Ward 8 City Councilman Marion Barry has never shied away from the national spotlight and his latest initiative may soon gain him another distinction. The gruff councilman, who appears to have been reinventing himself over the past few years, said during a recent interview, that he wants to become a national advocate for welfare reform because the way the system works now only serves as a means to keeping poor people poor.
“The present system has been a miserable failure, keeping families in poverty and joblessness,” Barry said.
Wards 7 and 8 have long borne the distinction of being the poorest communities in the District. While the District’s overall unemployment rate hovers at 10 percent, joblessness among residents in the two wards stands at 19 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
And about 40 percent of the 17,000 households in Washington, D.C. that receive assistance have been on the rolls well beyond five years. Barry said his aim is to end the generational poverty that has allowed monthly payments to District families that average $370 a month.
As a result, he recently teamed with Ward 7 Councilwoman Yvette Alexander – both of whom believe the city needs to get tough with its welfare-to-work initiative – to introduce a bill that would remove recipients from the welfare roll after five years. The District, unlike other jurisdictions, doesn’t have a policy in place that would automatically remove recipients from public assistance after that time and if this measure passes, it would quickly eliminate 8,000 recipients.
Barry said that although the bill is “imperfect and incomplete,” the intent is to launch “serious dialogue on how to break the cycle of generational poverty, government dependency and economic disparity in the city.”
Alexander was not immediately available for comment, but she has contended over the course of several published interviews that she wants to reach young women before they become mothers and go on welfare. “There needs to be training and jobs,” she said.
To that end, Barry said he wants to see welfare recipients across the country become self-sufficient and that he’d like to see government help achieve that vision.
Ed Lazere, executive director of DC Fiscal Policy Institute, said earlier that it’s not the right time for the bill.
But in explaining those sentiments, he told the AFRO that while the time for Barry’s proposal seemed odd, the best thing the District can do to offer better welfare-to- work programs is to improve current education and training programs for public assistance recipients.
“We should all be working toward the goal of having parents better able to take care of their kids,” Lazere said. “We should be willing to do what is most likely to achieve that, and the best thing the city can do right now is to improve those education and training services that have been woefully inadequate.”
He said that almost all families that go on welfare are pointed to the same kind of quick job readiness services – an approach that doesn’t necessarily work.
“Particularly for someone who is reading at a very low level or who hasn’t built up the job skills they need to compete,” Lazere said. He added however, that the welfare system is to be credited for beginning efforts last January to strengthen programs that would effectively transition recipients from its rolls.