Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Case for Upward Mobility

They say as you get older, you become more fiscally conservative; that by the age of 30 you should be slightly right of center. Perhaps that has something to do with most people becoming homeowners at that age. Once you're paying a mortgage, you likely start caring how much your property taxes are, the rising cost of living, etc. I find this assumption to be mostly true; since becoming a homeowner, I've found that many of my previously held liberal beliefs challenged my own personal prosperity, namely, the functional properties of the local government and economy. It's led me to one conclusion: DC must get out of the poor-people business.

DC's public assistance systems are in desperate need of reform. Sure, DC is fighting rising health care costs and budget cuts like everywhere else, but instead of doing the real work of reforming a broken system, the DC Council & the Mayor would rather make superficial cuts to emergency services like police and Fire/EMS. Meanwhile, the full-circle subsidization of low or no-income residents is hemorrhaging our local economy.

There is a huge push-back from the left when the culture of poverty theory is introduced; i.e. the belief that poor people are poor as a result of poor values and poor choices. True, using the culture of poverty theory to explain poor people's plight is about as reliable as saying every rich person is a saint. Money does not dictate values, however, this theory is not entirely false. There are some people, who either by ignorance or sheer defiance, just won't get it together. There is also a mentality that exists in lower-income communities that looks down upon education, mimics the "hip hop" lifestyle, and indulges in hyper-consumerism without regard for financial responsibility. This is not to say that everyone in lower-income communities has this mentality but it does exist. It is perpetuated by society, by the images we see of people of color on TV, the value we place on education and family, and the government and its public assistance programs.

Here are some examples of what my partner and I see every day:

When I come home from work, the same guys that were standing out in the street when I left are still there, loitering, smoking weed, drinking, throwing trash on the ground, talking loud all hours of the night, and this month, shooting off fireworks. There is a porch on nearly every house on our block. Do you think they're on it? Nope, they're just in the street, blocking traffic, or leaning on one of their cars that's double parked.

One of our neighbors is outside cutting his grass and the neighbor's grass, his grown son, who lives with him, is pitched on top his car, free-styling and drinking beer.

I had fallen asleep in the living room the other night; I got up to go to bed around 1:35 AM. I could hear children outside playing.

My partner,a police officer, has gotten several calls to people's houses where they've had a PS3, an Xbox, and a big screen TV, but no one works, there's no kitchen table, the kids' beds are makeshift or altogether nonexistent. Oh but everyone has a brand new pair of Jordans.

These cases are not infrequently witnessed, nor are they solely the product of one faction or another. These are the cases, however, the welfare system perpetuates; the onus falls upon both the recipients and the subsidizers.

So how does one begin to tackle this very sensitive issue? Last year, Former Mayor Marion Barry proposed a bill to impose a strict five-year time limit on welfare benefits in the District of Columbia. Here's a little background from The Cato Institute: "The 1998 federal welfare-reform law imposed such a time limit nationwide. But it allows states to use local funds to continue to provide benefits after recipients hit the federal limit. The District of Columbia was one of the few jurisdictions that chose to do so. It is estimated that as many as 40 percent of D.C. residents who receive welfare do so for longer than five years, nearly a third for more than eight years. The bill would cut off not just cash payments under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, but also child care, housing subsidies, and other benefits paid for with city funds."

As a DC resident, who is gainfully employed, and pays taxes, I am in favor of this bill. I know it's long since been tabled, but it should be put back in play, along with comprehensive improvements in infrastructure in poor communities. Welfare was never meant to be a long-term option. I'm no Marion Barry fan, by any stretch of the imagination, but what he says here is correct, "[Welfare promotes] a cycle of generational poverty, government dependency, and economic disparity." What we need to do is use the money the district has more wisely by reforming the welfare system and requiring a lot more accountability.

Here are some other statistics found in a report prepared by The Urban Institute for the DC Office of Planning. These numbers reflect 2009 American Community Survey data:

- 19% of DC residents receive food stamps, that's roughly 114,000 people. The
majority of food stamp recipients reside in Wards 5-8.
- 8% of DC residents receive TANF or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families,
that's roughly 50,000 people.
- In 2006, the number of housing voucher recipients stood at 11,400. The average
increase has been 20-25% every two years, which would make 2008 numbers around
14,250 people or more.
- The number of residents receiving SSDI or disability according to SSA FY Claim
Data is 25,239.

None of these subsidies are taxed or properly regulated. As a result, 6% of DC residents pay 60% of the taxes.

This article's purpose is not to declare war on the poor, quite the opposite actually; its purpose is to facilitate discussion and propose new ideas toward improving the economic prosperity of the district in a way that services everyone and not just its top earners.

This is the land of the free, but just like I don't believe in corporate handouts/bailouts without accountability, I don't believe we should subsidize every portion of someone's life, then incentivize them to stay in the program without accountability or structure, which is what the welfare system in DC does.

Public assistance should have one goal; it should be an economic AAA if you will. When you have a flat tire, AAA comes out and changes your tire, then they leave and you go on your merry way. That's it. If AAA only put air in the flat tire instead of changing it, your tire would be flat again very soon, which means AAA would be right back out to refill it with more air. How is this efficient or sustainable?

There are no easy fixes to the welfare problem, but there are first steps. Accountability is the best road to build upon. That starts with investing in job training, family planning, and financial prosperity education. DC gives thousands, if not millions, in grant money. Why not link these grants to programs that teach these courses, then require participation from aid recipients? The money is already there and so is the business interest. Set limits on the grant programs that require strict bookkeeping and a cap in personnel salaries so the majority of the grant money goes to servicing the people who need it.

If you are receiving any combination of public assistance, you should be required to attend job training, family planning, and financial education courses, coupled with remedial literacy should it be deemed necessary. Failure to attend and complete the courses should result in a termination of eligibility. DC should also offer nutrition education as a part of the family planning curriculum. Completion of the curriculum should be coupled with a job placement program.

The welfare rules should be changed to promote two-parent homes, not doing so further exacerbates problems like income inequality and gang activity. There should also be a cut off procedure for perceived abuse of the system. Let's be honest, there are some "check babies" running around.

As controversial as it sounds, drug testing should be required for people who receive public assistance. If someone tests positive, they should be required to attend an outpatient drug rehabilitation or counseling program. If they test positive three times, they should be deemed ineligible. This may sound harsh, but the way I see it, if I have to take a piss test to get my government job, they should have to take one to get their government money.

The restrictions on disability need to be tightened. Unless you are a vegetable, you need to go to work. If you can't read, we'll teach you to read, and then you need to go to work. If you're untrained, we'll train you, but then you need to go to work. No one is mandating hard labor, but you can sit behind a desk. The AbilityOne Program is the largest source of employment for people with disabilities, by providing products and services for the Federal government. I can assure you this is not the only company out there; the agency needs to do a better job of steering people to these companies before issuing an aid amount.

The housing projects are also a hindrance to progress. In the same way an economy thrives where there is an even stratification of wealth, so too will a neighborhood thrive. The affordable dwelling unit initiative should be expanded in lieu of consolidating and confining one socio-economic class to one area. This may sound like forced gentrification, a word that has become the cultural black sheep in DC, but gentrification is not all that bad economically. In fact, a thesis from the Georgetown Graduate School of Arts & Sciences stated, "More recently, several studies have shown that gentrification does not harm the original residents of a neighborhood and, in fact, might improve their economic well-being." Plus, diverse neighborhoods mean higher home values, increased chances of educational attainment, and overall well being.

Small businesses and local commerce should be emphasized in neighborhoods to promote community "centricity"; a family that can walk to the park, the grocery store, or to schools are more likely to interact with their neighbors, participate in community events, and have improved economic outcomes.

Outside of direct assistance initiatives, more emphasis should be placed on fixing DC public schools. Education is the one people-powered infrastructure that we can never have too much of. Private education is great but education should not be privatized completely. A collaborative plan to improve public schools coupled with vouchers/lotteries for private/charter schools will ensure that educational attainment will be available in the short term, and will expand in the long term.

Health services and clinics should also continue; people who are unhealthy can't come to work.

These are just some thoughts, I don't intend them to be the panacea of combating this multidimensional problem. But something must be done; we cannot continue funding a failing program without restraint. It will stunt DC's economic growth and ultimately hinder prosperity. Welfare should always be a practice of equipping people with the tools to prosper on their own; a public investment, not a public payout. So let's start a discussion on how this national problem can be solved on a local level.

1 comment:

Pondering said...

First bravo! Well thought out article with great points. Secondly, I would recommend that everyone on the DC council read this, it'll give them some perspective.
I agree with the majority of the points stated, but I also feel that there is a battle in the predominantly black/poor communities where some folks feel entitled to welfare benefits. People don't want to work or be productive because the government is/will take care of them. Its become a generational thing and is somewhat en-grained.
How do you change people's mentality? How do you instill pride in hard work and educational attainment? These are some of the other issues that plague poor black communities that have to be addressed also.