The District's 2023 Annual Comprehensive Financial Report opens with a letter from Mayor Muriel Bowser championing the District's commitment to reduce disparities, grow the middle class, and secure "a fair shot for all residents." Yet, no discussion on race, disparities, or social inequity appeared in the remaining 258-page document. This turn from heightened social awareness to deafening silence on deep inequity is typical of the vacillatory nature of political discourse in the District. That report assessing the city's financial performance was incomplete, particularly in weighing risks. It failed to mention that DC has yet to find a shared growth model that does not exacerbate racial inequities. Legislative turnover and increasing democratic accountability also mean that the District cannot count on staying the course. Crime is a serious threat to economic recovery, which received no mention in the financial forecast. DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson named another risk in his recent testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform - congressional intervention in District affairs. The financial report omitted this risk as well, though Mendelson noted it was a major cause for financial concern. This single report exemplifies the ills that plague District government — poor planning and data-driven analysis. This issue discusses the Framework for Accelerating Equity to jumpstart a new approach for shared growth and internal consistency in values and practices.
The mayor's budget is not accompanied by any robust research or crosswalk with other laws such as the 2021 Comprehensive Plan, which established the values to drive growth, "We must recognize that managing growth and change includes addressing the historic, structural, and systematic racial inequities and disenfranchisement of many District residents." Approaches to budgeting remain underdeveloped and largely defined by debates on changing funding levels for this or that project without access to experts and quality data. The District has little insight into the interaction and total effects of its policies to fix major deficits in governance and to accelerate health, educational, and income equity. Neither the mayor's 2019 plan for 39,000 new market-rate housing units nor the 2021 approval of 200 million new square feet of commercial and residential land uses have garnered sufficient critical appraisal. That plan, combined with the Congress Heights Small Area Plan, is catalyzing unprecedented gentrification in Ward 8 and worsening the social determinants of health for the city's most socially vulnerable ward.
The Budget Proposal
Council deliberations on the mayor's budget proposal follow a familiar pattern - eschewing data-gathering and high-level analysis. The mayor's proposal for $145 million in gun violence prevention and youth programs will only be effective to the extent that sound theories on prevention are supported by quality research and adequately trained staff. The mayor has publicly defended her decision on decreasing funding for violence interrupters by pointing to an uptick in crime. However, it is not clear whether these types of programs ever had sufficient data to support public funding. Most likely, the programs did not benefit from implementation science to assess the adequate level of staffing and resources to achieve effective outcomes. The benefits of $57 million to reduce health disparities will only be maximized if external factors such as gentrification and rising income inequality do not worsen the social determinants of health. Increasing poverty concentration in Ward 8, citywide displacement, and increased rent burden characterize DC's economic expansion. The proposed 5% increase to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula assumes that increased school funding will improve educational quality and student outcomes. By now, the District should have scientific knowledge about the conditions or extent to which this assumption may hold true. A major study touting improved educational outcomes controlled for the effects of gentrification. It is not helpful for research to eliminate the effects of gentrification on student learning. Low teacher retention and satisfaction are clearly major challenges, as is high truancy. Although deep educational disparities persist, the quality of DC schools is improving. High truancy may mean that we need to evolve our educational teaching and learning beyond the classroom to be culturally tailored and community-based.
$41 million for downtown housing subsidies will strengthen racial and income disparities because it will overwhelmingly support market housing. The Zoning Commission recently denied the Office of Attorney General's request to apply the Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) program for affordable housing to currently exempt downtown zones. The mayor proposed $36 million for additional protected bike lanes and $15 million to continue expansion of Capital Bikeshare, but there is little justification for $51 million in the bike economy when vast inequity persists. Ridership also does not reflect the diversity of the city - neither in gender, race, age, nor income. Besides, the anticipated bike lane usage from major infrastructure investment thus far has not materialized. The undue influence of a major bike lobby group is partly to blame for spending waste based on demand that does not exist. This group receives more than $1 million annually from DC taxpayers and engages in extensive lobbying.
Framework for Accelerating Equity - A Basic Introduction
The District does not plan and grow in a uniform fashion because of glaring contradictions and an abject failure to align five key areas (left). Budgeting for a major US city should not appear as if a neophyte or novice can do it by moving funds around based on unsupported assumptions and theories. The District is desperately in need of a new vision and approach to tackling deep inequity amidst abundant resources. In plain terms, the District needs to get smarter. Southwest residents are leading a new international public health movement that is influencing how cities and organizations think differently about public policy challenges. Their manuscript proposed a framework for accelerating health equity, "Public Health Liberation (PHL) posits that shared values and beliefs (philosophy) should broaden our understanding of causal factors (theories) and maximize the variety of tools and solutions (praxis), to include data-gathering (research) and community and student development (training)." [Source] Accelerating equity requires aligning values, theories, practice, research, and training. A major explanation for persistent inequity in the District is due to internal contradictions and lack of coordination within the public health economy and other sectors.
Should Must Align Five Framework Components
1. Values - Articulate values and worldviews
2. Theories - Be explicit about theories; strengths and weaknesses
3. Practice - Be realistic about practice-based implementation.
4. Research - Drive decision-making with data
5. Training - Ensuring Training
Example 1: Applying the Framework to Congress Heights in Ward 8 (See Image 1 Below)
The effects of blunt planning tools as proposed in the Congress Heights Small Area Plan will reverberate well beyond the planning area. Economic vulnerability and added rent burden will mean displacement. The unlocking of Poplar Point, with SAP, will be injurious and disparate.
Example 2: Applying the Framework to New Hospitals
Vast health inequity in resource-rich DC is morally indefensible. DC has failed to deliver major gains in health justice. Policy violence against African American communities, esp. Black women, must end.
Public documents on the new hospitals lack a clear vision and blueprint to accelerate health equity. Agreements between DC and partners should reflect existing legal requirements (e.g., community health needs assessment) and evidence-based practices. More broadly, the District should increase accountability of local tax-exemption hospitals' legal and social obligations for community health improvement.
The District has very high per capita spending (i.e., budget and overall public and private spending). Yet, the District is struggling to close major racial gaps in health. It ranks as a top city for overall health performance for Whites and bottom 20% for Blacks. The District fails to leverage vast data for rigorous research. Incoming healthier populations and Black displacement create a research barrier. Future research should assess the costs savings and population health improvement of an all-payer model.