Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Might handing cash to struggling neighbors pay for itself in later prosperity?

The Arlington Community Foundation is spearheading a real-world test of the proposition, with cooperation from the county’s Department of Human Services.

As described last month at the Arlington Committee of 100, the experiment with a “guaranteed income” or “unconditional cash” might seem a socialistic challenge to common sense. But it would put Arlington in some good company around the region and the country.

“Arlington is at a crossroads,” said Anne Vor der Bruegge, the foundation’s director of grants and initiatives. In our pandemic-worsened “affordability crisis,” the lowest-income are “rapidly being displaced,” she said. Entry-level office cleaners, restaurant workers and health aides “cannot afford to live here.” Virginia Hospital Center workers who reside in, say, Manassas, who perform vital tasks like sterilizing surgical equipment, pass by two competing hospitals during their commute. The cash movement is “not only a moral mandate but an economic imperative.”

Average annual income in Arlington for a family of four is $129,000, the foundation reports. But 25,000 Arlingtonians in 10,000 households, 11 percent of our population (largely people of color) take in only $38,700. They must scramble to cover daily and unforeseen expenses, experiencing poverty “as a full-time job,” Vor der Bruegge said.

Complicating the challenge is the “benefits cliff effect.” If the poor manage even a minor pay raise, they end up losing out due to declining eligibility for existing government entitlements in health care, food, child care, transportation and housing.

Current anti-poverty programs “are not flexible enough and can’t anticipate all that gets in the way” for low-income families, said Brian Marroquín, a program officer and National Urban Fellow at the foundation. He recalled sadness during his own upbringing in the Buckingham community when neighbors were forced to move as they were priced out.

A guaranteed income, he said, would be a “culture shift” that means “trusting people as experts in own lives.” Cash would give them a chance to “take a breather, meet long-term goals, get out from under debt and make ends meet.” Data show that “people work more, not less” with unconditional cash. Programs are in effect in Stockton, Calif., and Jackson, Miss., the speakers noted, with pilots coming in the District, Fairfax and Alexandria.

Since its launch last September, Arlington’s program has randomly selected 175 out of a planned 200 households who make 30 percent of area median income. Each will get $500 in cash monthly for 18 months. By law, the project is funded only privately (the Kresge Foundation). The Arlington foundation receives advisory help from the Urban Institute and safety-net nonprofits to provide “wrap-around” support such as career and financial counseling.

Arlington DHS is “amazingly committed to reducing bureaucratic hurdles,” added Vor der Bruegge. “When you invest in parents, you invest in kids.”

There has been surprisingly “little pushback” from critics along lines of fears that recipients will misuse the money on drugs, she said.

When I asked former county board member John Vihstadt for comment, he said, “I was skeptical at first. But with persistent poverty being such an intractable problem in a land of plenty, we need to try innovative approaches. I’m eager to see results of the pilot. For the long term, however, there is no substitute for quality education through strong public schools to lift people up.”

I was surprised to hear an historical rumor from an old classmate from the Bellevue Forest neighborhood. Apparently many grew up believing that President Warren G. Harding, in the early 1920s, trysted with mistress Nan Britton just down the street.

The site would be Glenmore (built 1910), called “The Glass House” in modern times.

I scanned Nan Britton’s 1927 memoir about her affair with Harding, but found no mention of an Arlington rendezvous. Current owner Gail Raiman forwarded me a history of the home compiled by tenants in 1971. It suggested such familiar tales of Harding—infamous also for the Teapot Dome scandale—are “probably untrue.”