To no one’s surprise, poverty is not spread evenly throughout the District of Columbia. Only six percent of the District’s white residents live in poverty. For Hispanics, the rate is 23% and for African-American District residents it’s 39%.
The most important statistic in all of the poverty debate is this one: according to Dr. Harry Holzer of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, of the 88,773 people over the age of 16 living in poverty in DC, only 1.9% had a full-time job at some point throughout the year, while 64% did not work at all.
The District doesn’t have a “poverty” problem, per se. It has an unemployment and underemployment problem, of which poverty is a symptom.
The elusive “solution” to poverty is actually pretty obvious: work — meaningful, decent, and full-time work to be sure, but work itself is how poverty ends.
Our public discourse tends to trend towards who’s to blame for the existing state of affairs, but the causes are many, varied and ultimately irrelevant. The only thing that matters is how it gets fixed.
Our answer comes in three parts that are not a mystery:
1) The District’s economy contracted by 0.5% in each of the last two years. Should that trend continue, you have a prescription for disaster. The number one task of the new administration, and the thing that most requires their attention is implementing a policy framework that permits the private sector to grow faster. This can and should be fixed in the short-term. Improvements in tax policy, regulatory policy, more flexible labor laws and even the facilitation of the birth of new industries are within reach. Aggressive moves in each area are required to jump-start the creation of jobs at all skill levels.
2) Too many District residents lack the skills required to acquire and maintain a full-time, middle-skill, middle-wage job. This is a medium-term project, but the best tool we have for transmitting the skills that District residents need to command a middle-class job is our long neglected workforce development system. It is frankly the best anti-poverty tool we have.
Some improvements in the system have been made over the last four years, but we need to move farther, faster. Instead of complaining that the workforce is unskilled, the corporate sector needs to drive the design of, supervise, facilitate, and to some degree, fund an improved job training system. As the pace of job creation increases in the short-term it places a higher premium on residents with competitive skills.
3) As a longer-term proposition, we need a more radical reconstruction of our K-12 education system. Dating back to Mayor Fenty’s takeover of the schools and the tenure of Michelle Rhee, the energy required for dramatic improvement has been there, but the results have not. According to Ken Archer of Greater Greater Washington, if you take a closer look at the city’s test scores, you see, “stagnant or downward trajectory for black, Hispanic, low-income, English language learner, and special education students in the last five years.”
This is a recipe for the perpetuation of inter-generational poverty. Until the city grapples with this reality and commits to more drastic action, the long-term trajectory of poverty will not change. By the time a faster growing economy is producing more jobs,and an improved workforce system is producing higher-skilled District residents, we must graduate 100% of our high school students and they must be ready for post-secondary training/education and a productive career.
Throwing more money at a broken system is the definition of insanity. We need a fundamental shift in the way we approach poverty. Work, work-readiness and work supports represent the future of our anti-poverty efforts.