The Tale of Three Cities

Last week, DC Action released our annual Ward Snapshots, which track the state of child well-being in each of the city’s eight wards. We will be posting a series of short blogs posts that draw on the data from the snapshots to explore how DC’s broader economic and demographic changes have impacted children and families across some of the city’s different wards.  


DC’s social history over the past half century has often been framed as “a tale of two cities,” highlighting the economic and geographic divide between the enclaves of wealthy professionals and the city’s low-income, primarily black residents. While familiar, this narrative doesn’t capture how DC has changed in recent years. In Wards 1, 4, 5, and 6, economic development and an influx of young professionals and new families have allowed for greater investments in community assets but rising rents and high home prices have pushed-out some long-time residents. At the same time, the immigrant and Hispanic populations have grown and expanded to form new communities outside of their traditional core. Taken together, the growing economic and racial diversity in these wards constitute DC’s emerging ‘third city.’  


The data released in this year’s Ward Snapshots reflect the changing nature of DC’s ‘third city’ and present a complex picture of the well-being of the children and families who live there. In Ward 1, the historic center of DC’s Hispanic community, the rising cost of living has led to a gradual migration of the Hispanic population to more affordable neighborhoods across the city. While many of these Hispanic families have moved to Ward 4, which now has the largest population of Hispanic children in the city, the number of Hispanic children in Wards 5 and 6 also nearly doubled in size since 2010.


In recent years, DC’s population of children under 5 has grown rapidly and this trend has been especially pronounced in DC’s ‘third city.’ Since 2010, the population of young children in Ward 5 grew by more than 32%, the largest increase in the city, while Ward 4’s growing Hispanic population has contributed one of the highest fertility rates and largest populations of children under 5 in DC. Data from the snapshots also suggest that this trend may be reversing in some areas; since 2010, the number of young children in Ward 1 also grew by nearly 20% but the fertility rate declined sharply over the same time, and is now around half as large as it is in Ward 4.


The snapshots provide mixed-picture of the well-being of these young children and their families. Since 2010, there has been a sharp drop in the teen pregnancy rate in all of the wards that make up DC’s ‘third city’ as well as meaningful declines the share of families headed by single mothers. In Ward 6, the share of premature and low-weight births as well as the infant mortality rate all declined significantly. However, it is difficult to tell whether these improvements are the result of better health and nutrition services for low-income pregnant women or if they reflect the growing share of affluent families who have moved to the ward. While birth outcomes have improved in many wards, these changes have not been universal. In fact, Ward 5 had the highest infant mortality rate in the city in 2013.  


Given the growing population of affluent young professionals in many of DC’s neighborhoods, it is no surprise that these demographic changes are also reflected in some of the indicators of economic well-being that we track in the snapshots. Since 2010, the median income of families with children rose across DC’s ‘third city,’ particularly in Wards 1 and 6 where it increased by more than 25%. However, the data from the snapshots suggest that, despite rising incomes, between 18% and 27% of children continue to live in poverty. In Ward 4, where more than three-quarters of children are enrolled in Medicaid, the situation has growing worse since 2010 as the child poverty rate rose more than anywhere else in the city. Even in Ward 6, where economic growth has been especially strong, more than 1 in 5 children continue to live in poverty and the number of children receiving TANF in ward rose by more than 6%, even as it declined for the city as a whole.


Taken together, the data from the snapshots suggest that while a number of different indicators of child and family well-being appear to be improving in DC’s ‘third city,’ these changes have not benefitted all children and families equally. We as a city must do more to ensure that all children and families have the opportunity to share in DC’s economic development and contribute to its growing diversity.


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