Last night, we went to the Wilson Building, where Marion Barry was lying in state for 24 hours. We waited in line outside, while protesters against police violence and the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner moved from the Wilson Building out into the city. Inside the main entrance of the Wilson Building, the casket was covered with a kente cloth and an enormous number of red roses. It was a moving occasion.
As I discussed before, Marion Barry has several legacies, as someone who supported gentrifying development even while providing jobs to, and greatly identifying with, low-income residents
, as well as someone who supported DC's cooperative movement
. Here I talk about the work that his administrations accomplished in reducing poverty in DC.
In January, a Washington Post poll
found that most residents in Washington, DC, think that the city officials have little control over gentrification, displacement, and inequality: “Washingtonians often see that boom benefiting different groups. What many residents do agree on is that the city’s mayor and other elected officials have little ability to ensure that the new prosperity will lift all boats.” (1)
While this poll may reveal a lack of confidence in the current political leaders in DC, it also reflects a feeling that these processes are inevitable or even that trying to stop them might lead to worse results. Sociologists, however, have found that political leaders have a dramatic effect on poverty and wealth. In his comparison
of rich democracies, the amazing sociologist David Brady
(2009) found that governments greatly determine one's risk of poverty and shape the experience of poverty. Political actors in the formal political arena determine the nature of the welfare state and thus the nature of poverty in each country. In his book, he found, “Poverty is lower and equality is more likely to be established where welfare states are generous, Leftist collective political actors are in power, and latent coalitions for egalitarianism exert influence,
and all of this is institutionalized in the formal political arena” (p. 6). Poverty and inequality not only vary across wealthy democratic countries but also vary within countries like the United States.
During the 100 years of Congressional control over DC, Congressional politicians elected by people far away from DC ran the DC government. The chairmen of the Congressional DC committees included segregationist politicians such as Senator Theodore Bilbo
of Mississippi, and, until 1972, Representative John McMillan
of South Carolina. In 1974, DC Home Rule allowed DC residents to vote on who would run the city and, as a result, they could finally shape the city. When Barry became Mayor in 1979, he brought leftist collective political actors into DC government, actors allied with broad coalitions advocating egalitarianism and the implementation of social policies that would specifically help low-income residents.
During his first, second, and third terms as Mayor from 1979 to 1991, Marion Barry realized programs that reduced poverty in DC, including his well-known jobs programs. These programs specifically targeted low-income residents, seeking to provide these residents new opportunities. In his autobiography, Barry wrote:
We spent a lot of time fighting against folks who were not affected by poverty, unemployment, homelessness, inequality or the citywide deficiencies in education. As the mayor and the leader of the local government, I saw that we could use budgets and more city revenue and resources to try and create more opportunities for those who did not have opportunities, while still managing a major city to do well. That was my job as the mayor, not to be satisfied with the status quo, but to build a much better Washington for everyone. (p. 158)
The approach of the Barry administrations during the 1980s reduced poverty in DC.
In the graph below, we can see that the percentage of people living in poverty decreased both in the US and DC during the 1960s. This large decline can be explained by the federal War on Poverty
and the myriad of policies that helped low-income people escape poverty. However, while poverty continued to decline in the US, DC poverty increased in the 1970s.
Then, after Marion Barry become Mayor in 1979, poverty in DC decreased -- from 18.6% to 16.9% -- through the 1980s, while poverty increased in the US
-- 12.4% to 13.1% (see chart to the right). The unique decline of poverty in DC suggests that District policies aimed at helping low-income residents made a difference.
In the 1990s, however, the DC poverty rate increased to 20.2%, even while poverty decreased in the US as a whole. From 1995 to 1999, Marion Barry had his fourth term as Mayor. Within months of his inauguration, the Congress imposed the Control Board. The five-person Control Board could override decisions by the Mayor and the city council and implemented a broad reorganization of the District government.(2)
The Control Board implemented significant budget cuts and undermined Home Rule. During the period of the Control Board, poverty increased in DC.
While the Barry's administrations will continue to be debated, the numbers on poverty show that poverty reduction is one of the legacies of Marion Barry's 1980s administrations. Marion Barry's early administrations demonstrate that political leaders can make a difference in reducing poverty and creating a new, more inclusive city. And other kinds of leaders can make policies that increase poverty and create an exclusive city.
(1) Marc Fisher, “In the District, redevelopment exposes old fault lines,” Washington Post, Jan. 19, 2014, p. A1, A16.
(2) The Control Board’s official name was the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority. For the entire text of the bill that created the Control Board: H.R.1345, District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Act of 1995 (Enrolled as Agreed to or Passed by Both House and Senate), http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c104:h.r.1345.enr: