The Bowser administration has created a commission designed to study the causes and effects of poverty in the District with the goal of its eradication by 2036.
D.C. Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) conceived of a government-funded panel to study poverty a few years ago and the idea later received the support of his colleague, Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Mayor Muriel Bowser. The idea became a reality a few months ago when Gordon-Andrew Fletcher, a Ward 5 advisory neighborhood commissioner, agreed to serve as the poverty commission’s executive director.
“Council member Trayon White deserves the credit for bringing up this concept and Mayor Bowser has embraced it,” Fletcher said. “Bowser appointed me to supervise the commission which will look into ways to combat poverty in D.C. and how best to serve those who are economically vulnerable who need support and access to change their lives for the better.”
The commission publicly started its work on Dec. 14 at the SOME (So Others Might Eat) offices on Benning Road NE at its inaugural listening session. Census data reveals 15.5% of District residents live below the poverty line, a number higher than the national average of 12.8%. The largest demographic living in poverty in the city consists of females ages 25-34, followed by females 18-24 and then males 18-24. Census data also reports that Blacks overwhelmingly consist of those living in poverty in the District, followed by Whites and Latinos. Fletcher said while poverty exists throughout the District, its strongest presence exists in Wards 7 and 8.
The commission works under the aegis of D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES). Fletcher said that in his role of executive director, he reports to DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes and Bowser.
“Dr. Morris-Hughes told me when I got the appointment that she wants a policy-driven commission that will come up with legislation and recommendations to end poverty in the city,” he said. “We are planning on having a 19-member commission with people from across the city. What will be unique about the commission here in D.C. is that we are actively seeking people to serve on the commission who have lived in poverty. Poverty commissions in other cities tend to have just agency heads.”
Fletcher said he is accepting applications for commission positions. On the commission, there will be eight ward representatives who have had personal experience with poverty within the previous three years and 11 members who possess experience in public policy or in addressing poverty in the community or with a non-profit. He said residents who are interested in serving must be 18 or older and reside in the District.
The main goal of the commission will be to facilitate the writing of a poverty reduction plan that will be submitted to the mayor and the D.C. Council. Fletcher said the report should be complete by early 2025 at the latest. After the report’s submission, the commission will go out of business unless it receives an extension by the administration or the council.
He added each ward will have a listening session on poverty, even those wards where wealthier residents tend to live.
“I want everyone to have a chance to be a part of this process,” he said.
Fletcher said Bowser’s goals are to significantly reduce poverty in the city by 2026 and to eliminate it altogether by 2036.
“These are bold goals but this administration thinks boldly,” he said. “The mayor wants to make sure all Washingtonians have a path to the middle class.”
The First Listening Session
Twenty-five people attended the first listening session at SOME’s Ward 7 offices. Throughout the session, the predominantly Black participants talked about how difficult getting assistance from District agencies can be.
“It takes so long for the bureaucracy to respond,” said Kevin McLaurin, a resident of Ward 8. “I have tried to apply for positions with the District government since the start of the pandemic and I have been unsuccessful. It seems like I get the run-around. I am having to deal with this while trying to raise a small child that isn’t even my own. The child has been abandoned and I am trying to raise her.”
McLaurin’s complaints about the District’s bureaucracy were echoed by participants who said they could not solve their problems with housing, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and in the school system due to inaction or being ignored by government workers. However, Daryl Wright, the vice president of emergency services for SOME, said his agency can help people who are seeking aid.
“Let us know what your problem is and I can call someone to help you,” Wright said. “You don’t have to do this alone. We offer help for people in a lot of areas but what we find is that people just don’t know where to go.”
At the end of the two-hour meeting, Fletcher agreed with Wright, saying people who are impoverished tend not to understand how to get government assistance. He also said there will be a listening session in Ward 8 and Ward 5 in early 2023.