A Poverty Backdrop for Politics in Anacostia
The D.C. neighborhood was the site of Paul Ryan's poverty launch. But residents are skeptical
As Paul Ryan prepared to make a short trek to D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood to promote his agenda to fight poverty, local resident Reggie Mack embarked on a journey of a different sort.
On this gloriously sunny day, Mack, an emaciated 50-year-old who looks at least 20 years older and walks with a cane, straightened out a glitch that had been keeping him from receiving his $60 monthly food stamp allotment, then made his way home along the optimistically named Good Hope Road.
He hobbled past men who slumped over empty alcohol bottles in a laundromat parking lot, younger men who leaned against the doorway to a corner convenience store, a woman in neon lipstick and a tube top who screamed incoherently at anyone who walked by. All working age, clearly not working.
Ryan has spent much of the year since he was appointed House Speaker previewing his proposal for fighting poverty, and he chose Anacostia as the backdrop for his Tuesday press conference announcing the results of the House’s work .
Part of a much-heralded new agenda for the Republican party, the 35-page document identifies weaknesses in the welfare system. Ryan promotes “opportunities” like drug rehabilitation, education and job training that would help poor people become self-sufficient and says the federal government could save money by getting rid of duplication in the system and cutting programs that don’t work.
The far-reaching effort, which for Ryan started in the early 90s when he worked for self-described “bleeding heart conservative” Jack Kemp, has been complicated by the conflicting messages of presumptive nominee Donald Trump, who has alienated Latino and African American voters even as he has stated that he supports Ryan’s goals.
It has been disparaged by progressives, who have called it a thinly veiled attempt to win over poor, minority voters while cutting the social programs many of them depend upon. One group, the Center for American Progress, released a competing agenda for the Democratic Party.
A Voice for the Poor
But it is in Anacostia and communities like it across the country where Ryan’s attempt to reinvent his party as a voice for the poor will meet some of its biggest challenges. After the television cameras leave, the day-to-day struggles remain. Some residents are hopeful that the attention will bring change, but they are also skeptical.
Residents here — where the buildings along the main thoroughfares frame a view of the gleaming Capitol dome — said this week they felt their most pressing concerns are generally ignored by both parties. Many said they did not know — or care — who Ryan is.
“I think I’ve seen him on TV,” Mack said. “Is he a celebrity or something?” He added that he had little interest in Ryan’s proposals, as long as food stamp benefits and other social services remain in tact. “You’ve got a lot of people not able to eat, from day to day, just to survive,” he said.
Those who knew of Ryan said he was the first congressman they could remember to make the 3.6-mile trek across the Anacostia River from Capitol Hill. But they weren’t convinced that his concern about their neighborhood — or the problems of poverty he had chosen it to represent — went beyond using it as a backdrop for a photo op.
“Congress never comes out here, period,” said Sultan M. Abdullah, who has owned a clothing store in Anacostia since 1988. “They just don’t find this a priority.”
He waved out his store window toward Good Hope Road, where Mack had passed by minutes before. If politicians really cared about the poverty, he said, the view would be different.
“Police it,” he said. “Come over here, get all the cigarette sellers, the dope sellers, the whores out of the neighborhood, the same way they do in Georgetown. Clean it up.”
Poverty in Anacostia
The historic heart of Anacostia is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, with a 46 percent poverty rate , according to NeighborhoodInfo DC, which tracks city data for neighborhood groups and policy makers.
The figure puts it among the poorest regions in the country , some of which Ryan visited when he embarked on a poverty tour in the months after the 2012 election. The historic Anacostia neighborhood is 96 percent African American, a demographic that overwhelming votes Democratic in national elections. In Wards 7 and 8 that lie east of the river, 88,000 registered voters are Democrats, compared to 2,500 Republicans.
Ryan claims that Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty has failed. He frequently says that poverty rates have remained the same, with 45 million people in poverty, after 50 years and trillions of dollars. Critics respond that Ryan’s figures are misleading, and that scholarly estimates actually show that poverty rates have fallen by as much as 40 percent.
Anacostia residents say things have improved, and point to new development underway. And they recognized the cumulative changes that proposals like Ryan’s could bring about.
Slow Motion Change
Philip Pannell, executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council has seen first-hand how long it takes for the theories bandied about in Congress to be realized in the community.
He pointed to the Community College Preparatory Academy, an adult charter school that opened in Anacostia in 2013, 15 years after the first such school opened west of the Anacostia River. The idea has its roots in the Johnson administration and was promoted by Newt Gingrich 25 years ago.
Now, 49 percent of the students are men earning high school degrees after prison. The majority of the female students are single mothers — they head 82 percent of the households in the neighborhood.
One student, Cynthia Parker, 54, said there were no such resources for young women when she dropped out of high school after her son was born in the late 70s. At the time, she lived in a similar neighborhood in the city’s Northeast quadrant.
In an all-to-common story, her son, who would have been 39 today, was fatally shot by a neighbor in a drug dispute when he was 18. But these days, Parker said, she is more optimistic.
“It’s changed a whole lot,” she said. “There’s more free training programs now.”
Parker hopes to continue school and become a nurse. Her biggest hopes, though, lie within her youngest daughter, who is 13. The girl is on her way to achieving Parker’s dream of one day starting a career and owning a home, thanks to help from after-school programs at a local, publicly funded community center, Parker said.
Residents this week ticked off other needs that they wish Congress — or someone in power — would address: Job creation programs, education, the same standard of quality of life ordinance enforcement as that in wealthier neighborhoods.
Some said they would like to see more accountability for welfare programs — a suggestion that Ryan has endorsed — but that such oversight would be meaningless if the programs weren’t available in the first place.
Jean Miller, who runs a local food bank as the administrative assistant at St. Philips Episcopal Church, said most people who call her are looking for substantial help with things like unpaid electrical bills or the threat of eviction, cumulative problems she had no resources to address.
“I could talk to you until I’m blue in the face, but the services have to be there,” she said. “Most of these service organizations don’t have enough money.”