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A Late Summer Diary Entry from Ronit Bhattacharyya ’07

I have been working this summer for SOME (So Others Might Eat), a charity in Washington, DC. SOME provides a range of services to the poor and homeless of Washington, including: food, clothing, health care, affordable housing, addictions treatment, counseling, services for the elderly or mentally ill, and job training.

I work in the last of these fields – as a teacher at SOME’s Center for Employment Training, a school for unemployed adults in the District. Our program consists of general education in English and math, which prepares students to earn the GED, along with vocational training – in nursing, building maintenance and repair, or computer skills. Our students generally graduate with a job that pays a living wage; many students have also gone on to college. I teach classes in English and tutor students in computer skills. Due to the recent departure of a senior instructor, I am now responsible for creating lesson plans and developing the English curriculum.

The work is rewarding. I believe I have found my vocation. Teaching is enjoyable and engaging – so much so that my initial reaction now on reading TS Eliot is to question his grammar. It’s a great pleasure to help students – all of them older than me – understand something for the first time.

The majority of our students have high school diplomas from DC Public Schools – and many of them are reading and doing math at fifth- or sixth-grade levels. Public education in the District of Columbia is a failure. It is, perhaps, worse here than anywhere else in the country.

I grew up in Calcutta, India, famous for its poverty. Yet there are parts of DC which are as poor as Calcutta, and there are many parts of Calcutta that are better off than DC. This city is an anomaly in the world’s wealthiest nation.

There are historic reasons for this poverty, which seems to afflict African-Americans almost exclusively. The ghastly repercussions of slavery and segregation are still being felt – only a few generations separate the present from that shameful past. But many of the problems of inner-city DC – drugs and violent crime, for example – are locally grown, and cannot be blamed on external forces. Culture is as culpable as history.

This becomes especially apparent when I work with our immigrant students. Recent immigrants from Ethiopia or Sudan or Eritrea, who arrived here penniless and without any knowledge of English, they tend to work much harder than native-born American students. Though they face more serious obstacles, they usually receive better grades; our top students – even in English class – are from sub-Saharan Africa, and have been in America a few months or years at the most. The immigrant students are also unusually successful after they graduate – many start their own businesses or enter college.

The circumstances for teaching are difficult – we are grossly understaffed and underfunded. A recent slew of bad management decisions and staff departures has not helped. We have had to double the size of some classes, and may have to cancel others. But working with the students is still worthwhile. There is a crisis meeting in progress to decide the future of this Center. Hopefully, we will be able to continue somehow, helping a few more people become self-sufficient.

If you are interested in donating to SOME.
If you would like to get involved with SOME.

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#1 Comment By Reed Wiedower On August 4, 2004 @ 1:56 pm

Okay, first of all, “this poverty, which seems to afflict African-Americans almost exclusively” does so because Washington is 60% African American. The minority white population of 30% is also heavily clustered in more affluent neighborhoods. The idea that poor people in DC tend to be black is therefore irrelevant, because MOST DC residents are black. There’s no surprise there.

Second, saying “But many of the problems of inner-city DC – drugs and violent crime, for example – are locally grown, and cannot be blamed on external forces. Culture is as culpable as history” is disingenuous, especially when followed by a stereotypical “immigrants work harder than residents” anecdote. There is no culture of poverty here in DC.

Third, acting as if DC residents are responsible for their predicament unfairly skews the ideas for solutions. If district residents are lazy, one could argue, why should we help them? Instead, a hard look needs to be taken at the institutional and financial structures that shape DC life.

Why are programs and organizations like SOME having difficulties? Because there simply isn’t the money out there to help them. In the case of the district, the tax base is completely skewed in a manner which is regressive. We have the highest sales tax in the nation, at 10%, yet are unable to tax buildings on federal property. Commuters from more affluent communities in NoVA and Maryland use our roads every day, yet do not contribute a single cent to their upkeep. In good times, then, the city is able to meet its financial demands but when times are tough, services get cut.

Services that impact the lives of those in poverty. The solution to poverty is not simply to spend more money on services, but to blame the residents of DC for their plight is a misunderstanding of how things got this bad.

#2 Comment By Ronit On August 4, 2004 @ 2:39 pm

I’m not sure that blaming residents of DC for their plight is what I was doing. I was merely noting that there is a destructive culture which does affect specific individual lives – and holds them back from educational or other achievement. I get this from talking to students, who tell me that they have ended up here because of the mistakes they made, making poor choices in high school. That’s only a part of the story, though.

In fact, more funding for services would be a huge assistance. For example, while public transport in DC is better than in many other places in America, it is also quite expensive. Cheaper transport would greatly help poorer people by allowing mobility in jobs and housing.

Working in education, poor schools also seem to be a factor. Better education would help a great deal. I do not pretend to know how that might come about, and I’m pessimistic that it will. School vouchers (which DC is trying out) do help somewhat, but in a limited way.

I take umbrage that my anecdote was “stereotypical”, because that was just a report from my own experience. I have, in fact, just finished grading a bunch of tests, and the highest grade was earned by an Ethiopian individual.

Completely agreed that affluent communities near DC use city services without contributing anything to tax revenue. While DC has such a high poverty rate, the greater Washington area is quite wealthy. SOME gets most of its funding from private donors in this area – Northern Virginia and Suburban Maryland. Yet, I am quite certain that those communitiies would resist any expansion of the tax base.

Also agreed that the Federal presence causes a lot of problems (though it is a large employer, and mostly responsible for what prosperity does exist here). Anecdotally, in the last two days, the US Capitol police (federal) has shut down a part of downtown, using the orange alert as an excuse – hugely irritating to DC police and government.

Thank you for responding.

#3 Comment By Loweeel On August 4, 2004 @ 4:01 pm


I actually just moved down to Falls Church because I’m starting law school in a week and a half.

How much longer are you going to be around?

#4 Comment By Reed Wiedower On August 5, 2004 @ 10:48 am

I just think that the themes in your post seem to echo your lines of a “destructive culture” and your thought about change, “I’m pessimistic that it will”. If you are pessimistic, who is going to be optimistic? My friends who say, “DC will never get voting rights” play right into the hands of those who would deny us representation. Likewise, your sentiment “School vouchers (which DC is trying out) do help somewhat, but in a limited way.” vastly oversimplifies the struggle in DC over vouchers. Desperate for money, the DC schools received vouchers despite the entire City Council opposing them. It would be as if the state of Utah decided to ban gambling in Las Vegas: a group of people elected from other places in the country continually decide to pass “experiments” in DC over the wishes of residents.

I wasn’t actually trying to say the Federal presence was a problem…merely that it skews the tax base in a regressive manner. If DC were to eliminate the sales tax and instead increase the income tax, that would be more progressive. Unfortunately, DC is tied for the second highest income tax rate in the nation. And the two states at or above it begin to tax their highest rate (9.5% and 11.0% respectively) at $319,100 and $76,199 of taxable income. DC’s highest bracket (9.5%) kicks in at $30,000. By contrast, DC’s lowest rate is tied for 3rd highest as well at 5%. Clearly, we’re tapped out for taxing residents and yet we still need a federal payment.

So, in my mind, the problems in DC boil down to two: money and representation. If we had more money and representation in Congress, we’d be able to tackle the tough issues of crime and education. To say there’s a “destructive culture” blames the victim a little too much, in my mind.