Judging merely by the number of emails caught up in our spam filters, the frenzy of the holiday shopping season is full on. There are so many enticements to buy this gadget or order that trinket… things that your family and friends couldn’t possibly live without! We are constantly lured into embracing the notion that allocating our resources to purchase such non-essential items is the best way to express our affection for friends and loved ones.
But for far too many DC residents, basic necessities like food and shelter can feel like a luxury, and they cannot even begin to dream of the day that they get to show their generosity to loved ones in the form of something frivolous.
Many of DC’s elected leaders seem out of touch with that reality when it comes to spending our collective budget. Instead of making sure all of its residents have food, a safe place to live, adequate healthcare, access to justice and other basic necessities, they regularly prioritize spending on “luxury” items first. We believe that the best way for a city to express its concern for and commitment to its residents is to allocate its resources to the very basic needs of its residents – for food and shelter and medical care and the like – first.
Our belief that values and priorities of a community are made evident by how that community spends its resources is what led the Legal Clinic, nearly 25 years ago, to co-found the Fair Budget Coalition. In 1994, when the District of Columbia was on the brink of financial disaster and elected officials needed to cut $100 million from the DC budget, we worried that those cuts would come largely out of programs that served low- and no-income residents and other marginalized populations…our core client community. We joined with several colleagues and put out a call to every non-profit we knew that served these same community members – legal services organizations, shelters and meal programs, groups that served children or the elderly – to come together to strategize about how best to protect the interests and meet the very basic needs of our mutual clients in this time of looming fiscal crisis.
We crafted a message to our elected officials that recognized the crisis, but recommended that it be addressed fairly. “Don’t pit one vulnerable population against another,” we said. “And don’t balance the budget solely on the backs of DC residents who are least able to absorb program cuts.” We offered steps that could be taken to deal with the fiscal crisis with fairness, making recommendations for budget items that could be cut without causing pain to our elderly neighbors, those who were struggling with homelessness, or low-income children.
And thus was born the Fair Budget Coalition. The Legal Clinic staffed the coalition for its first decade of work, then served as its fiscal sponsor until 2017. During those years, the Coalition’s efforts helped lead not only to the preservation of funding for vital programs such as shelter and mental healthcare, and to the establishment of new programs like the Local Rent Supplement Program and Emergency Assistance, but also to significant change in the advocacy landscape and the balance of power at the Wilson Building. The dozen organizations that came together to address a crisis in 1994 have evolved into a coalition of many dozens of organizational and individual members that has a steady and well respected presence in every debate about how to allocate the District’s resources. All of the Legal Clinic’s budget advocacy work is done in close partnership with the Coalition.
One of the most important things that Fair Budget brings to the table is the voices of low-income community members who are impacted directly by the budget decisions that are being made. The Coalition has always recognized the importance of not speaking for community members but rather supporting them in speaking for themselves. (Does this sound familiar? This is a core value of the Legal Clinic that we were able to infuse into Fair Budget’s early work.) The Coalition has recently ramped up its work in this area, launching a staffed constituent leadership program. Some of our client leaders who also participate in our People Power Action Group participate in this program.
While we’ve made some progress in the last twenty five years, there is still much work to be done to ensure that each DC resident survives and thrives, and much work to be done to convince elected leaders that ending homelessness should be a high priority. You need only look at what happened on Tuesday, when the DC Council expressly rejected an effort led by Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (and supported by Mary Cheh, Trayon White, David Grosso, Charles Allen, and Elissa Silverman) to devote new revenue to ending homelessness and other community needs over a tax break to commercial properties, to see that the need is greater than ever for the work of the Fair Budget Coalition. If you believe, like we do, in the power of people’s stories and the importance of their voice, we hope you will consider responding to Fair Budget’s campaign to ensure that this community engagement work will continue. Together, we have a greater chance of persuading our elected leaders to craft a budget that doesn’t invest in shiny trinkets and gadgets, but rather promotes a more just and inclusive DC.
In addition to financially supporting the work of Fair Budget Coalition, you can also hold your elected officials accountable for their vote on Tuesday (Councilmember McDuffie was absent from the vote). Thank the Council members who voted to devote new revenue to ending homelessness:
|Trayon White, Sr.
Let these Councilmembers know that you disagree with their decision to prioritize corporations over people:
|Robert C. White, Jr.