by Aristotle Jones
“One must always be aware, to notice—even though the cost of noticing is to become responsible.” – Thylias Moss
When a flower does not bloom, we never blame the flower, we blame its environment. We assume that its environment played a role in its unsuccessful development. Therefore, we will care for it more by giving it additional sunlight, water, better soil, more love. Yet when it comes to human beings, when they don’t bloom properly, seldom do we look at the reactionary causes of their environment. We rarely consider how environment shapes prosperity or misery. There is a disconnect in understanding that you are a product of your environment.
On March 9, 1776, the Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, writing, “Whenever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many.”
I came to Washington, D.C. to lobby congress on various social justice issues like criminal justice reform to start the process of ending mass incarceration and campaign finance reform to get money out of American politics.
Though young, I have had many opportunities to travel domestically throughout the United States and abroad to two African countries, Liberia and Ghana. It was not until August 2016 when I moved from Indiana to Washington, D.C, however, that I truly felt and understood the words that Adam Smith professed. Beforehand, I was told that D.C. was glorious—Chocolate City—that Go-Go music was supreme; that politically, the legislative process moved slower than molasses in the wintertime. To my surprise, only one turned out to be correct and that was politics. When I arrived in D.C., I did not see anything glorious: it was not Chocolate City, and Go-Go was a dying genre. I was greeted with extreme poverty in places, in what seemed to be an oxymoron. Every morning and every evening when I would leave and enter Union Station or walk near the White House, I would say my hellos and goodbyes to poverty. I saw human beings who had nothing but the clothes on their backs and a cup for spare change, who could see the United States Capitol and the White House in arms reach, who will never get the taste of the American pie. They seemed to be victims of Americanism. This was my alarm clock to poverty.
I came to Washington, D.C. to lobby congress on various social justice issues like criminal justice reform to start the process of ending mass incarceration and campaign finance reform to get money out of American politics. I knew I was doing good, humane work. When I walked through the halls of Congress, however, I felt disconnected with reality. It seemed to me that the rich did not care about the problems of the poor and they blamed their problems solely on personal decisions rather than the deprived environments and neighborhoods that had been the true source of trouble. Put simply, they failed to see the relationship between the capital they horded in elite enclaves and the suffering of those living outside their boundaries.
There are 34 billionaires within a 25-mile radius of Washington, D.C. With that wealth comes great property. The average price of D.C. real estate costing $1 million or more rose by 33 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to The New York Times. In addition, the richest of D.C. residents, those in the top 5 percent income bracket, make $473,000 a year, which is the highest in the nation (the average among all large cities is $292,000). However, “where there is great property there is great inequality.” Washington, D.C. is a city of the haves and the have-nots. It is a city divided by the Anacostia River. If you go east of the river, you will enter a new world, where the poverty rate rose from 27 percent in 2007 to 33 percent in 2015. The poverty rate among children living in this world of have-nots is a staggering 46 percent, compared with just 13 percent for children in the rest of the city, according to The DC Fiscal Policy Institute. In Ward 8, Perry Stein points out that the median family income dropped nearly 17 percent between 2006-2010 and 2010-2015, from $28,979 to $24,096. By comparison, the median family income in Ward 2 jumped nearly 65 percent, from $114,752 to $189,324. In other words, there’s a direct correlation in D.C. between the growing wealth of the rich and the declining wealth of the poor.
The state intervenes primarily on behalf of the wealthy. This is not by necessity, but by design.
For Smith, this relationship between rich and poor formed the basis of the state. He wrote that wealth and power “establish authority and subordination among men.” They also generate inequality when the wealthy abuse their power to horde capital at the expense of the community. This then creates resentment among the poor, “who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade [their] possessions.” As a result, implementing a civil magistrate (law enforcement) provides a peace of mind for the owner of the valuable property, and “exclaims the inherent superiority of the wealthy over the poor.” The acquisition of property therefore requires the establishment of a civil government, which grants power, protection, and privilege to wealthy elites. Two things are crucially important here. First, wealth exists, not in some fictional state of nature, but only with the support of the interventionist state. Second, that the state intervenes primarily on behalf of the wealthy. This is not by necessity, but by design.
Just as in any metropolitan city, poverty disparities within the District of Columbia accompany many other social problems: high crime, poor education, and poor health. We must be committed in understanding that poverty overlaps with other socioeconomic issues. In America, poverty is synonymous with misery.
Poverty and crime are intimately related. As Kevin Shird has recently argued, “Violence does not cause poverty. Violence, is a symptom of poverty.” That truth holds within the borders of our nation’s capital, too. The poorest fifth of D.C. neighborhoods experienced 2,730 violent crimes in 2000, which amounted to 25.3 violent crimes per 1,000 residents. The violent crime rate in the middle fifth of D.C. neighborhoods stood at 15.8 per 1,000 residents, reflecting 1,722 violent crimes. The D.C. neighborhoods with the lowest poverty rates, however, had 4.3 violent crimes per 1000 residents during the same span. This means that the violent crime rate in DC’s poorest neighborhoods was six times higher than in its lowest-poverty areas.
Poverty is a symptom of this disadvantage, and that disadvantage leads to poor school performance.
Kansas psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley conducted a study that revealed that, by age four, children who live within poverty-stricken households heard 32 million fewer words compared to their richer peers. Children within this environment have parents, usually soldiers within the army of the working poor, who lack the time and energy for anything more than simple commands. Poverty is a symptom of this disadvantage, and that disadvantage leads to poor school performance. Washington, D.C. is not excused from this tragedy. Only 20 percent of students in elementary schools in D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods score at or above grade level. The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute points out that standardized testing scores fall into four categories: below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced. At elementary schools located in D.C.’s middle-poverty neighborhoods, 66 percent of students scored at or below basic in reading and 63 percent scored at or below basic in math.
Instead of funneling children into the prison system, D.C. must take a closer look at their environments. D.C. must invest in the poor by embodying respect, imbedding social skills, and being inclusive, just as Eric Jensen suggests, and just as they do for the rich.
As of 2015, 42 million Americans qualified as food insecure; 13 million of them were children. The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. The truth is, being poor and living in poverty can be bad for your health. Within their 2017 report, the D.C. Policy Center notes that 11.3 percent of the District is living within a food desert; and more than three-quarters of the food deserts in the District are located east of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8. As ProPublica data analyst, Kate Rabinowitz, points out, “looking at this more-detailed view of health across income groups makes clear the wealth gap that exists at nearly every stage of wellness.” When living in food deserts, D.C.’s poor turn to quick marts, gas stations, convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. Lack of access to healthy, nutritious food is linked to numerous health problems including early death, diabetes, and even infant morality.
I thought I understood what poverty was, but then I came to Washington, D.C. I imagine you can go to any major city within the United States and see similarities, but I thought our nation’s capital would put more effort into solving the issues of inequality, poverty, and protecting its citizens. I asked myself the same question Stephen Pimpare asked: “Why do we insist that if you are poor, you should also be miserable?” Almost in response, I remember the words of Mumia Abu-Jamal, that “this is a system that protects profits and prestige, not people.” The failure engendered in poverty is a collective one. It represents our willingness to accept a world where “the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many”—a world where those living east of the Anacostia are condemned to destitution and misery.
Behold, my eyes have seen all this, my ear has heard and understood it. What you know, I also know; I am not inferior to you. – Job 13: 1-2
Aristotle Jones is a 2015 Tuskegee University Alumnus from Indianapolis, Indiana. He has recently finished a fellowship with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, where he was a public interest lobbyist. Aristotle primarily lobbied on criminal justice reform to end mass incarceration. He can be followed on Twitter @Stotle_9 and can be reached via email here.
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 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, (London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1776) Book V, Chapter I, Part II, On the Expense of Justice, accessed at https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/smith-adam/works/wealth-of-nations/book05/ch01b.htm.
 Mumia Abu Jamal, “The Law Against The Law,” in Have Black Lives Ever Mattered, (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2017).