As spring hits the District, there are plenty of things we can expect: more sunlight, warmer temperatures, and of course, tourists. And early Aprilwill also bring the release of Mayor Bowser’s annual budget, which will help shape the District’s spending priorities for the coming year.
DC’s economy is generating more tax revenues, which the mayor could use to help meet the needs of a growing city: educating a growing number of students, rebuilding Metro, coping with the loss of affordable housing and record homelessness, getting DC’s new paid family leave program going, and more.
Before even thinking about that, the mayor should take a close look at the policy adopted three years ago that put tax cuts ahead of other priorities when DC revenue collections grow. This ties her hands and makes it impossible to address school, housing, and other needs. It makes sense to put tax cuts on hold, not only for these reasons, but also to help DC brace for inevitable federal budget cuts.
Here are some important things to look for in the 2018 budget, courtesy of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.
Helping all DC Residents Find a Home They Can Afford
The affordable housing shortfall is DC’s most serious challenge, affecting a large number of residents. DC lost half of its low-cost housing in the last decade, and more and more residents face difficult choices about how to put a roof over their heads as housing prices rise much faster than their incomes. Sadly, DC now has the highest rate of homelessness among 32 major cities, and a tent has become a home for too many.
These problems have devastating consequences that affect all of us. When children live in overcrowded conditions, move frequently, or end up in unsafe neighborhoods, they often have behavioral or attention problems at school, with long-lasting impacts. DC residents facing chronic homelessness often have life-threatening health conditions or severe mental illness, or both. They rely on expensive emergency services and die early from diseases that could be managed better or prevented entirely if they had housing.
Mayor Bowser and the DC Council have made big investments, but affordable housing is still less than three percent of the DC budget. The District should invest more in the Housing Production Trust Fund—which helps build affordable housing—and in the Local Rent Supplement Program, which uses rental subsides to make housing affordable for very low-income families.
Ensuring All DC Children Have their Basic Needs Met
More than 10,000 children and their families face the loss of their entire income as a result of a rigid time limit in TANF—DC’s welfare-to-work program. Most states offer extensions to families in tough situations, but DC doesn’t extend aid even for parents fleeing domestic violence or dealing with homelessness.
Families on TANF in DC often have disabilities or health problems, and others use welfare as a safety net in between low-wage jobs. Twenty years of federal welfare reform has shown that strict time limits hurt the most troubled families and push children into extreme poverty. A widespread cut-off would leave more families in unstable housing and more children going to school carrying stress that interferes with their learning.
A “working group” of TANF parents, DC government officials, service providers and advocates pulled together by Mayor Bowser recommended restructuring TANF so that parents always have cash resources to meet their children’s needs. A family’s benefits would be cut partially if parents aren’t engaged in required work activities. Mayor Bowser and the DC Council should adopt this policy and fund it in 2018.
Helping All Children Succeed in School
There is nothing more important to DC’s future than supporting our children in their early years—birth to age three—and then supporting them in school. There are big gaps that we can start to fill next year.
Access to high-quality early learning can reduce the achievement gap that begins before children even reach a pre-K classroom. A history of underinvestment in DC’s child care subsidy program has left many child care providers struggling to provide quality care. Many operate at a loss and are at risk of closing, taking away choices for working parents. Child care workers earn very little, making it hard to attract and retain staff. Investing more will help create better learning environments for young children.
In addition, while the District has adopted smart policies to identify infants and toddlers with developmental delays, efforts to expand this have not been funded. This is a missed opportunity, because intervening early can prevent a small problem from holding a child back.
DC schools—DCPS and public charter schools—need more to keep up with rising enrollment but also to better serve each student. A workgroup convened by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education recommended increasing per-pupil funding to start addressing a 15 percent gap between current funding and the amount considered adequate. Without enough money, DCPS has resorted to raiding its “at-risk” funds—money intended to provide special services to low-income students—just to fund the basics. Anacostia High School lost over 80 percent of its at-risk funds this way. Giving more to schools will help make sure high-poverty schools get the added resources they need.
Giving All DC Residents the Chance to Lead a Healthy Life
With access to health insurance threatened at the federal level, it’s important to remember that DC has been a health care leader. We should work to maintain high rates of coverage no matter what happens. There is one dark spot, however, in DC’s health system. Six years ago, the District adopted new rules to make it much harder to get care through the DC Healthcare Alliance, which serves low-income DC residents who don’t qualify for other programs like Medicaid. Within a year, thousands of residents fell off the program, in part because working residents or those with childcare needs could not take the time off needed to go through the frequent interview requirements. The District should eliminate unnecessary barriers to the Alliance to help eligible DC residents keep their health insurance.
Ensuring DC residents Can Balance Work and Family Responsibilities
The Paid Family Leave law recently enacted will give eight weeks of paid leave for new parents to be with their children, six weeks to workers who need to care for an ill relative, and two weeks for workers to address their own health needs. Paid family leave will benefit two-thirds of working District residents, which is the share of residents who work for a private-sector business in the city. Before this important new benefit can be made available, DC needs an IT system that will cost around $40 million; some $20 million has already been set aside. We hope the mayor and council will put that in next year’s budget.
Untying the District’s Hands to Access Needed Resources
The District’s economy is healthy, adding residents, businesses and jobs. That means revenues are growing too. Yet restrictive policies force District officials to govern with their hands tied, limiting their ability to maintain a vital city. Rather than having choices over how to use growing resources, the DC Council mandated three years ago that all new revenue go to tax cuts whenever revenue goes above what’s anticipated. In other words, we have put tax cuts ahead of schools, housing, health and other needs.
Mayor Bowser and the DC Council should put tax cuts on hold for 2018, which would free up $175 million for crucial services to DC residents, and put DC in a better place to manage federal budget cuts that are likely but as yet unknown.
Mayor Bowser and the DC Council have plenty of decisions to make about what they’ll prioritize in next year’s budget; we encourage policymakers to consider these important ideas that will strengthen the District.
Jodi Kwarciany is a policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (www.dcfpi.org). DCFPI promotes budget and policy solutions to reduce poverty and inequality in the District of Columbia, and to increase opportunities for residents to build a better future.