Nurtured in Politics: Growing Up in Washington, DC

Unless one is living under a rock, or is a millennial that didn’t grow up in Washington, DC, most are aware and saddened by the passing of longtime news anchor Jim Vance. Reflecting on how much he and co-anchor Doreen Genzler were furniture in memories of my youth in DC also here prompted more bittersweet thoughts about this great city.

Since becoming a mother, I am increasingly more prideful about being a Washingtonian. Given the many challenges I’ve faced in efforts to gain access to a better quality care for my children at school, in the community and at home, this statement would seem contradictory. Also, given the chaotic political climate in the Federal government with the majority Senate vote today on a key motion to open discussion on moving forward with repealing the Affordable Care Act and other critical issues that’s all happening right here in DC.  Due to this, I receive many calls of concern from family, friends and loved ones living outside of this area wondering how I cope with being in such an intense and critical time.  Despite all of these factors, my DC pride has kicked up and here’s why.

Beneath the surface of all the real stress and tension in DC right now is an extraordinary history that’s at once both local and global – a history well captured by great journalists such as Jim Vance. The people of DC, those that I’ve come to know and love as native Washingtonians, with roots in this city going back generations, there is a unique pride and articulation of black identity that’s very familiar and communal like a small town; and at the same time, flavored with big city ambition and sophistication.  And as an immigrant African growing up here, I’ve had the vantage point of being both an insider and outsider to the “real DC” culture.

Birthing and raising children here, joining the ranks as a multi-generational Washingtonian, has also allowed for a new perspective on my local identity.  I think, politically, another factor contributing to my increased DC pride also comes as a response, a resistance to the changing landscape of the city largely due to urban renewal, otherwise known as gentrification.  In the past twenty (20) years, I have watched family and friends move out of DC, with the majority moving just next door to either Maryland or Virginia.

At the same time, I read of lot of articles – one of which was on the widening wealth gap in the city that was recently reported by the Washington Post, citing an Urban Institute study called the “Color of Wealth in the Nation’s Capital”. The study found that between 2013 and 2014, white households in the DC area had a net worth (value of assets minus debt) of $284,000 while black households had a net worth of $3,500, the report said – in other words, the average white household has a net worth 81 times that of the average black household in Washington, DC. Hispanics had a net worth of $13,000, East Asian Indians a net worth of $573,000, Koreans at $496,000 and Chinese at $220,000.  The study doesn’t mention or distinguish the immigrant black populations from the traditional African American demographic.

An Urban Institute study also notes that the black population in DC stands at 48%, down since the 2007 recession from 70% in the 1970s.  The study also finds that black unemployment in DC is higher than the national average, despite the high rate of employment in the public sector in DC.  Most critically, the report cites that, “the typical black household in DC has only $2,100 in liquid assets – resources they can quickly convert into cash when faced with an emergency. Whites, in contrast, have $65,000 in liquid assets.” Another article in The Atlantic notes that more than any other racial group in DC, blacks have a much higher unemployment rate, lower education rates and more likely to receive a subprime loan. Ironically, black people in Washington, DC are economically doing better than most blacks in other cities in the United States, ranking as the 3rd most economically beneficial cities for African Americans in 2015 by Forbes.

“…the typical black household in DC has only $2,100 in liquid assets – resources they can quickly convert into cash when faced with an emergency. Whites, in contract, have $65,000 in liquid assets.”

The reality of a widening wealth gap and displacement has a negative impact on access to a quality of life for individuals with disabilities; and for parents raising children with disabilities, the economic reality in the US is dismal.  Here are some quick facts:

  • The Children’s Defense Fund finds that 16% of low-income families (families earning less than 200% of poverty) have a child with a disability; 9% have a child with a severe disability. This is nearly 50% higher than the rate among higher-income families. The percentage is particularly high among welfare families -20% of these families have a child with a disability, including 13% where a child has a severe disability.

 

  • According to the 2000 US Census, among families with one or more members with a disability, the poverty rate was 12.8% – higher than the 9.2% for all families and 7.7% for families without members with a disability.

 

  • The same 2000 US Census noted that families with a female household (totaling 12.5 million families) with no husband present were more likely than other types of families to report having members with a disability. 34.8% of these families reported one or more member with a disability, compared with 27.3% among the 55.5 million married-couple families and 31.6% among the 4.3 million families with a male household with no wife present. Divorce following the birth of a child with a severe disability has been cited as the primary factor leading to a single-mother headed household for families with children with disabilities.

 

A recent report called “A Broken Foundation:  Affordable Housing Crisis Threatens DC’s Lowest-Income Residents” by Claire Zippel of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute notes, “A typical extremely low-income renter in need of affordable housing is a working mother raising two children, a person with a disability relying on a fixed income, or a childless adult in a low-wage job.” Imagine the intersection between both a working mother raising children with disabilities or a childless adult that has a disability. The economic outcome is dismal and this perverse real life remake of Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest is unbelievable and unacceptable. It is only through city leadership that understands the layers of these problems and has the commitment to resolve these issues will we see real solutions to these sorts of problems. But as it stands, while I love DC, it doesn’t seem to love me or anyone that fits into my kind of vulnerability or even much a worse economic position.

I keep reading reports of that new arrivals to DC are  now leaving because of how expensive the city is, and while this is important to learn, these reports don’t reflect what would be the original sin of this crime.  Looking at the many families of children with disabilities that ascended this week to observe the Senate vote against our interests, because DC is not a state and we are bearing our own cross in this fight, it is impossible to be a formidable ally to others around the country that could benefit from our proximity. If we weren’t riddled with the extraordinary economic stress in raising our children here in DC, with constant fear of losing benefits should we be forced to relocate, we might be more able to join forces and better play our position as DC residents.  And at a point, we were strong allies for many liberation efforts, from the March on Washington to the Anti-apartheid movement, DC has been a hub for black civil and human rights, with Howard University playing a critical role the black studies movement – a higher education movement for education reform calling on universities to academically invest in research areas.

To know DC, the real DC, is to love it. And to know it, one would have to see  DC the way I’ve seen it transform to really feel the pain in my heart when observing what is happening and the distance from the history behind it. And while I remain deeply committed to improving the educational outcomes for children with disabilities in DC public and public charter schools, I can’t help but wonder if I’m cleaning up my home so its more livable or if I’m working as its maid or nanny – only working to benefit a demographic that won’t include me because I too cannot afford to live in this city I love much longer.

 

In solidarity,

Chioma