Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Poverty Reduction is Key to Making the District Safe

As the executive branch and the District Council debate ways to reduce crime, it should not be lost that the effects of the crime wave have the greatest impact on communities living in poverty — both because residents of low-income communities are more likely to be victims of crime and are most likely to be caught up in the criminal justice system.

The focus of the current debate is a series of punitive measures that focus on law enforcement strategies. Enhanced penalties, gang injunctions, safety zones and other measures are merely an escalation of a set of policies that rely heavily on law enforcement and incarceration.

These policies don’t work. The United States has among the highest rates of incarceration of any country in the world and the District has amongst the highest rates in the country. If incarceration was the solution, we would not also have shockingly high rates of violent crime.

The violent crime we are seeing today is the direct and predictable byproduct of a decade of displacement of low-income families to make way for luxury housing, the concentration of poverty and indifference to extreme poverty that is passed as a legacy from one generation to the next. Concentrated poverty magnifies its impact on families and children. While being poor has many negative consequences, living in a poor neighborhood increases the chances that children will have poor educational outcomes, individuals will be victims of crime or involved in the criminal justice system, be a teen mother or have limited access to health services. See, Disparities in the District of Columbia: Poverty Is Major Cause and  Where We Are, Where We Need To Go: The Primary Care Safety Net in DC (DCPCA, January 2005 Update) Public safety requires the District to invest in reducing and ultimately ending poverty. I am not suggesting that the District abandon law enforcement. Instead, I suggest that the highest priority should be the reduction of poverty and the creation of opportunities for young people to earn a meaningful income from work, the creation and preservation of low-income housing in economically integrated neighborhoods, access to adequate nutrition for every child, and an increased investment in the recreational and cultural lives of all District residents.

Many will argue that the economic crisis counsels against taking on a poverty reduction agenda at this time. I suggest quite the contrary: now is the time to put in place the programs that will end the cycle of poverty and will help communities prosper as the economy turns around. If we wait to address these issues until the economy is good, inequality will grow. What we have seen from past periods of economic growth is that persons with means get richer and persons without are left behind. According to the United States Census Bureau, between 1990 and 2006, during periods of incredible prosperity and economic growth in the District, the rate of poverty increased and the incomes in low-income communities declined. DC Fiscal Policy Institute, “New Census Figures Show Poverty is on the Rise in the District of Columbia,” (2006),

Just as the District took deliberate policy steps to encourage high income development, it can create a policy of economic integration. (See “Ending Concentrated Poverty: New Directions After Hurricane Katrina,” The Enterprise Foundation, (October 12, 2005 )). One important strategy is to involve residents in the planning of their communities. This is especially true for large publicly-funded projects like the changes underway at the St. Elizabeth’s campus and around the baseball stadium.

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