Homeless youth

Capital of Economic Inequality?



Last July, I packed up all of my bags, loaded up the trunk of my dad’s car, and made the trek from New England to move to Washington D.C. and begin my post-collegiate professional life.

While I’ve been enjoying the past year in the Nation’s Capital, amidst learning WMATA and running routes, dashing between meetings, enjoying the monuments and museums, it’s impossible not to see the rampant inequality in the District. In Dupont Circle alone, just blocks from the RAC’s office on Kivie Kaplan Way, too many people experiencing homelessness camp out at night, not sure where else to go in the hazy humidity of a D.C. summer or during the winter nights before the federal government closes for a snow day.

The District has the largest rate of economic inequality in this country – a change from when it was reported in 2014 that D.C. had the fourth highest income inequality of all major US cities. Further, the District of Columbia has a higher level of income inequality than at least 66 countries throughout the world – a shocking statistic for a geographic area that isn’t even a state.

Though D.C. has been in cycles of economic growth for the past fifteen years, not everyone is experiencing this level of prosperity equally. Living in D.C. is becoming more inaccessible than it once was: the number of subsidized housing units have decreased and more and more rent-controlled housing units are being redeveloped into higher-end housing units, resulting in even fewer affordable housing options. Throughout the past ten years alone, more than half of D.C.’s affordable housing has disappeared, making this city even less affordable.

Furthermore, not all workers in D.C. are making enough to live here. Indeed, 24,500 of the District’s federal contract workers earn under $20 an hour, which is not nearly enough to get by in the city. A worker who is making the District’s minimum wage ($9.50/hour) would have to work 100 hours to be able to afford a one bedroom apartment that is modest and at Fair Market Rent (if an average person works 40 hours a week, that doesn’t leave a lot of salary left over for other necessities, let alone disposable income).

As an economic justice advocate, the poverty and economic divides all too present in my new home is infuriating, never mind the fact that this city is the home of our federal government. Members of Congress from all over the country, as well as the Executive Branch and the Supreme Court, convene in the District – but yet this inequality persists. We must continue to remind them of the need for government action on items like the National Housing Trust Fund, year-round child nutrition program and raising the minimum wage.

For me, a key part of my Judaism is to “speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy” (Proverbs 31:9). Our tradition encourages us to always be aware of individual’s needs and to advocate for those who may not be able to fight for themselves. Holding our government accountable is the right thing to do – it is what we must do. And in that vein, we need to think about what policies can be adopted to make our government accountable to helping all people, to being an avenue for mobility, and to ultimately reducing the rampant economic inequality plaguing our country.

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Melanie Fineman

About Melanie Fineman

Melanie Fineman is a 2014-2015 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the RAC. She graduated from Brown University in 2014 and is originally from Newton, Massachusetts, where she is a member of Temple Shalom of Newton.

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