Monday, August 17, 2009

The up- and downsides of school supply giveaways

The Life Center Church and DC At-large CM Kwame Brown have certainly ratcheted up the back-to-school supply drive and giveaway.   This past weekend, CM Brown and church representatives gave away almost 5,000 book bags filled with school supplies in DC.   As was reported on WAMU and in a press release from CM Brown, so popular and valuable were the book bags that parents and children waited for hours in the heat only to clean them out in less than three hours.

Given that the cost of outfitting a fourth grader in DCPS is in the neighborhood of $80, more families than ever are relying on the generosity of others to outfit their children for school.   Those organizing supply drives are reporting good and bad news.   The good news is that Americans continue to be charitable.   The bad news is that more families require help.

CM Brown hopes to double the number of book bags and supplies that can be given away next year to 20,000.

Somehow this is backwards.   In my mind, slashing the number of backpacks and supplies should be the goal.   Fewer poor kids requiring supplies is a good thing.   Surely, the At-large CM understands the dissonance here.

So how do we reconcile the two divergent perspectives?   First, I think the CM would agree that it would be awesome if all children were properly outfitted for school.   That would mean that families were making more money.   And not just making $1 over the poverty line but making enough to put them solidly in the middle class.   Second, because Mr. Brown wants to reduce poverty, he is doing something about dealing with the issues of unemployment, underemployment and education.   A few of the things he has done lately to tackle the jobs and poverty issues long-term:

  • Authored the legislation to revitalize Phelps High School, which is now the only public architecture, engineering and construction high school in the country;
  • Secured $1.1 million in this year’s budget to provide nights and weekends job training for adult District residents at three District owned facilities including, Phelps, Cardozo, and Roosevelt;
  • Created and funded the Compliance Unit within the Office of the DC Auditor to ensure that developers’ promises to the community, including jobs for DC residents and affordable housing, are kept.   The unit will oversee projects like the Convention Center Hotel construction;
  • In March, sponsored and led for the second year nearly 100 District students for a bus trip to the College Round-Up in Tarboro, NC to help them apply for college with tuition fees waived, nearly all were accepted into at least one college.

Having checked out CM Kwame Brown’s record, I’ve concluded that it’s possible for people to deal with the short and longer terms at the same time.   Perhaps I have become accustomed to public policy and programs focusing on the short view.   While I still want to focus on the end game, and I would encourage more people to do that, there is plenty of need for both.

And to be clear, the end game is the eradication of poverty.   And that can only happen when there is a planned, sustained, and comprehensive approach to dealing with the causes and associated factors of poverty.