By: Petula Dvorak
May 11, 2010
To fifth-graders, the solution to poverty is pretty obvious.
The fifth-graders at Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Southeast Washington are studying poverty, a familiar subject to them because they live in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
They all have stories about homeless guys spitting on their dad's window, panhandlers asking for money at the corner store every day or someone living on their couch, because their family was the only one available to help a down-and-out cousin.
In Washington, 32 percent of children live in poverty. The national average is 18 percent.
It's really interesting to hear kids who are growing up in Ward 8 talk about poverty and their ideas to reverse the scary rate at which the city's families are plummeting off the edge.
"What about if we grow food in a garden, so people have something to eat?" one girl asked.
"Or we're thinking of holding a dance. And you hafta pay $5 to get in, or maybe just bring in some food," another suggested.
Saquan Jackson, 11, handed me a petition he took to church. It read: "Hunger effects lots of people in D.C. Many people have homes and jobs but they are still hungry. We, the undersigned, are concerned students and citizens who urge our leaders to write laws that help keep people from hunger."
Twenty-eight people signed.
I asked the guy running the Poverty Project why in the world this project needs to be here, where unemployment is among the nation's highest, at 28.3 percent.
"Why not, like, Georgetown or something, where kids don't really see poverty every day?" I asked him.
"In this case, we are talking about empowering the kids," said John Fornof, who is helping run the project.
The class, which is run by Communities in Schools of the Nation's Capital, is not poverty tourism.
The kids have been writing letters to their council member, Marion Barry (D), and to The Washington Post. They have long talks about the things they can do to help their needy neighbors.
For them, it's difficult to imagine how it's possible that the same city can have 3.2 percent unemployment in one part of town, Ward 3, and the record unemployment in their neighborhood.
New recreation centers, revamped libraries and road repair? The students wondered how all that is possible when people in their own neighborhood don't have food.
Adults were asking the very same questions at a rally outside the Wilson Building last week, the day after I tried to explain to 11-year-olds how government's priorities are set.
"Save Our Safety Net" was the theme of the demonstration, which featured several council members wearing red capes emblazoned with "S.O.S."
It's budget season in the city, and this year more than most, there are tough decisions to make. "This proposed budget really does cut the working poor," said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), one of the caped crusaders.
Foster parents, grandparents, families who lost their homes, working mothers who rely on subsidized child care and unemployed folks looking for job training will all lose in the latest round of budget cuts.
The long-struggling D.C. Child and Family Services Agency took a huge hit, with about 100 workers laid off. These are the people who had a tough time keeping up with caseloads when things were good.
I remember talking to one of the doctors at Children's National Medical Center last year who said she has been stunned at the rise in hard-core child abuse cases that investigators can trace directly to financial hard times.
The guardians there to help watch over these children have just had their ranks cut dramatically.
And, like the fifth-graders at Ferebee-Hope said, that's not right.
One of the speakers at the Wilson Building rally pointed at the fancy Marriott hotel across the street from city hall. Nobody will want to stay at this nice hotel if we live in a city teeming with unemployment, hunger and despair.
The solution, of course, is for the city to find new revenue to fund the safety net. Doubling parking meter fees is one of the few solutions we've heard, but folks like Wells said they believe people who aren't devastated by the economy can do a little more.
The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute is launching a campaign to rethink the District's tax structure. It suggests taxing more services -- dog groomers, yoga classes, health club memberships, fur storage, day spa facials, dating services, art restoration experts -- to generate additional sales tax. Or raising the tax rate for high-income earners, a proposal supported by the D.C. Democratic State Committee.
It's not a perfect option, and council members said they were deluged with e-mails from people worried about taxing services. But it deserves some serious consideration. Anyone who can afford to have a facial or a summer getaway for their mink can certainly stomach a few extra dollars on that tax-free service.
Just ask the fifth-graders.