Letter From DC: Poverty, "The Poor," The Heritage Foundation, and Pete "The Mayor of Massachusetts Avenue"

By , Columnist

“Two days to the weekend. No skinny dipping,” constantly cautions Pete Bis to female pedestrians passing through his urban toll at the corner of 2nd Street and Massachusetts Avenue N.E.  His admonition has two purposes, prompted by his extensive studies in law and psychology.

“Skinny dipping is a misdemeanor, but two joint misdemeanors equal a felony upgrade,” he explains.  “I’m trying to keep these young ladies out of the law’s reach.”  On the other hand, there is an alternative motive.  “I’m going B.F. Skinner on ‘em and hoping for some reverse psychology,” he cackled.  Where would Pete go skinny dipping? “Across the river, where we would face only state and not federal jurisdictions.” 

Pete.jpgPete is representative of many of Washington’s DC homeless and mentally ill.  They actually read the newspapers upon which they sleep, well-versed in the issues of the day informed by the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Financial Times, and the hometown Post

The recall on names, agencies and history is almost Rainman in its clarity; the conspiratorial analysis, however, could even force a “Quoi?” out of Oliver Stone. 

Pete holds court just 25 yards from the entrance of The Heritage Foundation, the unabashedlyheritage foundation.jpg conservative think tank that provides the talking points to some of your more right-wing folks on the Hill and Fox News’ green room.

This past July, it issued a report, “Cable TV, AC and an Xbox: What is Poverty Today?” to pre-empt the U.S. Census’ annual report on poverty, which was just released this past Tuesday.  Sensing a media hit and fundraising opportunity, it regurgitated the report, explaining, “The average poor person is far from affluent, but his lifestyle is far from the images of stark deprivation purveyed by advocacy groups and the media.” 

The report is just the latest fodder in blaming the victim for the economy’s woes and shows a gall and tone-deafness breathtaking even by Washington’s standards.

The U.S. Census reported that in 46.2 million Americans -- nearly one in six -- live below the poverty line which is considered an income of $22,314 a year for a family of four. In Washington D.C., where the Heritage Foundation is headquartered, the rate is one in five. 

The figure is the highest level since 1993, coincidentally the second year in office for a Democratic President commissioned with cleaning up an economy battered by deficit-laden budgets provided by previous Republican rule in the White House.

Heritage, however, wants to assure us the glass is actually half full. The new “poor” have it pretty damn good.

  • 80% of poor households have air conditioning
  • 92% of poor households have a microwave
  • Nearly 3/4’s have a car or a truck
  • Nearly 2/3’s have cable or satellite, or a DVD player
  • More than 1/2 of poor families with kids have a Xbox or PlayStation
  • 43% can surf porn on the Internet
  • And 1/3rd have a flat screen and 1/4 have a DVR 

RobertRector.pngIt’s “liberals” and the “mainstream media” in their joint effort to erect an irreversible welfare state with the blatant intention of establishing citizen dependency upon the guvmint that are overlooking just how large the “poor” are livin’, the author of the Heritage report, the appropriately-named Robert Rector, patiently explained to Fox News.

After all, you only have to look right next door to Heritage to itsJohnsonhousing.jpg “Johnson Building Intern Housing Program,” or the “Heritage Brothel” as Pete calls it. “I’d be shot if I named the politicians visiting their ‘nieces’ in there,” he claims.

The offered amenities at the Johnson offer a striking resemblance to the “amenities” enjoyed by the “poor,” according to its Web site:

  • Furnishings: single beds, nightstand, dresser, desk with bookshelves, kitchen table and chairs, clothes closet, iron/ironing board, and LCD TV
  • Kitchen: refrigerator/freezer, microwave, toaster oven, coffee maker, cookware, complete dish set, eating and cooking utensils
  • High speed wireless internet
  • Cable TV (200+ non-premium channels)
  • Air conditioning
  • All utilities
  • Local phone service
  • A coin-operated laundry facility and fitness center

These “poor” have some nerve; they’re living just as well as 20-something conservative interns three blocks from the Capitol for God’s sake. Plus, that family of four is getting an extra $9,000 in government bennies on top of their $22G’s a year.  If the “poor” just quit their whining, stop having babies out of wedlock and stop their “erosion of the work ethic,” maybe more than the half of them could afford a cell phone. 

The job thing is a bit tricky, though.  While corporate America sits on more than $2 trillion in cash -- “spooked” by the economy’s uncertainty -- more than 10.52 million Americans are applying for only 2.752 million available jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and National Bureau of Economic Research.

Then again, it’s not like Heritage has a great track record in its assessments.  In its 2001 “The Economic Impact of President Bush’s Tax Relief Plan,” Heritage predicted:

  • Significantly Increased Economic Growth with an average annual GDP growth rate of 3.3% from FY 2002 to FY 2011
  • More Job Opportunities with an annual unemployment rate of 4.7% from FY 2002 to FY 2011 and 1.6 million new jobs
  • Substantially Increased Family Income with yearly disposable income growing by $4,544 per family of four and a $255 billion increase in consumer spending by FY 2011. 

You could almost see Dr. Phil at the Armand’s Pizza next door to Heritage asking, “How’d that work for ya’?”

Just as incredible, Heritage as a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization gets extensive tax breaks for its partisan advocacy (not on behalf of any specific candidate, mind you.), not to mention advantageous tax loopholes the federal government grants to such entities (including its liberal and libertarian rivals) within Washington D.C. 

According to the DC Office of Tax and Revenue, Heritage’s residential neighbors pay property tax rates up to six times higher than these folks that have never stepped a foot across the Anacostia River to see for themselves that “most of the poor” do not live in housing “in good repair.” 

Washingtonians are more than familiar with welfare deadbeats that feel entitled after decades of racial and colonial oppression by our unelected rulers, the federal government. 

There’s still the “Marion Barry Job,” named after our illustrious former Mayor who built a machine by stuffing the DC Government with window watchers who used their civil servant salaries and protections to move out to Prince Georges County, MD. 

We even shake our heads at the kindergartener on free-and-reduced lunch that gets dropped off in a gleaming Escalade playing a GameBoy.

Yet, it’s just plain tacky to use the anecdotal to demonize an entire class of folks that has little voice and certainly no political clout in today’s political landscape to rationalize self-serving partisanship. Really? The poor ain’t all that bad off.  That’s the response to the Census figures?

How about first insuring that there are jobs for those looking for the work?  A decent first step in addressing an issue of common concern to the “poor” and -- apparently -- the Heritage Foundation.

“I already have something in common with them,” Pete mused.  “Neither one of us pay taxes.”

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Marc Osgoode Smith has covered – and participated in - Washington DC policy circles for more than two decades as a journalist covering media and as an association and think tank executive. Smith now enjoys his role as a “cultural observer” of DC Politics and the people that engage in them.

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