Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why don't the poor go to our meetings?

One unnamed commenter on my past post about the Hine PUD process asked, "Other than reforming the process, what do you want in terms of amenities and benefits Johanna?" Another commenter, our great ANC rep Brian Pate, wondered why I thought that the process was undemocratic and exclusive since the meetings have been public to which "a broad spectrum of stakeholders, from those adjacent to the development to those with broader interests," were invited, and wrote, "I invite you to come to our next meeting and share your ideas...Hope to see you on the 23rd and please feel free to contact me directly if you like to discuss your ideas further." I greatly appreciate being invited to take part. I feel extremely included. The problem is that thousands of our Ward 6 neighbors and their very different interests are in actuality not included in the discussion.

One of my favorite articles of all time is "Civic Participation and the Equality Problem" by Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady. They ask, why does civic engagement matter? They answer that it matters for "the development of the capacities of the individual, the creation of community and the cultivation of democratic virtues, and the equal protection of interests in public life." They are most interested in the last point: from whom does the government hear and what does it hear from them?

To answer these questions, they interviewed over 15,000 people by phone and then interviewed 2,517 of them in a follow-up, more detailed survey. The researchers found lots of interesting trends. The researchers asked if the respondents had been politically active about a government benefit they received. They found that the government is much more likely to hear from those with who receive seemingly automatic, non-means-tested benefits (Social Security, veterans' benefits, Medicare; benefits not determined by income level) than those with means-tested benefits (Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies, Aid to Families with Dependent Children). Those with Social Security were much more likely to contact the government about their benefits than those with AFDC.

The government hears very different messages from the advantaged and the disadvantaged. From the survey, the researchers found that the disadvantaged mainly contact the government about basic human needs: poverty, jobs, housing, and health, as well as drugs and crime. The advantaged contact the government about economic issues (taxes, government spending, or the budget) or about social issues (abortion or pornography). Since the disadvantaged are much less politically active, "public officials actually receive more messages from the advantaged, suggesting a curtailment of government intervention on behalf of the needy, than messages from the disadvantaged urging the opposite."

Why do some participate politically more than others? The researchers found that education is the best predictor. However, when the respondents were asked whether they had been invited (or recruited) to take part in a political act, like being invited personally to give an opinion about the Hine PUD, those who were invited were much more likely to be more educated and more wealthy than those who spontaneously took part in a political activity (see Table 12-2).

Those who invite or recruit others to take part are "rational prospectors," looking to use their time and energies most efficiently. Recruiters find political participants through organizational, neighborhood, and workplace networks of personal ties, as well as impersonal means such as through mass emails. Those who are recruited are different both demographically (more wealthy and more educated) and in their need for government assistance. Such selective recruitment brings in "those who are likely to be political involved already" and represents their interests, rather than providing "equal protection of interests in public life."

So, I am exactly the type of person who would be personally recruited to take part in the Hine PUD process. I have attended several Hine meetings. I greatly appreciate my inclusion in the process. At the same time, I seek to highlight those left out of the process. Were Potomac Gardens residents and their representatives like Resident Council president Melvina Middleton or DCHA Family Commissioner Aquarius Vann-Ghasri personally invited to voice their opinions about the needed amenities and benefits, since Potomac Gardens residents made up much of the Hine Junior High school population? Were some of the 20% of Ward 6 residents living in poverty personally invited to voice their opinion? Were those using Section 8 rental vouchers personally recruited? What would these neighbors say should be done with the Hine property?

Yes, as Brian Pate commented, AmericaSpeaks is expensive, but inclusive democracy does require funding and SW DC residents have benefited from being well organized (as I discussed in a past post). Also, AmericaSpeaks is not the only option. One could look at earlier efforts on Capitol Hill, such as the 1970s Capitol East Coalition for Housing and Neighborhood Improvement, which officially included representatives from public housing, senior citizen, youth, and welfare-low-income residents. Why don't the poor go to Hine meetings or why (probably) weren't they among the 200 who responded to the Hine PUD survey? Maybe they weren't asked.


  1. It's even worse than you suggest. Larry Bartels has done great research showing that politicians don't simply ignore the views of the poor (read: Medicaid) in favor of the middle class (read: decently well-off retireds on SS and Medicare). They actually ignore both the middle class and poor in favor of the very affluent. Yet again, the problem of the 1% rears its head ...

  2. Hi Johanna,
    I have raised the prospect of getting meeting space for social services as part of the Hine Development benefits, but so far, the ANC seems concerned with pursuing meeting space for itself (which, btw, I consider unethical; somehow all these developments keep getting built, and somehow the only tangible benefit that comes out of it is ANC meeting space).
    So part of the problem is political one typical of interest group politics. That is, without a direct stakeholder present for the under-served in our community, then their items just won't get added to the discussion... and then we all lose, and unnecessarily impoverish our sense of community and who we are.

  3. @Kathleen Aren't the Hill Center & Eastern Market North Hall community meeting space? Wouldn't creating another space compete with Hill Center for donations?

  4. I'm sorry; I wasn't clear. I meant office/meeting space for Capitol Hill ministries to do their work--i.e., provide social services to our neighbors who need them.

    Just FYI, I think the Hill Center rates are out of reach for many groups, and the ANC may be among them.

  5. Johanna, we are lucky to have a credentialed sociologist survey how this process is proceeding.

    I recently attended an informal get-together of political elites in our neighborhood. In attendance were our CM, several neighborhood and citywide media and social media leaders, ANC members from ANC 6A and ANC 6B and others. As I was leaving, I couldn't help but overhear a conversation around the topic of "Where are the poor people? They've just gone away from ANC 6A and 6B."

    Glad to have someone with academic credentials at this blog point out that 1-in-5 residents are poor, and in a democracy, their views count just as much, "one person one vote" as the views of the middle class and elites.

    I agree with your point that unless the poor are invited, their views on appropriate amenities and mitigations will be ignored.

  6. Reflecting of past news article interviews Councilman Barry has stated "apartheid" is a word he looked forward to residents of Ward * reading, and supporting himself as also being a disorganized trouble maker.

    Several apartment neighborhoods of Ward 8 need support and guidance, and not his "approach."

  7. Johanna, thank you for this. You've certainly helped me think through this issue in a more informed way.

    And want to share something from Fairfax about engagement. I like some of the ideas contained.

    Keep up the great work!

  8. Johanna,

    Meant to reply to this post hopefully this post is not "dead in the window".

    As far as representation is concerned, I can only say that you are correct--we did not proactively attempt to have diverse socioeconomic representation on our sub-committee, though neither was it precluded.

    To offer some insight, we did attempt to engineer representation of a diversity of interests, and, as best as we could, gender and race. We did pretty well at the former, but mediocre at the latter. I will say, however, that the ELECTED COMMISSIONERS for all residents adjacent to the development are participating in the process, and, should represent or be sensitive to the concerns of their constituents, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

    I do chaff a little bit at the idea that a "poor" person MUST be present in order for their concerns to be heard and considered. For example, at our last public meeting, which was very sparsely attended, we had a robust conversation about the affordable housing component of the project and how we should approach the fact that the bulk of the affordable housing is concentrated in one detached building. Yes, we would have benefitted greatly from hearing the insights of someone like Melvina Midleton, and I'll work to correct that, but it did not prevent the group from recognizing an issue and putting it on the table for further deliberation.

    I think there's also a broader point to be considered. How can we increase the civic engagement of all ilk?

    Anecdotally I would argue that Cap Hill is one of the most civically engaged communities in the country, with a citizenry that is uniquely equipped for such engagement. Even with this, it seems to me that there is still a vast, silent majority, even on the Hill, who engage intermittently or narrowly, if at all. Ultimately this is dangerous, as it allows our politicians, especially at the City and national level, to develop the impression that people only care about their deliberations and decisions at election time and in certain limited instances. This is not a good calculus for institutional integrity and accountability.

    Thanks for your are still invited.



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