What Inequality Looks Like in Washington, D.C.
Inequality is inherited. It affects kids for life. Unequal opportunities translate into unequal lifelong outcomes by the time children reach age 5.
And the impacts of inequality are more damaging the longer it is experienced. The longer a child is poor, the greater the risk of poverty in adulthood and of experiencing lifelong health problems and involvement in the criminal justice system.
Inequality, therefore, is a welfare issue. Studies have documented examples of rising inequality decreasing child welfare. Affluence plays a role, too. The growing divide between low-income children and their peers reduces opportunities for low-income children throughout their lives.
Poor kids become poor adults, and rich kids become rich adults, with the latter inheriting both obvious and subtle benefits they never “earned.” Racial and ethnic disparities that have persisted are a consequence of that. Inequality disproportionately affects children of color in the United States.
There is perhaps no city in the U.S. where inequality between rich and poor, and between black and white, is more evident than in the District of Columbia.
Washington, D.C., has a higher level of income inequality than any state in the country, with households in the top 20% of income having 29 times more income than the bottom 20%. The bottom fifth of Washington, D.C., households earned just 2% of total D.C. income in 2016, while the top fifth had a staggering 56%.
White families in D.C. are 81 times richer than black families on average. Moreover, the effects of economic inequality persist throughout lifetimes and across generations, with the District of Columbia having among the lowest economic mobility in the nation.
With the cost of living in D.C. being 450% of the federal poverty line, the city is becoming a harder place for poorer people and families to live. Add to this growing inequality and the fact that D.C. residents don’t have voting congressional representation (i.e., they’re faced with taxation without representation), and you have a largely disenfranchised, largely black population.
In addition, Congress restricts D.C.’s ability to raise revenue. The federal government pays no taxes on the land it uses or exempts in D.C., exempts itself from payment in lieu of taxes, and imposes added requirements on public services, such as the police force. Congress exempts those who work in Washington, D.C., but live just miles away in the states of Virginia and Maryland from contributing even 5% or less of their state taxes to the district.
How to Create Intergenerational Equality in D.C.
So how can we create intergenerational equality in the district?
One surefire way is a guaranteed minimum income for children.
Social welfare policy has been around since the passage of the English Poor Law in 1601. Social programs for child well-being became official United States government policy in 1935 with the passage of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children as part of the Social Security Act of 1935.
Currently, guaranteed minimum income schemes are being implemented in nearly all European countries (except Italy, Greece, and Turkey) in order to eliminate and overcome the problems associated with poverty.
The D.C. Council considered a guaranteed minimum income for its residents in 2018, recognizing the importance of combating such gross inequality. The Council commissioned a report by District’s Office of the Budget Director on the potential for such a program, and the report concluded that a guaranteed minimum income “could provide the District with a new, comprehensive tool to alleviate poverty in the city” and, in turn, improve child well-being, family stability, and health outcomes among the district’s residents.
However, the report cited concerns that a guaranteed minimum income for Washington, D.C., residents would hurt D.C.’s total GDP and employment and would reduce its federal funding for social welfare programs. The report ultimately recommended refining the proposal before proceeding with any legislation.
(It should be noted that the report arbitrarily limits its consideration of the economic benefits of guaranteed minimum income to increased personal spending. A more comprehensive and accurate accounting would include the savings that result from the improved health and safety of the districts’ residents, such as reduced public expenditure on medical and crime-prevention services.)
The Fair Start Guaranteed Minimum Income Solution
In light of this stark disparity between rich and poor and black and white, between federal officials and D.C. residents, Fair Start Movement believes there should be a Fair Start guaranteed minimum income program for Washington, D.C., children, funded through taxation of a specific group of residents of D.C.: The 100 wealthiest federal legislators and all D.C.-based lobbyists registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995.
As Cory Booker said in an interview about his guaranteed minimum income legislation, the American Opportunity Accounts Act (also known as “baby bonds”), in the U.S. Senate in 2019, “It would be a dramatic change in our country to have low-income people break out of generational poverty.” The bill aims to level the playing the field by giving all American children the opportunity to generate wealth.
This Fair Start Movement Fair Start Guaranteed Minimum Income proposal shrinks the wealth gap by specifically contemplating (1) household resources per capita, (2) level of access to public services such as health, education, transportation, and (3) above all, the relationship between children’s fair starts in life and their abilities to become successful, productive future citizens and taxpayers.
As D.C. license plates say, “No Taxation Without Representation.” D.C. supplements the federal government’s activities; these transient and wealthy D.C. residents should return the favor.
Constituting and Statehood
The United States Constitution was born of a revolution rooted in the belief that a group of people could constitute independent — free and equal — peoples. But for many reasons, the Constitution was never applied intergenerationally, and it was never applied to the District.
The United States, therefore, has a capital city where the citizens have no voting voice in the nation’s legislature in a world where human rights and democracy are in decline.
Like the U.N. did with the Global South, Congress should begin work to decolonize the District of Columbia. It should give D.C. residents statehood and finally allow its (mostly black) citizens a voice in a working democracy. As Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s lone nonvoting “representative” in the House of Representatives, said about the 2020 Washington, DC, Admissions Act, “Congress has two choices: It can continue to exercise undemocratic authority over the 700,000 American citizens who live in the nation’s capital, treating them, in the words of Frederick Douglass, as ‘aliens, not citizens, but subjects,’ or it can live up to the nation’s promise and ideals, end taxation without representation.”
— Alexandra Stupple