creating luxury and market-rate housing to fund this revenue (which could also be used to finance the creation of social housing).7 Such a generous CTC replacing TANF would be an important step to providing guaranteed income support.8

Likewise, the exposure of residents, particularly children, to toxic lead coming from its water taps is ongoing. The DC government should take very seriously the analysis and recommendations of Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou and Paul Schwartz of the Campaign for Lead Free Water, submitted to the Committee on Transportation and the Environment on March 15, 2021.

The Council must confront the lead hazard posed by its drinking water by providing water filters to remove lead for these residents as well as for all DC households with children, and homes which have frequent child visitors such as residences of their grandparents. The provision of these water filters must be coupled with outreach, education and robust monitoring of their effectiveness, bringing in local workers and volunteers in a bottom-up process. The DC government has the responsibility of protecting its residents as soon as possible, especially its children and women of childbearing age, against exposure to lead in water. The Council should act to fund this protection, but immediate action is urgently needed.

Therefore, given that [a] large number of serious or long-term human health disabilities in the District of Columbia” results from lead exposure, particularly in children, as cited by the DC Department of Energy & Environment, the Council and members of the public should demand that our Mayor immediately declare a public health emergency. Upon issuing this order, the Mayor should immediately act to implement funding, tapping into the DOEE budget for childhood lead poisoning prevention and if necessary by shifting funds from lead mitigation that is locally controlled to immediate provision of free lead water filters (with appropriate outreach and education) to households with children. In addition to the negative health impacts of child poverty, the link between child poverty and criminal behavior is well established. Violence itself should be seen as a public health crisis, and child poverty in DC should also be recognized by our Mayor as an ongoing Public Health Emergency, until it is eliminated.

​​Finally, as we challenge the neoliberal trickle-down agenda of our local government with “more socialism, less capitalism”, we should recognize the big impacts of the struggles around the DC budget with regard to advancing the interests and political power of our working class majority. We should all become “poverty abolitionists” following the lead of  Ambrose Lane Jr., Chair of the Health Alliance Network. In this regard, readers should check out the agendas of the Fair Budget Coalition and Just Recovery DC.

David Schwartzman is Chair of the DC Statehood Green Party’s Political Policy and Action Committee; and is also the party’s representative to the Fair Budget Coalition, a member of ONE DC, Empower DC, Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America. Professor Emeritus, Howard University, dschwartzman@gmail.com

1     Child poverty rates published by the USDA for 2021. DC’s child poverty rate was 25.5%, within uncertainty with Louisiana and Mississippi. At this poverty rate, nearly 30,000 children receiving TANF are below the poverty line.

Other measure demonstrate inequality in DC, such as data compiled by Statista: Gini coefficient as a measure for household income distribution inequality in the United States 2022, by state: Puerto Rico: 0.55; New York: 0.52; DC: 0.51; and Connecticut, Massachusetts and California: 0.50.

2     Deaths per live death per ward measured in 2019: Ward 4: 3.6; Ward 6: 5.2; Ward 7: 9.1; Ward 8: 9.3. Data provided by DC Health Matters.

Additional note that in 2016 DC had the highest life expectancy gap between white and Black residents than any state in the nation. Source of data: Roberts et al. 2020. "The Black-White Life Expectancy Gap In Washington D.C." Scientific Reports 10:13416. The data is based on non-Hispanic white and Black residents; Theresa Andrasfay and Noreen Goldman. 2021. Reductions in 2020 US life expectancy due to COVID- 19 and the disproportionate impact on the Black and Latino populations PNAS; Amy Maxmen, 2021. "Inequality’s Deadly Toll", Nature 592: 674-680.

3     See data from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report, "Increases in TANF Cash Benefit Levels Are Critical to Help Families Meet Rising Costs." Available at link.

Note that, according to a 2023 DC FPI report "poverty in D.C. declined in 2022 to 13.3 percent from 16.5 percent the year prior, according to new data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). This improvement likely reflects a combination of factors including the overall decline in unemployment, a growing minimum wage, and federal and local investments in response to the COVID-19 crisis." In addition, “child poverty declined by nearly seven percentage points but remained high at 16.8 percent.” But that’s not the only way to measure poverty. “ACS uses the official poverty measure (OPM) to determine the poverty rate, which experts generally agree is an outdated method for measuring hardship in the United States. The OPM compares pre-tax cash income, including income from earnings, unemployment insurance, and cash-based public assistance, against a threshold that is set at three times the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963 and adjusted for family size,” the report reads. But, “the OPM does not take into account other vital supports that individuals and families in the District may receive, such as the Child Tax Credit or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, nor does it account for the substantial variation in cost of living by geography.”  

It is important to recognize that the national poverty rate went up sharply in 2022 as measured by the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which includes tax credits and non-cash benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in calculating income, and that the expanded federal Child Tax Credit terminated at the end of 2021.

 However, it is likely that in 2023 the DC poverty rate increased because of the decrease in other budget investments for low-income residents. Thus, this blog post from DCFPI concludes “The District made progress on poverty through higher wages at the bottom, improvements in employment, and major public investments in DC’s residents and communities in 2021 and 2022. This progress demonstrates that the District can’t pull back from continued, intentional efforts to eliminate economic hardship and even deeper focus on undoing longstanding racial inequity.”

4     From "Child poverty is not just a moral failure, it's a policy choice," published April 28, 2022 in Baltimore Sun. Additional sources could be found as published in a report titled "Violence as a Public Health Crisis," in the American Medical Association's Journal of Ethics in 2018.

    From the Executive Summary of an Urban Institute report published in 2022: “In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, four community-based organizations launched THRIVE East of the River to provide direct cash payments and other assistance to people living in Ward 8 neighborhoods of Washington, DC. THRIVE provided emergency relief between July 2020 and January 2022 to 590 households living east of the Anacostia River, where residents faced disproportionately negative economic impacts of the pandemic. The THRIVE partnership sought to alleviate crisis, stabilize families, and foster mobility during the pandemic and recovery. Its centerpiece was a cash transfer of $5,500 to enrolled households. The payments were unconditional, meaning no strings were attached to how recipients could use them. THRIVE delivered them in one lump sum or in five monthly payments of approximately $1,100 each. Enrolled households also received weekly groceries and assistance securing other resources, such as pandemic stimulus payments, unemployment insurance, financial literacy training, mental health support, and, upon request, workforce training.”

    Assuming income support for 30,000 children is needed and a family of three (two children), a DC CTC to achieve 125% FPL/family ($31,075) would require $466 million/year, not including the reduction from the present $2,000/child federal CTC that these families may receive. TANF now amounts to roughly $125 million/year in income support, from both federal and DC sources.

7     Latest IRS data (2020): Taxable income of residents with AGI over $1 million was $8.6 billion, those over $200K: $19.8 billion, an increase from $17.3 billion in 2018. DC: top 1% income bracket of families paid 10.3% (ITEP), California (ITEP Who Pays? 2018): top 1% paid 12.4% of family income as taxes.

8     See the DC Guaranteed Income Coalition, https://dcgicoalition.org. A very modest pilot program has been relaunched but its income enhancement still falls below the FPL, as reported in Street Sense.

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