How to Talk about Wealth Disparities

Flickr: Daniel Lobo

Just how rich are the rich? Americans are totally off-the-mark when answering that question, at least according to a recent study [PDF], which found that although the top fifth richest Americans own 85 percent of the country’s wealth, many Americans thought that figure was closer to 59 percent.

Make no mistake, in D.C., the disparities between the rich and poor are severe and were only made worse by the recession: in 2009, median household incomes in parts of Wards 2, 6 and 1 rose significantly but dropped East of the River, and 11 percent of D.C. residents were living in deep poverty, on less than $11,000 for a family of four.

Those are the facts, but just as important is how we frame the disparities between rich and poor. In an opinion piece that ran Monday in The Christian Science Monitor entitled “Do you think the poor are lazy?” (that’s some headline, by the way), Anat Shenker-Osorio writes about the wealth study and the role language plays in our perception of wealth inequality:

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Spent: Choose Your Own Misadventure

"Spent" is a decision-based game that simulates what it's like to live with very little.

I just spent a few minutes “playing” Spent, a website which simulates what it’s like to be low-income and face difficult choices regarding housing, family, transportation and work:

Work hard. Do the right thing. Homelessness is something that will never happen to me. Sometimes, all it takes is one life-changing experience to land you on the streets: a job loss, death of a loved one, divorce, natural disaster, or serious illness.

That message is everywhere, but it’s easy to ignore– and that’s the point of this simulation. The site is programmed to serve up realistic challenges that force players to make extremely difficult decisions– like paying for cafeteria food you can’t afford because your hypothetical child complains about the stigma of free lunches or putting a pet to sleep because you can’t afford the treatment that would save its life.

In the case of the former, after a choice is made between coming up with $3 per day for lunch money, or taking the risk of your child starving to avoid the shame of accepting free food, a screen like this pops up:
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Our Place D.C.: Treating Ex-Cons With Compassion


A sign at Our Place D.C.

Women behind bars have rights, too.

That’s the premise behind Our Place D.C., a non-profit that helps and advocates for  currently and formerly incarcerated women.

“While I know the goal is to protect society from offenders, I’d like you to ask yourselves how long should this punishment endure after the offender has served her sentence and at what cost?” reads one of the large signs posted at its office on K Street Northwest.

Ashley McSwain, executive director of Our Place, said the group helps reduce how many former prisoners commit new crimes and go back to jail – something that benefits everyone.


HIV 101

She’s especially proud that Our Place hires back 60 percent of its former clients: “The women we serve are running our company. I love that; it’s the neatest part of this team.” Often, women who are released from prison take a bus straight to K street, arriving with nothing more than the clothes on their back. McSwan described what happens after that bus ride:
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Our Place: Helping Forgotten Women Find Their Place in D.C.


Our Place D.C.

When a man is sentenced to serve time in prison, he often has a support system; if visits are allowed, his partner dutifully shows up, dressed to impress, exclaiming to children about how they’re “going to see Daddy!” When a woman is sentenced, whatever support she has is usually marshaled in service to her kids, to keep them out of the foster care system; there are few visitors making the drive to women’s facilities, eagerly anticipating a glimpse of Mommy.

That disparity is also reflected in the dearth of organizations dedicated to helping women who were formerly incarcerated transition to life on the outside. In fact, there is only one group in the country that focuses solely on helping such women– Our Place D.C. Our Place is on K street NW, just down the street from Pedro and Vinny’s renowned burrito stand. There, on “burrito block”, in an understated building, in a cozy suite of offices one floor up from the traffic on Route 29, lives are being changed.

It’s easy to forget about such women; they are imperfect, guilty of poor judgment or more, and all of them are ex-cons. Most of us reserve our support for the “innocent”, or more accurately, for sympathetic victims. It doesn’t occur to us to consider those who have served their time, only to be dropped off in this city with nothing but a prison-issued sweatsuit on their backs. “It used to be worse”, Ashley McSwain tells me. She’s the Executive Director of Our Place. Before, newly-released women would arrive in that orange jumpsuit associated with inmates. “We convinced them to change that. The effort was called ‘Justice, not Jumpsuits’.”

McSwain is the kind of warm, unpretentious lady you’d want to sit next to at a beauty salon; the non-profit she runs reflects that vibe, all brightly painted rooms, uplifting art and comfy chairs. When I walked in to Our Place last week, I didn’t think “prisoners”. It actually reminded me of a college counseling department. I kept expecting to see internship offers or posters for graduate school on the walls.
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Five More Questions for Bread for the City’s George Jones


Yesterday, I published a slideshow from Bread for the City’s January 7 grand opening. I also posted the first part of an interview with the non-profit’s Executive Director, George A. Jones. More of my conversation with Jones is below; in it, he discusses how the expansion of the group’s Shaw location will facilitate an expansion in their services–as well as how you can help.

What if people want to get involved?

There are two major ways: volunteer or give. We accept cash contributions and in-kind contributions of donated food and clothing. When it comes to people’s cash donations 90% of every dollar goes to our five core services.

A lot of people like to have tangible connections to our programs so we encourage them to do food drives. We have 5-10 volunteers on a given day; there are scores of people looking to do community service, including kids or teens for school. They can develop food drives right at their schools or boys club, girl scouts…I encourage parents to have their children do these food drives remotely and bring the food to us. We give kids a menu to try and generate certain foods, including items that are low in sodium, vegetables or non-perishable stuff, because we provide supplemental groceries designed to last three days to families whose incomes are very low–less than $7,000. They may not be on food stamps, even if they run a great risk of running out of food.

These are families who are food insecure, who are at the risk of running out before the end of the month. Our food pantry was designed to support such people.

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Interview: Bread for the City’s George A. Jones


Earlier, I posted a slideshow filled with pictures taken on Friday, when local nonprofit Bread for the City celebrated the grand opening of their new building in Shaw. The expansion doesn’t just mean more room– it means more services for the city’s most vulnerable citizens. Last week, I spoke to Bread for the City’s Executive Director, George A. Jones about the expansion, the work his agency does and more. Part of the interview is below; look for the rest, tomorrow morning.

First, some history for those of you who may not be familiar with this group:

Started in 1974, Bread for the City is a front line agency serving Washington’s poor. The agency began as two organizations; Zacchaeus Free Clinic began in 1974 as a volunteer-run free medical clinic, and Bread for the City was created in 1976 by a coalition of downtown churches to feed and clothe the poor. The two entities merged in 1995. Today, we operate two Centers in the District of Columbia and provide direct services to low-income residents of Washington, DC. All of our services are free. Our mission is to provide comprehensive services, including food, clothing, medical care, legal and social services to low-income Washington, DC residents in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.

I asked Jones about the expansion:

We’ve been around for 36 years; this expansion represents our commitment to providing even more services to folks living in poverty in D.C. It’s the culmination of a dream.

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Bread for the City is celebrating today.

Flickr: BBC World Service

A food chart for clients of Bread for the City. Next week, DCentric will take a closer look at the triumphant expansion of both their facilities and services.

I’m leaving the blog for a few hours to go visit Bread for the City–a front line agency serving Washington’s poor– for a very happy reason:

As we approach the end of this year, it already feels like the start of something new. Our expanded Northwest Center is partially up and running, and the excitement of what’s to come is in the air…

I hope you’ll join us to celebrate this new chapter: all are invited to attend the Grand Opening on Friday January 7th, from 4-7pm at 1525 7th street NW. We’ll be joined by Councilmembers and other city leaders to cut the ribbon and raise a cheer for the growth to come.

At the beginning of this week, I spoke to Bread for the City’s Executive Director, George Jones, about how his organization was able to expand during a recession and what such an expansion meant for the D.C. residents who depend on his agency’s services. Look for a two-part interview with Jones next week, right here. Now if you’ll kindly excuse me, I’m off to take pictures of the expanded facilities; if you’ll be so helpful as to tweet something amusing, I’ll make sure it gets enshrined as today’s Tweet of the Day, which will be up later tonight. Happy Friday!

Tripling the Impact of a Donation to WAWF

Flickr: Thomas Hawk

Look at the amazing things you can do with money!

I think sometimes, people don’t give money to charitable organizations because they worry that whatever they give isn’t enough. Charity is for wealthy people, who donate thousands of dollars at a time, right? Alternately, I know people (myself included), who are amenable to the idea of giving and plan to do so, but are especially inspired by offers to have their gifts matched– who doesn’t want to see a gift doubled, or, in lucky instances, tripled?

I just received an email from the Washington Area Women’s Foundation– which works to improve the lives of local women and girls– with exactly that offer:

A generous donor has agreed to match every gift received from our year end campaign with a 2-to-1 match — up to $100,000. That means for every dollar you donate, our donor will give two dollars. A $100 donation will have the impact of a $300 donation. $500 becomes $1,500. And your gift will help fund our efforts to ensure that every woman and girl in our community has the opportunity to attain economic security and reach her full potential.

If the WAWF sounds familiar, it may be because of their Portrait of Women and Girls in the Washington Metropolitan Area, which was released this Fall.

If you know of other local non-profits or charities who have similar offers to match gifts, let us know. A donation in someone’s name may be the perfect gift for a hard-to-shop-for friend or family member (I’m looking at you, Mom).

A Debate about Food Deserts


Fast food: unhealthy, but delicious when you're too exhausted to travel for nutrition.

Postbourgie’s Nicole takes on “The Myth of the Food Desert“, by The Root’s John McWhorter. McWhorter wrote:

The no-supermarket paradigm discourages us from considering that human beings acquire — through childhood experience, cultural preferences and economics — a palate…

Culture, too, creates a palate — and to point that out is not to find “fault.” Example: Slavery and sharecropping didn’t make healthy eating easy for black people back in the day. Salt and grease were what they had, and Southern blacks brought their culinary tastes North (Zora Neale Hurston used to bless her friend Langston Hughes with fried-chicken dinners)…All of which is to say that our take on the obesity issue at hand cannot be that sugary and high-fat food is always the only food that is available to poor people within walking distance. It simply isn’t true.

Nicole responds:

I’ll lay it out for him. Obesity (along with hunger) is dramatically higher among poor communities. And guess what? If you are poor, your access to affordable, nutritious food is more likely to be limited…

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3 out of 10 D.C. Kids Lived in Poverty Last Year


I saw a link to this essay in my Twitter timeline; it’s not D.C.-specific, but the issue it addresses is one this city struggles with…and I can’t stop thinking about it, though I finished reading it an hour ago. It’s powerful.

I remember my brother whining. He was hungry. I felt it too.

I climbed up onto the counter to get a good look inside the kitchen cupboards. I found only jars of dried lentils, spices, and boxes of tea. A bag of cereal hidden away in the back of the cabinet caught my eye. I poured the contents into two bowls, only to find worms crawling inside. I screamed, and then quickly pretended there was nothing wrong. I didn’t want to frighten my baby brother. It was important to be responsible and be a good older sister. I shouldn’t scare him with details…

I did the only thing I could think of. I grabbed my green winter coat, put on my boots, and headed for the door.  I didn’t have a specific plan. All I knew was that we needed a snack. I told my brother I’d be right back.

What happened to that child next is going to haunt me for the rest of the day:
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