That people living in or on the cusp of poverty face myriad challenges every day to secure essential necessities is not news to those of us who work in the field of poverty law. But a new report issued today by the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers offers a fresh, illuminating perspective on and deeper insights into the struggles low-income District residents face to provide for themselves and their families.
The culmination of an initiative that spanned more than three years, the Community Listening Project sought to hear directly from low-income D.C. residents on the problems they face—and the strengths of the communities in which they live—in their words. The resulting study, led by Faith Mullen, a clinical law professor, and Enrique Pumar, a sociologist, both at The Catholic University of America, is a rich, qualitative analysis of focus group and survey responses from more than 700 D.C. residents whose household incomes are at or below 200% of the federal poverty guideline.
“I can’t find a job because I have no place to live, no place to get ready for an interview, and no money to get to an interview.” – A survey participant
Significantly, people living in and affected by poverty were involved throughout the entire process of developing and conducting the detailed surveys and in-depth focus groups, ensuring that the findings related as closely as possible to the needs, problems, and experiences of low-income people in the District.
This study—to my knowledge, the first of its kind in the District of Columbia—covers the waterfront. It reports on focus group and survey participants’ opinions about and experiences with housing, neighborhoods, law enforcement, transportation, employment, healthcare, income, debt, consumer issues, families and children, domestic violence, education, and immigration. It looks at how low-income D.C. residents deal with the problems they have, what they think of the justice system, and what they perceive the problems are that others in their communities face. Finally, the study asked focus group and survey participants to identify the strengths of and in their community, which included a sense of people looking out for each other, enthusiasm for services such as public libraries, and involvement in organized groups like tenant associations, labor organizations, and faith communities.
Among the report’s findings are the following:
- Housing insecurity is a major issue for low-income D.C. residents. Two thirds of survey participants said that loss of housing and fear of homelessness was a constant concern.
- Unemployed workers have not given up on finding jobs. Very few survey participants (5.8%) who were unemployed, including those considered long-term unemployed, had stopped looking for work.
- Full-time employment is no insulation from financial hardship. Almost half of those with full time jobs reported “frequently” or “occasionally” worrying about not having enough food, and a similar number reported experiencing trouble paying their bills.
- Crime is a serious problem. Three out of ten (3/10) survey participants had been the victim of a crime in the past two years, and one in six (1/6) had experienced gun violence.
The report and its findings are a humbling reminder of the enormity of the challenge to make our nation—starting with its capital—a more just and inclusive one. But it is a challenge Legal Aid is committed to tackling. In the coming months, we and other members of the Consortium will plan for and convene a retreat to discuss how we can use what we learn from this Project to improve our work and better serve our clients and client communities.
In the meanwhile, on April 14, the Consortium will convene a community release event at noon in Freedom Plaza. It will feature a poetry slam and stories relating the experiences of individuals to the themes in the report. All are welcome to attend and participate.