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Still Seeking Equity

Many groups and individuals have weighed in on Mayor Bowser’s FY2021 Budget, released last week. As others noted, we at Bread for the City also acknowledge the unique circumstances the DC Government faced in seeking to develop this year’s budget. (Certainly, it has been a long time since DC has seen a decline in revenue.) However, many millions remain available and how they are prioritized speaks to what city leaders value.

Is it just me, or is this year’s outrage in response to the DC budget somewhat muted? Past critiques often implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, pointed out that the Government fell way short of proposing a budget that began to reverse and undo the widespread racial and socioeconomic inequities that have embarrassingly become the most defining characteristic of the former “Chocolate City.” Let’s recall where we are today:

Though only 45% of the city’s overall population, African-Americans currently make up nearly 70% of those living in poverty in Washington, DC. Within wards 7 and 8 — DC’s two poorest wards where 82% of residents live in a food desert and have a 20-year shorter life expectancy — more than 92% of residents (and their children) are African-American. And though we know housing is only affordable when people don’t have to pay more than 30% of their income toward rent, it is also well known that DC rent is about the 3rd highest in the entire nation, and many residents of color are severely rent burdened and using more than half their income to keep a roof over their heads.

The current pandemic (where nearly 80% of DC deaths are African American) crystalizes evidence for all to see that our nation and city’s histories of systemic racism continues to leave people of color — particularly Black people — exposed to the harshest impacts of inequities. This being so, I hoped the revised DC budget would sincerely prioritize Black lives to build toward greater equity post-pandemic, and as DC continues to flourish overall.  Though I applaud the small steps that were taken (funding for new school construction, some opportunities for returning citizens to start their own business, and limited funds for microbusinesses in wards 7 and 8 specifically, for example), I cannot say overall that the prioritization of Black communities is what I truly see in the Mayor’s budget.  After all, nothing is truly a “fair shot” when it is not free from embedded institutional discrimination.

I realize that governing in the time of COVID-19 is the most difficult challenge any current (and many past) political leaders have ever encountered. But facing head on the difficulties of their time is what leaders sign up for, whether they know it or not. And in the face of “unprecedented times,” as Mayor Bowser recently described this period, DC must have a budget that reflects an unprecedented response to the inequities that don’t just disadvantage black and brown people, but quite literally kill us.   

When COVID-19 is over, too many adults and children of color in DC (and throughout the nation) will still be suffering from housing insecurity, food insecurity, exposure to environmental hazards, added stress from wealth disparity, and more. That being so, the time for political safety and superficiality are over. 

Now is the time for political courage. DC needs a Mayor, a government, and a budget that say that we are unashamedly and intentionally prioritizing the lives of residents of color because that’s where the true need is.  Black lives indeed matter, and the inequity of our past and present continuously destroy lives.

As the Mayor’s budget hashtag implies, #DCHope is needed. But I’m now and always looking for #DCAction to utterly demolish the 81 to 1 wealth gap between white and Black residents, ensure students of color are wholly prepared to excel after DCPS graduation, eliminate DC’s hyper-criminalization coupled with disproportionate incarceration among Black residents, and provide safe and sanitary housing access across the economic spectrum. This is the opportunity for this city to lead, both nationally and internationally, because innovation can come from a time of need. 

What do we value, DC?  I hope our next budget will show we truly value equity.


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