The coronavirus pandemic has brought a largely local conversation to the forefront of public discourse: should D.C. become the country’s 51st state? And perhaps even on a granular level: why does it even matter?
Prior to the genesis of the novel coronavirus, D.C. had been advocating for statehood for decades, with its first attempt in Congress rejected in 1993. For many critics, statehood for the District is an unnecessary plight that would largely inconvenience the aesthetic of their beloved 50-starred flag. For others, particularly conservatives in Congress and several right-of-center politicos, D.C. statehood poses a threat to Republican agendas, as it would most likely result in new Democratic members of Congress who can vote on the House and Senate floors. Even the president, for better or worse, admitted that D.C. statehood would provide the District with proper representation in Congress, a move that would finally address years of “taxation without representation.”
Of course, there is another factor at play. The pushback on statehood, like the opposition of many other actions that attempt to stimulate economic and social justice, is rooted in racism. Despite the regressive effects of rapid gentrification, Black people still account for the majority of the population, a reality that has surely impacted its ability to move forward in this campaign.
With a population of more than 700,000 people, D.C. is larger than Wyoming and Vermont, yet it continues to bear the brunt of an archaic and unmoving rule. This inequity has only exacerbated during the pandemic, whereby the District was classified as a U.S. territory, receiving only $500 million in coronavirus relief funding compared to the minimum of $1.25 billion issued to states. WTOP reports that many Democratic senators agree that “an ‘intentional slight’ in the latest legislation passed by Congress caused D.C. to lose about $700 million because it was categorized as a territory rather than a state, as is common in budget matters.”
In a swift act of unity, nearly 100 House representatives signed a letter in April pushing for D.C. to receive the full funding allocated to states in the next round of stimulus packages.
However, it’s not enough that D.C. just receive the full funding. Residents pay more in federal income taxes than those living in 22 other states. More pressingly, the District tops the charts with the highest rate of positive coronavirus cases. As of May 23, over 8,000 residents have tested positive for the virus, with nearly 50 percent identifying as Black and 29 percent under 35 years old. D.C. residents are paying the cost of the government’s negligence and unwillingness to provide the District with autonomy and financial relief.
Perhaps to remediate decades of gross oversight, some level of indemnification is in order.
Enter stage left a new stimulus relief package recently passed by the House. The HEROES Act, deftly named as the most comprehensive coronavirus rescue package to date, would not only guarantee hazard pay to essential workers, but it would provide a second round of stimulus checks, an extension of unemployment benefits, student debt relief, and other economic relief provisions that fairly include the District.
Jennifer Blemur, Director of the Women Legislators’ Lobby (WiLL) of the Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND), and President of DC Young Democrats, notes the bill’s critical role in D.C.’s economic recovery.
“The HEROES Act does include a provision to provide that retroactive funding for that $700 million that we missed, and I think it would help because it does provide equal funding for D.C. as it does for other states. One of the things our congresswoman, Eleanor Holmes-Norton, mentioned during [DC Young Democrats’] Zoom Q&A that we had with her is that she really pushed so that was included because we have over 700,000 people in the district. How are we supposed to have a strong recovery system if we don’t have the money to do it?”
If passed, the HEROES Act will make up for past grievances against the District by providing the money previously withheld from it in addition to new funding being distributed across all states. Blemur adds that D.C.’s status as neither a state or territory positions it to operate in a “quasi-state fashion.”
“Ask yourself this question,” Blemur challenges. “If you were in a state and your state legislature couldn’t control its budget — they couldn’t tax the things they wanted to tax in order to generate revenue for themselves — wouldn’t that kind of piss you off a little bit?”
Young people also benefit from this bill, as the HEROES Act would provide families with payments for all of their dependents, including college students who were excluded from the stimulus checks provided by the CARES Act. Though young people do not account for the largest share of coronavirus-related cases in the U.S., they constitute a large share of workers in service and retail jobs, two of the most affected sectors in the country.
Meanwhile, millennials, including those in D.C., are navigating the complicated structures of education and the job market. Now, all of the elephants in the room are forced to reveal their true identities as inequities across the District are unfolding one by one. Many families must choose between supporting distance learning for their children and going to work to feed their families. Residents are navigating the unemployment system, hosting virtual graduations, losing summer internships and jobs, and being forced to live in unsafe living situations, say writers at The Atlantic. Others are stuck in the pits of recession and fear, and despite dwindling faith in their leaders to resurrect the city from this unprecedented disaster, residents still have the power to control which leaders they will choose to lead them through the end.
DC Young Democrats is charging younger residents, especially those between the ages of 13 and 35, to use their voting power to challenge the systems that impede D.C.’s ability to successfully recover. Blemur notes that, “It is going to be imperative that we have folks on the council who are going to be able to act on this because it can’t be successful without them encouraging their constituents.”
She adds that, “We’re going to need our congresswoman and our mayor and our council working together to make sure that we are reopening in a way that makes the most sense, that is the safest, and that minimizes the economic blowback [of the pandemic].”
This election year is more than simply choosing the next president of this country. The pandemic has revealed which leaders are equipped to handle the job and which do not have the interests of their communities at the forefront of their agendas.
“Progress requires your participation,” Blemur impores. It looks like signing up for ballots and following the campaigns and recognizing the nuances of recovery, even when it appears unmoving.
Certainly, D.C. statehood would improve the District’s recovery plan and provide much-needed support to thousands of students, families, and businesses that continue to navigate the burden of this virus. A revised version of H.R. 51 that was introduced as H.R. 5803, or the Washington, D.C. Admission Act has not seen movement since early February. Despite the lack of momentum around this particular bill, voters still have the power to challenge their local leaders, force them to make decisions that fight for their residents, and give the people the agency they’ve been demanding for decades.