Second-Class Citizens: How D.C. and Puerto Rico Lose Out on Democracy

Is there a connection between deprivation and a lack of federal representation? The people in territories without a vote sure think so.

A homeless man eats a cup of chili not far from the Washington Monument in D.C. (Jim Young/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Fortune is on Malik's side when we meet up outside the Federal City Shelter in downtown Washington, D.C., the place he calls home. It's a respectable-looking three-story job with blue-framed windows and red, white, and blue tiling running the length of the block—not a bad upgrade to the wooden bench on Capitol Hill where I spent the previous night, if you can find a bed. Lunch will soon be served through the delivery entrance in back, courtesy D.C. Central Kitchen. The yard and street out front have started filling up with a motley assortment of men and women, shopping carts and bags, wheelchairs and bikes.

Finding me confused by his cheerful demeanor in this not-so-cheerful place, Malik exclaims, "My spirit is not down ... I gotta thank the Lord!" His reason to give thanks? Word has just come in that his long-awaited disability check will soon be coming through.

Malik is not your average homeless Joe. A native of the District of Columbia, he looks young for his 56 years and does not have the scars and scuffs that usually come with time out on the streets. His trim 5-foot-8-inch frame is neatly clad in a button-down shirt tucked into his worn but respectable-looking slacks. He talks with the confidence and fluency of a man with a college degree, which he has—in theater arts. He was a counselor for 10 years, assisting people who were abused, neglected, or mentally ill. Usually they were all of the above, he says.

"I worked for group homes for the court building right here, for the public defenders next door, for the D.C. Court of Appeals right over there," he explains, pointing to a trio of dull gray buildings across the Interstate from where we stand on 2nd Street NW. "I used to come through here and see these people [at the shelter]. I had good jobs …"

Then things took a turn for the worse. It's hard to say exactly what it was that sent his marriage of 12 years into a tailspin and landed him out on the streets, but Malik figures some combination of his wife's infidelity and his own abuse of drugs and concomitant depression are to blame. Before long, Malik was himself in need of counseling. "The choices that you make sometimes can be the wrong ones," he says.

Stints in shelters and out on the street—the longest he went without a roof over his head was three months in Atlanta, where he'd gone in search of work that never materialized—were broken up by live-in relationships with an assortment of women. But they never seemed to last. "Some just turned tragic," Malik says, and offers his last relationship as a case in point. Sharing a cramped apartment in a rundown section of D.C. with various relatives didn't make things easy, especially when his girlfriend's 25-year-old son moved in—"a real beater." "Beat his girlfriend up and her brother the next year, at Christmas," Malik says.

Of course, the son had demons of his own: Malik could see from the start that he was bipolar. But Malik has little sympathy for the son, since he refused to take his medications and drank instead. Not long after their final run-in, when Malik decided to pack his bags and leave, the son was picked up by the police and sentenced to three years in jail. Malik doesn't know the charge and he doesn't seem to care—"I'm just glad to see he's locked up."

As for lessons learned, Malik says he's always had a knack for attracting—and being attracted to—women with mental-health issues. If his past experience as a counselor is anything to go by, such struggles are par for the course in the high-poverty, high-stress neighborhoods with which he is familiar. Besides, "When you work around these people, you trying to help them," he says, and he doesn't just mean in the professional sense. Then he offers the textbook response: "You can't do that, though—doesn't work." Having ridden the roller coaster one too many times, he is determined to learn his lesson and move on, even if it means being alone. "I'ma take care of me now," he says.

Speaking of moving on with his life, that's what he plans to do in a few months' time when the shelter is projected to close and he has managed to accumulate enough in disability payments to get into a place of his own. Although things are looking up for him, he's worried about what will happen to the hundreds of other homeless people who call the shelter home and don't have a place to go. "I see people come in here all day," he says. "They come from the prison, [police] let 'em out on that corner .... I see it every day." Free and subsidized housing arrangements can be made through the D.C. Housing Authority, he says, but in a tight market where rents are climbing fast and funding lags behind, the waitlist often takes years to clear.

As if on cue, our conversation is interrupted by Marie, a white-haired lady from the shelter, who happily informs Malik that she's just been approved for an apartment of her own through Pathway to Housing, some 15 months after putting her name down on the list. "I got a roof over my head, everything's gonna be OK!" she exclaims. Malik is thrilled and sober at the same time. "Government could do more of this," he says, after giving Marie a hug and waving her goodbye. "There could be a whole lot of happy stories."

For Malik, the problems of homelessness and housing, depression and domestic abuse are equal parts personal and political. First things first, he says, a person has to take responsibility for himself. He bemoans the fact that "people tell me they're tired, giving up ... when they got no reason to complain." Recalling his former career as a "pretty good ball player" at a Catholic high school in D.C., Malik says, "You gotta bring the ball down court and make the right passes. You gonna win and lose some games, but you gotta take those same defeats and turn it around."

But the conversation doesn't end with "personal responsibility." By this point in his life, the former counselor with a theater degree has seen enough tragedy in his world to know that the physical and emotional circumstances into which a child is born—circumstances beyond the child's control—have a lot to do with who that child becomes and what kind of opportunity she has to succeed. Those surrounding conditions, Malik maintains, are intimately affected by politics. And politics in turn, is all about who can get elected and make their voices heard. When it comes to politics and representation, he has nothing good to say.

Like millions of immigrants and ex-felons, Malik and some 632,000 other residents of Washington, D.C.—together with over 4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the territories—are denied voting equality under the law. Their situation is neatly captured in three explosive words that adorn the bottom of D.C.'s red-and-white license plates: "Taxation Without Representation." Neither the District of Columbia nor Puerto Rico and the other island territories has voting representation in Congress. Their crime is nothing more than choosing the wrong place to call home.

Homeless people camp in Lafayette Square, across from the White House. (Daniel Weeks)

The lack of congressional representation for millions of taxpaying citizens began as a peculiar piece of historical oversight or offense, depending on whom you ask. When the District was first established as the nation's capital in 1790, residents were permitted to vote for U.S. representatives in their former jurisdictions of Maryland and Virginia for 11 years. Then the federal government intervened, establishing a new jurisdiction in 1801 but denying the citizens of D.C. any representatives or senators of their own.

Only with ratification of the 23rd Amendment in 1963 were residents finally permitted to vote in presidential elections, while ongoing efforts to secure Senate representation and more than a single non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives (granted by Congress in 1971) have always come up short. In fact, city leaders only became subject to direct election by their constituents after an act of Congress in 1973; before that, they were appointed by the federal government, which still retains control over the city's judicial, executive, and legislative functions.

The picture is similar in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa, where residents observe the same rights and responsibilities as other American citizens but are denied voting equality by the courts—a precedent dating back to the Insular Cases of 1901 to 1904. The decisions regarding America's colonial possessions bore an eerie resemblance to another ruling by the same Supreme Court: Plessy v. Ferguson, upholding the doctrine of "separate but equal." Like D.C. residents, the citizens of Puerto Rico and the other island territories pay the same rate of taxes to the federal government as their counterparts in the 50 states and are subject to military conscription, but do not have any representation in the Senate and only one non-voting delegate each in the House. Unlike D.C. or the 50 states, they don't even have a vote in national presidential elections. Even so, enthusiasm for democracy is strong: Fully eight in 10 voting-age Puerto Ricans regularly turn out in the island's local elections, one of the highest rates of voter participation in the world.

Since delegates are not permitted to vote on legislation that comes before the House, Washington, D.C., and the territories are silent when it comes to deciding federal appropriations on education, social welfare, infrastructure, and other critical concerns. That may partly describe why Puerto Rico and the territories rank far behind the 50 states in terms of total federal dollars spent per capita at $5,668 in 2010—23 percent less than the lowest state, Nevada, and less than one third the highest state in overall federal spending, Alaska. (2010 is the latest year for which data are available due to funding cuts at the Census Bureau; data for the District of Columbia were not available).

Looking only at federal aid to local and state/territorial governments, Puerto Rico received $1,848 per capita in 2010, 22 percent less than the $2,100 average per capita across the 50 states. While the District of Columbia received a substantially higher per capita amount of federal aid to government, the money can hardly be separated from the federal government's unique and dominant presence in the city—including deciding how federal dollars and local taxes alike are to be spent.

Federal investments and local spending authority are not abstract concerns for Malik. For one thing, the effects of non-representation of District and territory citizens in Congress disproportionately fall on poor people and people of color. More than half the population of Washington, D.C., is black, in contrast to the one percent of citizens who are black in Wyoming and Vermont, the two states with congressional representation and smaller populations than D.C. Another 10 percent of District residents are Hispanic. Although median household incomes in Washington exceed the national average by a healthy 17 percent, thanks in large part to the District's affluent white minority living in upper Northwest, nearly one in five residents and one in three children is currently living in poverty, higher than each of the 50 states.

For District residents with means, close proximity to (and often professional employment in) the organs of government partly offset the lack of voting representation. Wealthy citizens employ a range of tools beyond the franchise to influence politics. For the majority of Washingtonians with limited means, however, the story is different. One need only walk a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol to see inner-city neighborhoods in disrepair, where intergenerational poverty remains a fact of life. Malik considers child poverty and homelessness, spurred by a continuing shortage of affordable housing in this fast-gentrifying city, to be the biggest offense of all.

"The child population is terrible with homelessness," he says, referring to the nearly 2,000 D.C. children counted homeless in 2013 and thousands more living doubled up in crowded homes. As Malik can personally attest, roughly one-third of homeless adults report a history of substance abuse, domestic violence, or severe mental illness—often a combination of the three. "It's epidemic," he says. It doesn't help that a minimum wage worker in the District would have to work 132 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent, or that welfare benefits for eligible families cap out at between $342 and $428 per month.

In Puerto Rico, the largest of the American territories with roughly 4 million Hispanic inhabitants, the poverty rate reaches 46 percent—three times the national rate—and formal unemployment hovers around 16 percent. Child poverty in Puerto Rico is even higher, at 56 percent, and 80 percent of Puerto Rican children live in high-poverty areas, compared to 11 percent of children in the 50 states. Around one in five Puerto Rican teenagers is currently not in school and unemployed, twice the U.S. rate, while many of those who are in school lack basic school supplies. Even in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, conditions frequently resemble those of under-developed countries, with deeply rooted socioeconomic inequalities and incomplete access to basic services like sanitation, public health, and an adequate education that other American citizens take for granted.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton 
represents Washington in the 
House, but has no vote. (Reuters)

It doesn't have to be this way, Malik says. While he is far from certain that extending congressional representation to District and territory residents would solve all the problems we have discussed, he sees it as a necessary start. At least folks in Washington would have a pair of senators and a representative to "bring home the bacon" like other states.

"What else needs to be done?" I want to know. Malik pauses for a moment before bringing us back to money—"big money [in politics]" this time. He points to another systemic problem he sees with American democracy, one that is hardly limited to Washington: the link between money and political power. From his perspective, it's a problem of poverty and powerlessness going hand-in-hand. "People that got the money, they put their people in [government]," he says. "The poor can't make a move."

Malik believes that money affects both who politicians talk to and what they believe and do. He bemoans the fact that politicians "don't spend no time with ordinary folks ... too busy with $500-, $5,000-a-plate fundraisers" and the like. Although he doesn't consider himself a policy expert—voting for president is the extent of his political engagement—the poverty and wealth he sees around him in Washington appear to be stuck in certain hands because of more than just decisions that individuals make. "This is their system … injustice," he says, adding, "The rich always seem to exploit things off the poor." He doubts whether there is a single representative in Congress who shares his life experience, or a single lobbyist working for him on Capitol Hill.

Whatever the solution, he says folks are having a real hard time and things have got to change. "Ain't got not representation in Congress .... The game has already been fixed—it's fixed before it even starts."

But Malik will not end on a sour note, not today. "Even in this my spirit is upbeat! I gotta thank the Lord!" As we prepare to part ways, conversation turns again to lighter, brighter things—the daughter he recently gave away in marriage to a respectable man; his comeback from the brink of death a year ago with an untreated case of diabetes; the job he plans to get at a sports bar once he's found a place to live; the 2003 Lincoln Continental he's got his eye on (through a website) in Ohio.

"It still comes down to me, put that in your book ... Like they say in AA, you gotta get sick and tired of sick and tired."

* * *

This it the conclusion of a week-long series exploring the intersection of poverty and democracy in America. Read the rest of the series:

Poverty vs. Democracy in America: 50 years after Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, tens of millions of second-class Americans are still legally or effectively disenfranchised.

Should Felons Lose the Right to Vote? The poor and minorities are disproportionately locked up—and as a result, disproportionately banned from the polls.

Immigrant Voting: Not a Crazy Idea: Until the 1920s, many states and territories allowed non-citizens to cast ballots. Given their role in American society, it's worth reconsidering the practice.

Second-Class Citizens: How D.C. and Puerto Rico Lose Out on Democracy: Is there a connection between deprivation and a lack of federal representation? The people in territories without a vote sure think so.

Why Are the Poor and Minorities Less Likely to Vote? Even when America's underclass isn't formally stripped of its ballot, a slew of barriers come between them and full representation and participation.