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An Unconscionable Great Divide


Certainly, it’s no secret that our nation is suffering many deep fault lines these days — and I’m not talking about the earthquake again!  The ideological, economic, cultural, racial and social dividing lines are growing increasingly deep and calcified.  The looming presidential campaign season already threatens to drive wedges even deeper.

One of the greatest and most intractable fault lines runs right through our city, the District of Columbia.  More than a decade has passed since the Brookings Institution drew a bright line down 16th Street and named the problem “A Region Divided” in a 1999 landmark study of the economic, racial and social conditions of the nation’s capital.  That report painted a very stark picture:  “The eastern portion of this region bears the burden of poverty,” declared the report, while “The western part of the region enjoys most of the fruits of prosperity.”  The study went on to point out that the region remained deeply divided by race, that segregation was a reality in many places, that poverty afflicted Black and Hispanic residents in the eastern half of the region in far greater proportions than residents of the western half.

Business and civic leaders responded with much hand-wringing and pledges to do something useful to address these problems, while, privately, some even hinted that Brookings should not have published the darn thing since, apparently, naming the problem only makes it worse.  Better to promote the best parts of the Washington region — the highest per capita income levels in the nation, the most advanced degrees of any city, top notch schools in places like Fairfax County.  The Redskins, at least back in the day.  Better to repress all that bad news about the 35% adult illiteracy rate in DC, one of the highest poverty rates among urban centers, and the chronic under-performance of schools in D.C. and Prince Georges County.

A decade later, the region remains divided, unconscionably so.  We have a brand new baseball stadium and a middling team to play there, and some lagging urban redevelopment along the Anacostia waterfront.  We have the massive National Harbor development in Prince Georges County that required significant deforestation of the banks of the Potomac River and related environmental dangers.  We have extensive gentrification in the center of the city and in places along the edges, bringing more professional incomes into the tax base, which is certainly good news, but pushing out the previous residents whose poverty meant that they could not stay to share the fruits of urban progress.  All of these developments certainly contribute many good things to the city and region, and economic growth certainly is both necessary and hugely desirable for our region.

However, the unconscionable Great Divide remains in Washington.  The latest evidence of the Great Divide appeared last Saturday in the New York Times where, ironically, two unrelated articles presented evidence that tells the story quite starkly.

In another of his series of incisive articles on the condition of children in our nation, the columnist Charles M. Blow wrote about the problem of hunger among children in the United States.  He cited a report from the ConAgra Foods Foundation on “The States of Child Hunger” that cited the rate of “food insecurity” among children.  Did you know that, as Blow writes, fully “49% of all children born in this country are born to families who receive food supplements from the federal Women, Infants and Children assistance program”?

Guess which jurisdiction was at the top of the list for having the highest rate of hungry children?  The District of Columbia, where 32.3% of the children live in “food insecure” households.  The national average is a shameful 23.2%, but D.C. is even worse.  (See the full list of states on the left sidebar, list from the New York Times, August 27, 2011)

But, wait, turn the page — in that same newspaper there was another article, “Why Washington Really Likes Itself” by Catherine Rampell.  In this article we learn that Washington is the most “economically confident” jurisdiction in the nation according to a recent Gallup Poll that found that 60% of the residents of our city have a very optimistic outlook on the economy, many points higher than any other jurisdiction.  On the Gallup “Economic Confidence Index” D.C. is the only place that scores in positive territory — a +11 compared to the next highest economic confidence score of -13 for North Dakota.  You can see it all on the sidebar on the right, from the New York Times, August 27, 2011:

Optimism is certainly a great trait of our region, and I believe that optimism is essential to work through times of challenge and stress.  At the same time, however, unrealistic optimism can blind us to the real problems that remain right next door, across the street or around the corner.  Washington’s famous recession-proof economy and remarkably high median family income levels can blind policymakers, legislators and business leaders to the unconscionable poverty, violence, illiteracy and diminished conditions of life of our neighbors and fellow citizens who do not enjoy the pleasures of Washington’s knowledge, influence and information industries.

One of the most unfortunate by-products of the Great Divide is an unrealistic, often patronizing “spark of divine fire” approach to discussions of how to address the real problems of our low income neighbors.  So, we seize on school reform with our favorite remedies because, heck, we’ve all been to school and know quite a lot about how to fix schools, and we tell impoverished families and children that poverty is “just an excuse” that should not be mentioned.  Better to fire the teachers than feed the pupils.  We lavish untold millions on reformers who make big promises and then skip off to even more millions elsewhere, when, in fact, those millions could have provided more child care services, support for teen mothers, improved health care for children and mothers, literacy education for parents, decent places to live for homeless families and tutors for children with learning differences — all of which are essential if we hope to improve learning outcomes in the District of Columbia.

The Great Divide will never be closed so long as the people on one side pile up their goodies while calling out to the people on the other side, “Just try harder to leap across.”   Maybe the people with all the goodies should be the ones doing the leaping to the other side, not as saviors but as servants to the real needs of communities.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: