The laws DC is funding in this year’s budget

A grey stone building with a plaque designating it as the office of the D.C. Mayor and Council.

The John Wilson Building, where the D.C. Council meets. Photo by Kaela Roeder.

D.C. is poised to implement new protections for domestic workers, street vendors and young people in foster care, thanks to funding in the fiscal year 2024 budget. 

Over the last year, the D.C. Council has voted to create a domestic workers bill of rights, remove restrictions on street vending and protect the Social Security benefits of foster care youth. But each measure required funding, so even after enactment they sat in limbo — technically law but not fully enforceable. Now, the council has voted to add funding for all three of these laws in next year’s budget. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget left them unfunded. 

Those recently enacted laws weren’t the only ones caught between policy support and a lack of funding. In December, the D.C. Council approved At-large Councilmember Christina Henderson’s Give SNAP a Raise Act, which would add a local Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit to D.C.’s residents’ monthly checks. But with a price tag of $200 million over four years, it hasn’t yet been funded in what both the council and mayor acknowledge is a tough budget year. 

The council gave initial approval to the fiscal year 2024 budget on May 16, restoring funding for many social safety net and housing programs that Bowser proposed cutting. While not much is expected to change before the final vote on May 30, councilmembers have said they’re looking for a way to increase local SNAP benefits, as well as to fund repairs to schools and recreation centers in Ward 8. 

Stage set for SNAP debate 

The federal SNAP program distributes monthly subsidies to about 146,000 low-income households in the District to help pay for groceries, with the amount determined based on income and family size. The average benefit for D.C. residents on SNAP is estimated to be about $6 a day. Households received increased SNAP benefits during the pandemic, but the extra amount — $93 a month on average — lapsed earlier this year. 

Even with SNAP, 11% of Washingtonians are still food insecure. A new local supplement could narrow the food security gap, Henderson told her colleagues in December prior to a vote on her legislation, which she and seven other councilmembers introduced in January 2022. If implemented, the Give SNAP a Raise Act would add an average benefit of $47 monthly for D.C. recipients. 

Although the legislation remains unfunded thus far, Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker said at the May 16 meeting that hope for SNAP isn’t lost. He hinted at a proposal in the works from Ward 4’s Janeese Lewis George to fund at least a small SNAP increase. Lewis George’s office had not released details of the plan as of last week. 

“If we can [fund the legislation] this year, I think it can make a world of a difference for hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians,” Parker said. 

Workplace protections for domestic workers 

About 9,000 people work as domestic workers in D.C., cleaning homes and providing child care. They’ve long lacked the legal protections other employees have, and employers often refuse to pay them minimum wage or to grant paid leave or workers’ compensation. This leaves domestic workers, who are primarily women of color, vulnerable to various forms of exploitation, from harassment to working overtime without extra pay. 

In response to years of advocacy from the local chapter of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the D.C. Council passed the Domestic Worker Employment Rights Amendment Act of 2022 in December. The bill, which was introduced by former At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, explicitly grants domestic workers non-discrimination protections that are required in other workplaces, requires a contract between domestic workers and their employers, and funds trainings on the rights of domestic workers.  

Domestic workers who pushed for the legislation said it would improve working conditions, as employers would have to agree to give them set hours, breaks and days off. There’s also a provision against retaliation, the fear of which leads many domestic workers to stay silent about poor treatment. 

Bowser allowed the bill to become law without her signature but declined to fund it. In response to a councilmember’s question at a budget briefing in March, the mayor said legislators would need to figure it out themselves if they considered the bill a priority for funding. The budget given initial approval by the council includes $250,000 in fiscal year 2024 to implement the anti-discrimination and contract requirements and another $400,000 for outreach. 

Reformed regulations for street vendors 

Hundreds of D.C. residents make a living by selling food, clothes, art and necessities on the city’s sidewalks. Street vendors are supposed to get a license before setting up shop, but various barriers — including for vendors who have been incarcerated, owe fines, or can’t afford the hefty fee — mean that many people operate unlicensed. 

The Street Vendor Advancement Amendment Act of 2023, passed by the council in April and now in the midst of congressional review, will decriminalize vending without a license, alleviating the fear of arrest for many vendors. From 2018 through 2022, at least 463 people were arrested for vending offenses in D.C., according to the nonprofit Beloved Community Incubator. 

The legislation, originally introduced by Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, will also establish pilot zones where vendors can legally operate. 

The bill also makes it easier for vendors to get a license, which is still required. Applicants will no longer have to undergo a criminal background check. Some fees will be waived, and those remaining will drop from over $1,000 to $175 for a business license and sidewalk vending permit. 

The council added $920,000 to Bowser’s proposed fiscal year 2024 budget to fund the bill’s implementation, including creating the new zones, forgiving past fines, offsetting lost licensing fees and setting up a way for vendors to get licenses to sell food they prepare at home. 

Preserving Social Security benefits for foster youth 

Since 2004, D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) has been applying for Social Security and disability benefits for eligible children in foster care in the District. The benefits, which can be more than $700 a month for children who are either orphans or disabled, are then used by CFSA to help pay for the cost of raising the child. 

While this practice is allowed under federal law, many child welfare advocates oppose it. Children don’t have to pay to be entitled to foster care. The benefits, if they were given to a young person when they age out, could help pay for college, get a first apartment or create a safety net. Moreover, the agency doesn’t always keep up with the benefit applications. If a young person gets a job but doesn’t know to report it, they may end up owing money to the federal government. 

This is what happened to Ashley Strange. When she left foster care in D.C., she learned she’d been “overpaid” benefits — which had actually gone to CFSA — and thus had to pay back the U.S. government. 

Strange helped inspire the Preserving Our Kids’ Equity Through Trusts (POKETT) Amendment Act of 2022, which passed in January and banned this practice. The bill also required CFSA to screen all young people leaving foster care to see if they’re eligible for federally funded housing vouchers, which can prevent foster youth from becoming homeless. An investigation this spring by Street Sense Media and The DC Line found that D.C. routinely fails to distribute all available vouchers for foster youth, even as young people say they need the housing assistance. 

In order to implement the newly enacted law, the council had to add money to the budget to make up for the income CFSA would lose from seizing the benefits of youth in foster care — an estimated $1 million annually. The council also added $1.6 million to support transitional housing plans for young people leaving care. 

The council will take a final vote on the budget on May 30. Its second vote on the Budget Support Act, which includes the legal language underlying the budget, is expected in early June.

This article was co-published with The DC Line. 

Annemarie Cuccia covers D.C. government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. This joint position was made possible by The Nash Foundation and individual contributors.

Issues |Abuse|Civil Rights|DC Budget|Jobs|Youth

Region |Washington DC

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