Over the past few years, and particularly during the pandemic, D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) has espoused a desire to address the racial wealth gap in the District and what has been described as the underlying causes of displacement.
McDuffie’s latest attempt has manifested in the introduction of legislation based on a “baby bonds” program piloted in the United Kingdom and heralded by onetime presidential candidate Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey).
If it passes, this bill, titled the “Child Wealth Building Act,” would create a government-subsidized trust fund for District-born babies to eventually be used for the pursuit of a college education, business venture, property ownership or financial investments.
“I made a request to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) to fund the initial cost of this program to the tune of $20 million which I think is a fraction of the costs of not making investments directly in the children of D.C.,” McDuffie told The Informer just days after introducing the Child Wealth Building Act.
Under this act, babies born in the District would be automatically enrolled into a program through which their trust fund would receive an initial deposit of $1,000 followed by annual payments of no more than $2,000, depending on household income. Those qualifying for the program would have to come from households whose income doesn’t exceed five times the federal poverty level.
In the course of shaping this legislation, McDuffie’s office consulted Darrick Hamilton, one of two economists who more than a decade ago heralded baby bonds as a means of closing the racial wealth gap in the U.S. He said that the passage of the bill would position the District as an exemplar jurisdiction in the fight against institutionalized racism.
“What we’re up against is structural and systemic,” McDuffie said.
“The harm started well before anybody [in] government today [got here] but it’s going to take big, bold ideas like the baby bonds bill to begin to chip away at the vestiges of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and government-sanctioned policies like redlining that have prevented people of color and Black people in particular from accessing opportunities to generate wealth.”
Addressing Structural Racism
In February, McDuffie sent Bowser a letter with budget requests totaling in the hundreds of millions for displacement prevention and the acquisition of the Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Northwest for its conversion to a workforce development permanent supportive housing site.
Other funding requests centered on investments addressing the lack of homeownership opportunities for D.C. residents and the economic challenges faced by legacy business owners.
In years past, D.C. residents and organizations have espoused goals similar to McDuffie’s in addressing the remnants of chattel slavery and Jim Crow through other means. For instance, a measure that the United States Citizens Recovery Initiative Alliance (USCRIA) attempted to place on the 2020 ballot would’ve provided District residents who descended from enslaved Africans with more than 200 years of tax abatements and payments of lost wages.
Last June, the D.C. Board of Elections prevented that measure’s appearance, much to the chagrin of USCRIA members. USCRIA leadership didn’t respond to The Informer’s request for comment on the Child Wealth Building Act
Addressing the Here and Now
The pandemic, which has raged on for more than a year, has exacerbated the economic issues plaguing D.C. residents. Data from the D.C. Policy Center showed that following Mayor Bowser’s public health emergency declaration, unemployment rose by more than 11 percentage points. In Southeast, that figure rose by 20 percentage points.
Black and Latino residents took on the fair share of the struggle which often included a dearth of technological resources. During that time, grassroots organizations have coalesced around bridging that resource gap through what has been called Mutual Aid – a mechanism where people depend on one another for help and not the government.
Maurice Cook, founder and program director for Serve Your City, has been a familiar in the Ward 6 cohort of that movement.
While he supported the idea of a baby bonds program, Cook questioned its effectiveness at a time when the District’s cost of living has shown no signs of slowing down. He likened the legislation to a second coming of the DC College Access Program – something he said will ultimately benefit white families, and not struggling Black families.
“It won’t address the scarcity of what just occurred. If we’re talking about a benefit that will come 18 years from now, how many people will be eligible for that?” Cook said.
“I would like someone to see how many Black people will be able to afford to live here in 18 years,” he added. “What would it take [to get] Black people to stay here so they could benefit? I would like to see how we take care of families now.”