DC's Income Inequality Negatively Affects Children

A few days ago, the Census Bureau released it latest five-year block of data (2012 – 2016) – and with this update, we’re able to see how the profile of District residents is changing. In reviewing the demographic indicators aligning with DC Action’s research and policy interests, I kept returning to ones centered around income distribution, median household income and housing burden.

According to the numbers, the median household income for DC is $72,935, which is relatively high when compared against other states. In fact, DC and its surrounding regions consistently rank in the top ten for highest median household income.[1] Yet, in peeling back the layers by disaggregating the data, we’re met with a different, and quite unsettling, picture.

In the chart below, I’ve plotted the median household income by race for the District comparing 2011 to 2016. In this, white households are the only ones making a six-figure income, followed closely by Asian households. Also, while the incomes for all races have increased over the last five years, there are two that have decreased: black and American Indian/Alaskan Native households. Not only have they decreased, they’re also at the bottom of the income range, with black households bringing in the lowest income of $40,560.


*not Hispanic or Latino household


Next, I proceeded to disaggregate the 2016 data by Ward and then by race/ethnicity to compare household incomes. I was expecting to see similar incomes for all races/ethnicities within each of the eight Wards – but what I found was that black households, regardless of Ward are making consistently lower incomes than households of any other race/ethnicity. In fact, there’s only one data point where black households are making (slightly) more than another racial/ethnic group in the District. In Ward 7, households identifying as Some Other Race have a median income of $37,033 where the median income for blacks is $37,387. Furthermore, the extreme income ranges within Wards were also jarring. For example, white residents in Ward 7 have a median household income of $111,442, while in black households, the median income is $37,398. Not only are these differences staggering, but for some, they’re widening.

While the District does have some of the most progressive anti-poverty policies in the country[2], we have more work to do to pass and implement policies that create avenues through which families of all races/ethnicities in the District can achieve equity. We also can’t ignore that while some household incomes are decreasing, rents continue to rise. According to a 2015 study by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI), approximately 25% of all renters in DC spend at least half of their income on housing costs; among the lowest income residents, 64% devote more than half of their income on rent.[3] As shown in the chart below, while costs for renters continue to increase throughout the city, residents living in the poorest wards have the highest burden.




It’s clear from this latest ACS data release that income inequality, along racial and ethnic lines, is a persistent problem in the District – and adult residents are not the only ones directly impacted by these disparities. Children born into low-income families are significantly more likely to be poor as adults, be teen parents and be inconsistently employed.[4] Furthermore, the brain of a child growing up in a low-income neighborhood (which is more likely to be a distressing or traumatic environment) is physiologically different than a child from a middle- or high-income area.[5] This means that children living in low-income environments will struggle to achieve academic proficiency and be more likely to drop out of school.[6]

So, while it’s imperative that all DC children attend schools that provide high-quality education, enrollment in these schools alone will not alleviate the effect of stressors attached to home- and neighborhood-life. We need to simultaneously support children and their families by improving neighborhood conditions and resources if we want to see significant changes in outcomes and general success throughout the District.[7]

We are accountable to this generation of DC children who are growing up in a city of unequally distributed wealth. And, though there is not one group or organization capable of solving this problem, there are numerous advocates, community stakeholders and District leaders who can come together and tackle these ongoing issues. Additionally, we should seek to collect new knowledge by having conversations with nontraditional partners who may provide novel resources and potential solutions. If we don’t begin to act now, DC will remain a city of mass income inequality divided along racial lines, where children of color from low-income families lack the support needed to become healthy teens and successful adults.


[1] Stein, P. (2016, September 15). D.C. and Maryland have the highest median incomes in the country. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2016/09/15/d-c-and-maryland-have-the-highest-median-incomes-in-the-country/?utm_te…

[2] Strauss, B. (2017). D.C. leads in anti-poverty policies. D.C. Policy Center. Retrieved from: https://www.dcpolicycenter.org/publications/d-c-leads-in-anti-poverty-policies/.

[3] Rivers, W. (2015). Going, going, gone: DC’s vanishing affordable housing. DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.dcfpi.org/all/going-going-gone-dcs-vanishing-affordable-housing-2/.

[4] Ratcliffe, C., & McKernan, S-M. (2012). Child poverty and its lasting consequence: Summary. Urban Institute. Retrieved from: http://webarchive.urban.org/UploadedPDF/412658-Child-Poverty-and-Its-Lasting-Consequence-Summary.pdf.

[5] Chang,A. (2017). Living in a poor neighborhood changes everything about your life. Vox. Retrieved from: https://www.vox.com/2016/6/6/11852640/cartoon-poor-neighborhoods.

[6] Ratcliffe, C., & McKernan, S-M. (2010). Childhood poverty persistence: Facts and consequences. Urban Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.urban.org/research/publication/childhood-poverty-persistence-facts-and-consequences.

[7] Galster, G.C. (2014). How neighborhoods affect health, well-being and young eople’s futures. MacArthur Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.macfound.org/media/files/HHM_-_Neighborhoods_Affect_Health_Well-being_Young_Peoples_Futures.pdf.