Our Man in Arlington – Falls Church News-Press Online
Could giving money to struggling neighbors pay off later?
The Arlington Community Foundation is spearheading a real-world test of the proposal, with cooperation from the county Department of Social Services.
As described last month at the Arlington Committee of 100, experimenting with “guaranteed income” or “unconditional money” might seem like a socialist challenge to common sense. But it would put Arlington in good company in the region and in the country.
“Arlington is at a crossroads,” said Anne Vor der Bruegge, director of grants and initiatives for the foundation. In our pandemic-aggravated “affordability crisis,” low-income people are “rapidly displaced,” she said. Entry-level office cleaners, restaurant workers and orderlies “can’t afford to live here”. Virginia Hospital Center workers who reside, for example, in Manassas, who perform life-saving tasks like sterilizing surgical equipment, pass through two competing hospitals during their commute. The movement of cash is “not just a moral mandate but an economic imperative”.
The average annual income in Arlington for a family of four is $129,000, the foundation reports. But 25,000 Arlingtonians in 10,000 households, 11% of our population (mostly people of color) only earn $38,700. They have to scramble to cover day-to-day and unexpected expenses, living poverty “like a full-time job”, Vor der Bruegge said.
The “benefit cliff effect” complicates the challenge. If the poor succeed in even a small wage increase, they end up losing out through reduced eligibility for existing government entitlements to health care, food, child care, transportation and accommodation.
Current anti-poverty programs “are not flexible enough and can’t anticipate everything that gets in the way” for low-income families, said Brian Marroquín, program manager and National Urban Fellow at the foundation. He recalled his sadness during his own upbringing in the Buckingham community when neighbors were forced to move because they were overpriced.
A guaranteed income, he said, would be a “culture shift” that means “trusting people as experts in their own lives.” The money would give them a chance to “take a break, achieve long-term goals, get out of debt, and make ends meet.” Data shows that “people work more, not less” with unconditional money. Programs are in operation in Stockton, Calif., and Jackson, Mississippi, the speakers noted, with pilots coming to the district, Fairfax and Alexandria.
Since its launch last September, Arlington’s program has randomly selected 175 of a planned 200 households who earn 30% of the area’s median income. Each will receive $500 in cash per month for 18 months. According to the law, the project is financed solely by private funds (the Kresge Foundation). The Arlington Foundation receives advisory assistance from the Urban Institute and safety net nonprofit organizations to provide “comprehensive” support such as professional and financial counseling.
Arlington DHS is “surprisingly committed to reducing bureaucratic hurdles,” Vor der Bruegge added. “When you invest in parents, you invest in children.”
There was surprisingly “little pushback” from critics fearing recipients were misusing the money to buy drugs, she said.
When I asked former county board member John Vihstadt for a comment, he replied, “I was skeptical at first. But with persistent poverty being such an intractable problem in a country of plenty, we need to try innovative approaches. I can’t wait to see the results of the pilot. In the long run, however, there is no substitute for quality education through strong public schools to uplift people.
I was surprised to hear a historical rumor from a former classmate in the Bellevue Forest neighborhood. Apparently, many grew up believing that President Warren G. Harding in the early 1920s had a date with his mistress Nan Britton just down the street.
The site would be Glenmore (built in 1910), called “The Glass House” in modern times.
I scanned Nan Britton’s 1927 memoir of her affair with Harding, but found no mention of a date in Arlington. Current owner Gail Raiman passed me a history of the house compiled by tenants in 1971. It suggested those familiar stories by Harding — also infamous for the Teapot Dome scandal — are “probably untrue.”