Impressions of a Summer in D.C.

When residents of Washington, D.C., use the term "city government," they are speaking either metaphorically or humorously: in actual fact there is no such thing. Lines of responsibility in the administration of the city do not exist. Those with real power in the city are usually not interested in its problems, while those with real interest in the city's problems generally have no power. Frustration is built into Washington affairs.

In other words, Washington events should be judged according to a standard different from that applied to any other city. A project which one would call a flop in Pittsburgh or New York could be anything from a flat-out failure to a raging success, properly interpreted in a Washington context. Sloppy management is never more than a minor accusation to bring against a D.C. program. Good intentions are rare enough to be acceptable even in the absence of workable policies.

Thus the really damning thing one can say about a D.C. program is that those responsible do not mean well. The program may be silly, the budget unrealistic, the administration utterly inefficient, but as long as the sponsors mean well, it represents an achievement. My impression, after a summer in a poverty-funded agency, is that the D.C. anti-poverty program does not even mean well. More important, more and more of the program's supposed clients are sharing that impression.

Washington's anti-poverty programs are all coordinated through the United Planning Organization, a nebulous political entity which is difficult to find physically and well-nigh impossible to reach by telephone. All of the Federal poverty funds are channeled through UPO to Washington's various anti-poverty agencies. Job interviews for programs such as Head Start and Step-Up are usually handled at UPO offices scattered anonymously over the city. Paychecks come from UPO; and UPO is first to be criticized when unfavorable publicity attaches itself to any of the poverty activities.

Apparently, UPO is not big enough to handle all of these jobs. This summer's employees of Head Start went without paychecks until mid-August because of a snafu at UPO. Applicants for jobs in Step-Up, a Recreation Department program, were not even interviewed until the end of June, after most people's summer plans were made. At one UPO office some thirty people, apparently all scheduled for interviews at the same time, waited two hours for staff members (of whom there appeared to be only three) to talk to them. Those remaining at six o'clock were informed that the interviewers were going home. They were invited to try their luck again the next day. The girl handling the interviews was inept and apparently without experience. She asked only routine questions, already answered on the application forms which she obviously had not read before-hand.

The attitude toward the programs was uniformly casual, with the result that children were often no better off in supervised recreation activities than they would have been roaming the streets. Once, on a trip to Storybook land Park, Virginia, with a group of toddlers, I met a group of about forty elementary-school-aged children from the Step-Up program with their teachers. Their chartered bus had deposited them at the gate to the park and left promising to return two hours later. None of the teachers, it seems, had expected an admission fee and no one had any money. So here they were, expected to stand for two hours in the hot sun waiting for the bus, while the children peered through the fence at all the other children playing in the park.

The other teachers with my group were appalled that the proprietor could be so heartless to a group of children and, talking among themselves, called him every name but a child of God. Later that evening the mother of one of our children gave us a new insight into the situation. A few days before, she told us, another group from Step-Up had visited the park. The teachers had exercised no control whatever over the group and before the day was over, the children had killed three ducks by tossing a trash can into a pond.

Dealings with Neighborhood Youth Corps enrollees were similarly casual. The intention had been that they would hold jobs for six months and then return to school. Often enough, this was not made clear to NYC enrollees themselves. An eighteen-year-old boy at the agency where I worked was suddenly, in September, given the choice of returning to school or being kicked out of the program two weeks later. He chose the latter.

Though the theory was that all NYC enrollees would have counselors from the time of their enrollment, this boy -- let us call him Donald -- never saw a counselor until the day he was given the ultimatum. Training young people to hold responsible jobs was the ostensible purpose of the NYC. In fact, there was no training involved. Uncounseled and unsupervised, Donald's attitude toward his job was consistently childish and irresponsible. When he left the NYC, the chances are he never found another job. Donald's experience in the NYC didn't teach him even the rudiments of how to hold a job, let alone give him any skills or experience to offer a potential private employer. Most likely no one but a poverty agency would even consider hiring him.

This summer Washington made news -- perhaps -- when a crowd of young people threw sticks and rocks at a police station in the Anacostia section of Washington, while one or two boys with a keen sense of the dramatic shouted, "Let's go get the cocktails!" Local newspapers immediately christened the outburst a "riot," and the police did their best to make it one by sending for a pack of dogs with their handlers, white men from Brandywine, Maryland, on the ends of their leashes.

Nothing really came of this riotlet except the realization in some quarters -- maybe for the first time -- that a real riot in Washington is not beyond the realm of possibility. But there followed controversy upon controversy about whether people on the UPO payroll had provoked the Anacostia "riot."

Considering the evidence it seems unlikely. At any rate, neighborhood workers from Southeast Neighborhood House, most often accused of encouraging the riot, have said that they went along only to channel the crowd's aggression when it became apparent that some sort of demonstration was inevitable.

But the fact remains that UPO has seemed far more energetic leading the poor in futile picketing and sit-ins than it has coordinating and administering the programs it is responsible for. One demonstration protested the absence of pins to secure the seats on the toilets in a public housing project -- scarcely the most weighty of housing problems in Washington. A head count revealed seven of the ten demonstrators to be neighborhood