"Bread and Circuses" Don't Help Poverty in Washington, D.C.

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Friday, August 7, 2009

"Bread and Circuses" Don't Help Poverty in Washington, D.C.

August 7, 2009

It was a small article in the July 16 Washington Post, but one that betrayed that some in Congress have either given up on the poor or have decided that the poor are best left in their poverty.

On Thursday, July 16, the House of Representatives by a vote of 219 to 208 passed a wide-ranging spending bill. According to an Associated Press report, in addition to funding the Treasury Department and the White House budgets and forcing General Motors and Chrysler to restore franchise agreements with recently cut-off dealers, the bill provides $768 million to Washington, DC. It also gives the DC government permission to enact at least four policy changes that someone (presumably) believes are good for the citizens of Washington.

According to the AP report, the bill will:

...permit the D.C. government to use locally raised tax revenues to provide abortions — reversing a long-standing ban imposed by Congress. The bill also paves the way for the D.C. government to legalize medical marijuana, establish a needle exchange program for intravenous drug users to prevent the spread of HIV, and begins to phase out a school voucher program for D.C. students….

Let us begin by noting that poverty is endemic in Washington. According to Brookings Institution scholars Martha Ross and Brooke DeRenzis in their study “Reducing Poverty in Washington, DC and Rebuilding the Middle Class from Within”:

[O]ne out of every three DC residents is low-income, and many residents live in areas of concentrated poverty. More than most cities, Washington is a city of high and low incomes, with a small and declining middle class.

Thus whatever the D.C. government does, it invariably does to the poor. That is why the list of policy changes—needle exchanges, medical marijuana, taxpayer-funded abortions, and phasing out school vouchers—left me stunned at the damage it does to the poor.

I know that Washington has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the country: at least three percent and probably higher, since the figure counts only those who are tested. The March 14, 2009, Washington Post reported that this is a 22 percent increase from 2006. The trend is expected to continue. Something clearly must be done, but needle exchanges have two problems.

First, there is something disturbing about allowing fellow humans to fall into hopeless poverty and eventually death through intravenous drugs just as long as they avoid HIV/AIDS.  

Second, sharing needles is not the major driver in the spread of HIV/AIDS. It is profligate sex, something government shows no interest in taking on. Sex anytime, anywhere, with anyone appears to be sacrosanct regardless of the health hazards.

Legalizing medical marijuana has long been a strategy for the general legalization of drugs. It provides the poor safer and easier access to drugs. Whether this is out of hopelessness, ignorance, or cynicism is hard to tell.

Taxpayer-funded abortions are the final way to give the poor sex with no (apparent) consequences. Tax dollars already pay for the free distribution of condoms and other contraceptives to the poor, allowing sex but preventing poor babies. If abortion is added, it will allow public funding to kill off the children of the poor should something “go wrong.”

Meanwhile, the most important tool to escape poverty is education. But as Dan Lips and Evan Feinberg of the Heritage Foundation wrote in 2008, the D.C. public schools are among the most troubled in the nation. Even though DC spends more per student than any of the 50 states, Lips and Feinberg reported, “The 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that Washington, D.C.’s fourth and eighth graders scored lower than any other students in the entire country.” And the D.C. high school graduation rate is one of the lowest in country.

The hopes Lips and Feinberg have for poor kids in D.C. are charter schools and the voucher program that allows students to attend one of the area’s outstanding private schools—including Sidwell Friends where President Obama, who opposes vouchers, sends his daughters.

According to Lips and Feinberg, in 2007-2008 school year nearly 2000 D.C. children were attending private schools through the voucher program. And for every student who benefited, another three had applied unsuccessfully to receive the vouchers. 

The voucher program provides a far better education than the failed D.C. public schools, and there is considerable demand from the public. So the House of Representatives concludes that the program must be closed down?

If anyone in Congress is thinking about these policies regarding one of America’s most poverty-stricken cities, it must be a very twisted thought process. Why would the government simultaneously make drugs safer and more accessible, pay to kill the unborn children of the poor, and deprive the surviving children of an education that might break them out of poverty? 

Yet that is precisely what the House of Representatives has given the D.C. government permission to do—to provide the modern equivalent of “bread and circuses” while seeing to it that the poor stay that way.

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