Except for white Republicans in Congress opposed to home rule, few people outside of Washington, DC – and even some white liberals who live in the District – bother to pay much attention to Washington's local political battles.
But that changed briefly last month, when Mayor Vincent Gray and six members of the city council were arrested in high-profile protests against a Republican-driven federal budget deal that prevents the city from spending its own funds on abortions for low-income women. Congress has traditionally had authority over the Democratic-run District's budget, but rarely directly interferes in spending. “Why are we the sacrificial lamb?” Gray had asked. Progressive media outlets praised Gray for seeming to stand up to Republicans and their distorted budget priorities.
Yet Mayor Gray and much of the rest of the city council are moving on their own to make the city's disabled, youngest and neediest citizens the sacrificial lambs of the proposed new city budget, with two-thirds of the cuts targeting the poor. It's yet another troubling sign of the rightward shift of state and national Democratic Party leaders. It's a trend that can be seen everywhere, from Democratic legislators in Massachusetts voting to strip public employee unions of the right to bargain collectively to national Democrats meekly accepting GOP messaging on deficit cuts and tax breaks for the rich. Here in Washington, city services are already so strained before the proposed cuts that even families with young children seeking emergency shelter are routinely turned away, and, instead, are often given bus tokens to ride the buses all night with their toddlers and infants. As Eric Sheptock, a literally homeless homeless activist working with a donated laptop and cell phone, described a recent hearing on the crisis:
One mother cried as she explained how, that she, with her 3 children – ages five, three and less than a year old – in tow, was told by an employee of the Virginia Williams Family Intake Center that there were no shelter spaces for them and that she was given bus tokens so she could ride the city bus all night with her children in order to stay warm. Other mothers testified that they also were given bus tokens so that they could use the bus as a de facto shelter. (DC law states that, if there is no shelter space available for a homeless family with small children, then they must be put into a motel room.)
The mayor's proposed budget would essentially close down all shelters for everyone, except when the weather falls below freezing. The mayor's justification? “In some quarters, we have created a culture of dependency that does not encourage residents to take control of their lives,” he declared in a speech nonetheless proclaiming a vision of a compassionate “one city” uniting all.
Unlike the original welfare reform plans passed by President Clinton, though, these new meat-ax approaches to social services don't provide any transitional assistance. As activist Kesh Ladduwahetty with the all-volunteer DC for Democracy, a Democracy for America (DFA) affiliate, asks, “How does turning people out into the streets and eliminating child care programs help residents to take control of their lives, educate themselves and become self-reliant?”
Some council members may seek to restore a portion of the $20 million to be cut in homeless services, but they are doing relatively little to fight for $110 million in other vital services on the chopping block, including mental health and other programs for the nearly one-third of district children who are poor. Prospects for protecting these programs are even worse than in the fights over social programs at the national level, because local safety-net advocacy groups are mostly underfunded, poorly coordinated and have no media savvy, making it even easier for the mainstream media to largely ignore the devastation these cuts would cause. Journalists here focus, at best, on council members bickering over taxes. The Washington Post, for instance, doesn't even have a reporter anymore covering the social services beat.
The mayor has asked for a slight raise in taxes for those earning over $200,000, but even that is being resisted by a deadlocked city council, which claims it would discourage businesses and upscale residents. All told, his revenue-raising proposals could add about $127 million, but other ways to boost revenues by as much as $104 million more, including tax increases for the very richest and closing tax exemptions for buying out-of-state bonds, are considered by council insiders to be off the table. Yet, as one progressive, Mary Beth Tinker, a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) pediatric nurse, pointed out on May 9, 2011, in her testimony about the impact of raising taxes modestly on those earning over $100,000, an income level cutoff lower than what the mayor is asking:
For the price of a cup of coffee, you can save children's lives. That is the increased cost in taxes per week – $1.80 – that a DC resident making $125,000 would pay if their tax rate went from 8.5 percent to 9 percent.
For the price of a latte, you can retain essential services to DC's children. That is the cost in taxes per day – $3.60 – that a DC resident making $350,000 would pay if their tax rate went from 8.5 percent to 9.5%.
You can judge a society by how it treats children….
The status of children in DC is a human rights shame by any indicator: infant mortality rates, graduation rates, soaring poverty rates. Amazingly, there are now proposals that would make things even worse: cuts of over $600,000 in programs to high-risk youth, cuts to summer school and grandparents struggling to raise their grandchildren, cuts in substance abuse programs for mothers. And, to put salt on the wound, there is even a proposal to cut $2.5 million in mental health services for traumatized children.
But we do have alternatives. We can raise funds for children by reversing the tax break given to upper income earners in 1999. All for the price of a cup of coffee.
Yet, that perspective gets little attention in the media or among Democratic politicians. Plus, business groups have also opposed plans that would close some loopholes that allow companies to pay lower taxes, and theater groups have opposed a modest 6 percent sales tax on tickets.
Presumably, the extra cost of tickets would somehow deter upscale patrons from attending searing dramas about social injustice. Naturally, the $2.3 million in revenue it could generate would be wasted on sheltering homeless mothers who don't have the good taste to appreciate Strindberg revivals. The clout of the theater crowd seems well on its way to overwhelming any lobbying by liberal advocacy groups, and council staffers say the proposal to tax theater tickets is all but dead.
All these pressures make restoring vital services to the needy even less likely, especially because advocates have to overcome the myth that businesses and residents are overtaxed compared to other jurisdictions. In fact, affluent suburbanites pay higher total taxes than DC residents earning over $150,000, and the city's tax burden is the 25th lowest of major cities. Right-wing leaning reports have also ranked the District as among the least competitive places because of high taxes. But as Natwar Gandhi, the chief financial officer of the city, has observed, “In the District, almost two-thirds of businesses pay only the minimum of $100 a year. When actual business taxes paid are ranked, the District falls in the middle of the pack.”
Amazingly enough, the city population is so liberal and Democratic that a new poll by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute found that 90 percent of taxpayers earning over $100,000 favor raising taxes on the wealthy to help pay for social services. You'd be hard pressed to find that many affluent professionals supporting raised taxes outside of an Upper West Side cocktail party hosted by The New York Review of Books in honor of “The Shock Doctrine” author Naomi Klein.
Even so, DC's African-American mayor has proposed a draconian budget attacking the $330 million deficit that apparently borrows its underlying theme from Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wisconsin) GOP budget plan: balance the budget on the backs of the poor. “The similarity of our Democratic politicians with Republicans is that they put a greater emphasis on budget cuts, with the poor bearing the biggest brunt of it – and the safety net is seen as something without value. It's just seen as a cost with no value,” said Ladduwahetty. This GOP-leaning tilt has been exacerbated by the vacuum, in recent years, of a strong leadership at the White House and in the Democratic Party that would defend the importance of government and safety-net programs; instead, the ground has been ceded to Republicans on the issue of the deficit and tax cuts for the rich.
A startling two-thirds of all the $187 million in DC cuts are aimed at programs serving the most vulnerable residents of the city: the homeless, poor kids needing mental health services, working adults who need subsidized child care, the disabled and the very poorest families needing emergency cash assistance. Even before these cuts, which could throw nearly 2,400 homeless families and single adults into the street, basic services have already been so shriveled that the city's primary intake center, the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, is turning away families seeking emergency shelter, instead calling their relatives on their behalf or giving them bus tokens to ride the buses all night as a way to catch some sleep with their babies in tow.
One of those young women is Denise Gibson, a 26-year-old woman who was holding her month-old newborn in her arms when she testified in March at a hearing before DC Councilman Jim Graham, chair of the human services committee. After surviving as a ward of the state in foster care and via other arrangements until age 21, Gibson has been homeless since 2006. “I've been a nomad,” she said about her search for housing. Sometimes, she's able to stays at her mother's one-bedroom apartment, but that only allows her to sleep on the floor with her baby boy, and she soon has to leave. Most of the time, she explained, “Some nights I stay in my storage place, some nights I stay at the Greyhound like I'm waiting for a bus. Since December 2010, when I went to Virginia Williams, they told us we can't stay anywhere [in shelters] unless it's hypothermia; there's no room at the shelter. They didn't bother to find us [temporary] hotels. They just give us bus tokens and send us off.”
Earlier, officials at the intake center turned her away when she was pregnant, claiming that they couldn't help her until she was a single mother. After she gave birth, “They can't help me now that my son is here.” In his first of month of life, he virtually never slept in a regular crib or bed. Under supportive questioning by Graham, more disturbing details emerged of life for the poor in a city where, as in the White House and in Congress, located a few blocks away, austerity instead of compassion and job creation is accepted as a political fact of life. (You can see the full exchange, following testimony by blogger-activist Sheptock, here.
But Graham, at least, wasn't accepting that philosophy, and asked, “Where have you been living?” Gibson responded, “I sometimes stay in my mother's apartment building.”
“Do you go to your mother's apartment?”
“No, there's no security there [ in the building] and it's easy for us to stay there. I go to the stairwell, and I have my bags.”
The day before the hearing, Gibson stayed all night at the Greyhound station, even after begging a Virginia Williams staff member she identified as “Miss Croft” for help in finding an overnight spot for her and her baby. A stunned Graham recapped: “You went to Virginia Williams with a baby, and you've been sleeping in a stairwell and a bus station, and you spoke to Miss Croft, and there's nothing they can do?”
He furiously called in front of him the acting director of the Department of Human Services (DHS), the same agency that Mayor Gray once led, and berated her for the agency's inaction. In typical bureaucratese, the interim director, Deborah Carroll, explained, “During hypothermia season, any participant who meets the definition of homeless should get shelter. We'll have to investigate each case.” Of course, she left unspoken the reality that, if the weather is above freezing, the DHS officials feel free to ignore requests for shelter from families, let alone individuals. Eventually, after pressure from Graham, a space was found in the city's one family shelter – but it will almost certainly be closed down, except in subfreezing weather, if the mayor's budget proposal becomes law.
Gibson's dramatic case has, so far, been ignored by all major broadcast and print media outlets in the city, except for the dedicated blogging of Sheptock, who is building thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers. But his advocacy efforts don't really start until after he walks, or takes a bus, each morning to get a breakfast handout four miles away.
Sheptock has a stark, up-close perspective on the DC government's new war on the poor (as opposed to President Johnson's War on Poverty): “To make a long story short, they want to push the poor out of the city,” he said. “They don't want a place where the poor and homeless can come.”
He added, “They won't want to wait to end the culture of dependence; they just want poor people to get out of town. They're defunding affordable housing, they're decreasing housing production, they're shutting down shelters, breaking down encampments. You don't prevent homelessness, you don't cure it, you don't want to shelter them.”
As a list-ditch effort in the face of political indifference, he's starting to try to organize the homeless themselves.
Sheptock also wondered, “I don't know why Mayor Gray is so callous.” (For this story, the mayor's office declined repeated phone and emailed requests for comment.)
Yet, to today's new pro-corporate state and national Democrats, reflecting the winner-take-all political trends that have accelerated during the Obama era, “These people are seen as sort of dispensable, and don't deserve the social safety net. It's part of an increasingly conservative trend in the Democratic Party,” said Ladduwahetty.
Janelle Treibitz, the chief campaign organizer for Save Our Safety Net (SOS), adds, “We'd like council members to take a stronger stance opposing cuts.” A few council members, especially Graham, have been very outspoken, but most of the efforts to restore some cuts are being done behind closed doors with little effort to rally the public behind them. As with the early months of Obama, some DC political insiders say, progressive groups and liberal council members have been reluctant to strongly attack a brand-new, relatively liberal mayor most of them supported. Advocacy groups, including DC for Democracy and SOS, have a total of a few thousand supporters, and while they've generated hundreds of emails, they haven't been able, so far, to deluge the government with phone calls, reframe the debate or garner extensive media coverage. That could start to change next week, when SOS is organizing with its allies on Wednesday, May 18, what it is calling an “All-Hands-On-Deck-Action Day” inside the DC government's main building, the Wilson building.
But the harsh realities of the new Democratic politics remain, even in this most liberal of cities.
At a hearing on the budget this week, led by the scandal-plagued chairman of the City Council, Kwame Brown, best known for demanding a “fully loaded” $1900-a-month leased sports utility vehicle from city officials, activists challenged Brown's opposition to raising taxes, the deadlocked council's complacency and the council leadership that has ignored public opinion, which favors preserving social programs. “Some members of this Council have stated their opposition to any income tax increase. They owe the public an explanation as to why they would sooner ask a homeless person to live on the street, rather than ask our wealthiest residents to pay taxes in line with their suburban counterparts,” Ladduwahetty argued.
Even an otherwise liberal council member, Mary Cheh, a respected law professor who represents the 70 percent-plus white Ward 3, the city's richest ward, opposes raising taxes to save social services. While Cheh declined to be interviewed for this article, she posted on her web site for constituents her GOP-lite opposition to raising taxes, mixed with vague promises to find revenues elsewhere. “It is vital for our continued growth and prosperity that we shed our reputation as a high tax jurisdiction, and we have struggled very hard to do that over the past few years. Increasing the rate on incomes over $200,000 will send precisely the wrong message,” she said. “But, rather than support the income tax rate increase, I am looking at other ways to generate revenue or save money that will allow us to avoid the hike in income tax rates and restore some of the human services cuts.”
Jeremy Koulish, who chairs DC for Democracy's budget committee, directly questioned Brown and his allies on their allegiance to what used to be Democratic Party values. Noting the poll that showed an 85 percent and above approval for raising taxes, Koulish declared, “Certain politicians and a chunk of the city's establishment are not listening. Who are you listening to? Grover Norquist? The Chamber of Commerce? The Wall Street Journal editorial page? They're all powerful forces, but that goes against the concerns of the people who live here. What we're hearing from you is the kind of rhetoric we hear from Republicans.”
And, like the fate of the national budget fight, the ability of local progressive groups to effectively organize will not only determine the outcome of this one local budget, but become a symbol of what's needed to get even Democratic cities and states to serve people in need, not just corporations.