DC Mayor Muriel Bowser released her FY18 proposed budget earlier this month. Given the complexity of a $13.8 billion budget that must provide for the safety and wellbeing of 680,000 residents and almost 500,000 daily commuters, it is understandable that the focus has been on just a few key line items.
But, just like a family budget, the District’s budget isn’t only a laundry list of income and expenses. It is a series of interlocking investments. Whether it is an effective budget doesn’t depend on whether a few exciting initiatives are funded, but whether the expenditures work together.
The Mayor could fund the best pothole eradication program in the country, but if she doesn’t also fund traffic light maintenance and operations, then beautiful, paved streets would be unpassable.
When it comes to low-income children, the need to consider the entire budget is even more critical. Children are dependent on their families – and as DC has become more and more expensive, low-income children’s families do not have the financial resources to buy the basics: safe housing, bus fare, nutritious food and medical care.
With nearly one in five DC residents living in poverty, the city’s financial health and its future successes rise and fall on whether the budget includes the programs and plans needed to help lift these families out of poverty. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute reported last year that DC’s persistent income inequality is wider than that of most U.S. cities – a sign that “DC’s economy is not working for many and that development, which is pushing up housing costs, is leaving collateral damage in its wake.”
Simply put, “safety net” is an apt metaphor for a reason: The supportive fibers are woven together to keep a child from falling through.
But a safety net won’t be enough to help children partake in the city’s prosperity, which the Mayor describes as inclusive prosperity. To include low-income children, we need more than a loosely woven safety net. We need the strands woven tightly together with the strength of a trampoline so that children can bounce high.
The Mayor included some essential “fibers” in her budget; they are critical to protecting children and weaving an effective safety net. She made a terrific, overdue move by ending the rigid 60-month time limit on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Unlike most states, DC law ends this aid to very low-income families after five years, no matter a family’s circumstances or how great their need. Some 10,000 DC children will lose their TANF payments this fall if lawmakers don’t change this policy and, since most families receiving TANF get no housing assistance, many would be at risk for homelessness, hardship and destabilized lives.
Mayor Bowser’s plan also includes the funding necessary to give infants and toddlers with mild developmental delays the early intervention services they need to catch up to their typically developing peers and start kindergarten ready to learn. More than 1,000 infants and toddlers a year will benefit from this program.
But these are just two strands in the safety net.
Without safe, stable housing, an infant whose developmental delays are addressed by the early intervention program is still at risk of impaired brain development caused by the chaos and toxic stress of homelessness. The Mayor’s budget provides no new rental assistance to move families off housing wait lists or make newly built affordable housing projects accessible to the poorest families. It provides less than half of the first-year cost of a five-year plan to address youth homelessness. That was a bitter disappointment.
Similarly, a young adult who has aged out of foster care can enroll in a well-funded GED or job training program to set her on the path to employment, but recent surveys show that the inability to pay for bus fare is preventing many adult learners from accessing this critical step toward independence. $2 million to extend the free transportation benefit that schoolchildren enjoy to adult learners ages 18 – 24 is the fix suggested by the Deputy Mayor for Education. Yet the Mayor chose not to fund it. With Metro anticipating steep fare hikes, even more adult learners are sure to be left behind.
Luckily, the District’s economy is thriving. We have increased revenues that could close the holes in our safety net. Unfortunately, the Mayor chose to forfeit $100 million to tax cuts, including some that would benefit wealthy individuals and reduce our business tax below that of Virginia and Maryland.
Budgets reflect priorities. The Mayor talks of #DCValues. But this budget fails to maintain the safety net that should protect our most vulnerable children.
True inclusive prosperity requires more than catching children as they fall. Our most vulnerable children need the bounce created by a trampoline woven from strong, interlocking programs, plans and supports.