Joan Greve 1

Joan E Greve

'Going to bed hungry': the harrowing reality of poor children living in Washington DC

New study shows kids in District of Columbia are the most underprivileged in the country, facing daily threats of homelessness and food insecurity

By Joan E Greve in Washington

A common refrain in America’s capital city goes something like this: there’s Washington, and then there’s DC. Washington is where Congress passes bills, tourists visit the White House and Donald Trump stars in a daily political soap opera.

But DC – the District of Columbia, in which the city sits – is where more than 700,000 people live. People go to work, families share meals and children go to school. And many of those children, living just a few miles from the US Capitol, are facing the daily threat of homelessness and food insecurity.

According to a new WalletHub study, children in the district are the most underprivileged in the country. The study – which looked at a number of factors, ranging from the share of children in foster care to high school graduation rates – found that DC children face worse conditions than children in states like West Virginia (third worst), Louisiana (fifth worst) and Oklahoma (seventh worst).

Judith Sandalow, the executive director of the Children’s Law Center, said the results emphasized the “huge disparity” between the perception of Washington as the seat of the most powerful government in the world and the often harrowing reality for many children in the city.

“Two miles from the White House, there are children going to bed hungry and not knowing where they’re going to sleep tomorrow night,” Sandalow said.

The city has the highest shares of children in single-parent families, children living in low-income households where no adults work and children whose parents lack secure employment, WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez said.

She added that DC’s high rates of child food insecurity, infant mortality and childhood depression also affected its ranking.

“Even in one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world, there is significant need,” said Radha Muthiah, head of the Capital Area Food Bank.
Muthiah’s organization serves roughly 400,000 individuals in the DC region, about a third of whom are children, and she said her group has witnessed the effects of growing inequity in the city. According to the DC Policy Center, the top 20% of earners in the city take home about 29 times more income than the bottom 20%.

Experts pointed to the lack of affordable housing as a major driver of this inequity. The office of the DC Chief Financial Officer released data in June showing that the median price for a detached single-family home grew 10.9% in the previous year, reaching a dizzying $809,500. The Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors has also reported that the city’s median home prices set new records this year.

Michael L Ferrell, the executive director of the DC Coalition for the Homeless, said the city’s home prices have escalated to the point that many DC families considered to be “working poor” can no longer afford housing.

“The number one reason is the lack of affordable housing. That’s not just in the district but around the country,” Ferrell said.

While noting that DC’s homelessness rate has decreased in recent years, Ferrell said there’s been a simultaneous decline in the number of affordable housing units.
Higher-income households moving into the district and other major urban centers as well,” Ferrell added. “Call that one of the unintended consequences. I don’t think that was the plan, but it certainly is the byproduct of that.”

The WalletHub study bears out that paradox. Gonzalez noted the analysts were surprised by the large percentage of DC children living in households with below-poverty income, despite the city’s good economic mobility rank.

“The increasing inequality in the city is actually part of the problem,” Sandalow of the Children’s Law Center said. “Even as the city purposefully becomes a place where wealthier individuals want to live and builds for that group, we have not planned as a city for the families who live here today.”

Sandalow’s organization works with one in nine children living in the poorest neighborhoods of DC, providing legal services and pushing for systematic changes to address the problems it sees. She said that many lower-income families in the city suffer from a domino effect of challenges that often begins with an inability to access affordable housing.

“There’s an extraordinary ripple effect,” Sandalow said. “The dominoes are stacked very close together for low- and middle-income families in DC. And when one domino falls, you can watch them all cascade so that the child’s family stability, health, education and housing all fall apart.”

Far from aiding these compounding issues, proposals from the Trump administration could exacerbate the challenges facing DC families. Muthiah of the Capital Area Food Bank said that if Trump’s proposal to overhaul food stamp eligibility advances, 12,000 families in the DC region could be affected.

Just a few miles from the White House, thousands of working families are worrying about how they will juggle their budgets if Trump has his way.

“We’re concerned that any curtailment of Snap benefits would just take these families that are now treading water and push them under the surface, even when they’re working incredibly hard,” Muthiah said.

But Sandlow warns against falling into despair about the number of problems that the city’s working families face, arguing that there are solutions available to improve their circumstances.

She specifically cited a bill approved by the DC Council last year that limits the use of suspensions as punishment for only the most serious offenses. Such legislation would aid some of the Children’s Law Center’s clients, like the fourth-grade foster child who was suspended after stealing a snack out of his classroom’s snack closet.

“These are absolutely solvable problems,” she said. “We see every day that we can solve the problems and put that family back on stable footing and improve that child’s well-being if … we address the very specific concerns often stemming from a lack of financial resources.”

Joan E Greve is a politics breaking news reporter for Guardian US, based in Washington.

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