The pandemic has disrupted all our lives. For thousands of Black and Brown children living in low- and middle-income families, existing inequities have made the disruption catastrophic.
Everyday life has become an even greater struggle. Unemployment. Hunger. Fear of eviction. Days spent in cramped apartments without computers or Wi-Fi to participate in remote learning.
It is challenging in a normal year to ensure the DC budget supports children and families. This year, when the increased need met reduced government resources, what was once challenging became formidable.
Money matters – the District budget reflects our community values. With revenue projections almost $700 million less than last year, we knew that the Mayor and DC Council would have to make hard choices.
Although we hope someday to secure a DC government budget that gives all children an opportunity to thrive, this year Children’s Law Center homed in on children’s five most essential needs: housing, food, mental health support, childcare and access to education.
Mayor Bowser was convinced to fund some of these needs, but her proposed budget left large gaps in three key areas – rent support, mental health and childcare. So, we turned our attention to ensuring the DC Council would fill these gaps.
We know that children weighed down by trauma have difficulty learning. During the pandemic, all students need help processing the loss of school, friends and routine, and many have experienced the trauma of losing loved ones and the stress that their parents’ job loss creates. It’s why we used every advocacy tool possible to ensure the planned expansion of the school-based mental health program was funded. And we succeeded! The budget finalized this week includes funds to expand school based mental health and will make mental health support available to thousands more children in DC’s traditional and charter public schools.
The Mayor’s proposed budget also slashed funding for community mental health providers – a move that would have deprived the District of millions of dollars in federal matching funds, forced many providers to close their doors and exacerbated the already existing shortage of mental health support for children and families. We fought to restore funding and secured $5.5 million in the final budget.
When the Mayor’s budget did not go far enough to prevent families from becoming homeless, we advocated and got an additional $8 million for emergency rental assistance – increasing the total to $14 million – and 167 permanent supportive housing vouchers.
And when the Mayor’s proposed budget included significant cuts to the childcare programs that DC families depend on, we worked with coalition partners to restore the cuts and ensure additional funds – $5 million in emergency childcare grants for this year, and $5 million for childcare next year.
The final budget is imperfect – it fails to invest the dollars necessary to ensure all DC children are safe, healthy and learning, and there is a long way to go to ensure equity and racial justice are the guiding principles of its construction.
But these hard-fought gains will make a critical difference for thousands of children, keeping them safely in their homes and ensuring they receive the support they need to manage the trauma of the pandemic.
Our work is not yet done. It is likely that the ongoing economic crisis will lead to mid-year budget cuts. But we will speak up for DC’s children. We know you will join us.
Sharra E. Greer