Income inequality broadened between white residents and residents of color in Washington, D.C., in 2016, according to data from the United States Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey.
The survey, which tracks quality of life metrics like diversity and commuting length, found the median annual income of the average black resident of the District is $37,891, just 30 percent of the median white income at $127,369. The median annual income of black and Hispanic Washingtonians each decreased by over $4,000 between 2014 and 2016 while white incomes increased by over $2,000 in the same amount of time.
The data points to racial disparities in poverty levels. The overall poverty rate in the District is 18.6 percent, and the poverty rate for black Washingtonians was 28 percent in 2016. Though the Hispanic poverty rate was below the District’s average rate at 17.8 percent, that rate has risen from 11.6 percent in 2015. White poverty rates only grew .03 percentage points between 2015 and 2016.
The racial disparities in the data reflect issues at the forefront of District leaders’ policy agenda. District Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) launched an economic strategy in March to address racial economic disparities in the District. The program is designed to increase local private sector gross domestic product by 20 percent by 2021 and ensure that all wards and demographic groups in the District see an unemployment rate below 10 percent.
“I am proud to share our new economic strategy, one that reflects DC’s values and helps ensure all Washingtonians share in our continued prosperity,” Bowser wrote in a press release on March 7. “Every day, we are showcasing how Washington, DC’s diverse and innovative community is driving our economy. I am confident that this framework will accelerate our progress as a leader for inclusive prosperity by creating opportunities that are accessible to all, supporting longtime businesses and residents, and benefitting our most disadvantaged communities.”
Claire Zippel, a policy analyst at the District Fiscal Policy Institute, said the census data demonstrates a need for policymakers to address income disparities across the District.
“In the face of a strong economy, these widening disparities show how far DC has to go toward breaking down the barriers to economic opportunity faced by people of color,” Zippel said in a Sept. 14 press release.
Casey Goldvale, a policy analyst at the Georgetown University Law Center’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, said the racial disparities present in the data point to broader economic issues in the District.
“To many of the researchers studying domestic poverty and inequality, the racial disparities in the recent Census Bureau data release are further evidence that the Great Recession disproportionately hurt people of color,” Goldvale wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The drop in wages for African Americans started earlier and was even greater in magnitude than for non-Hispanic Whites, and now the recovery is slower.”
District leaders should focus on expanding affordable housing and investing in economic literacy programs and safeguards, Goldvale said.
“As the disparate impacts of the recession show, poverty and economic prosperity are both heavily influenced by housing and wealth,” Goldvale wrote. “To help households who have already weathered economic storms, we should establish clear avenues for building and rebuilding credit and provide and advertise alternate forms of asset-building that can give households with little existing capital the opportunity to reduce risk and securely accumulate enough for an economically secure future.”
Goldvale added that policymakers should also engage in employment and wage regulation to increase incomes for all Washingtonians.
“To reduce wage gaps, raising the minimum wage to at least a living wage is essential. Further establishment and enforcement of strategies to equalize pay across racial, ethnic, and gendered lines is also important,” Goldvale wrote.
Nevertheless, the data reveals expanding economic opportunities for District residents overall. Between 2007 and 2017, the District’s overall median income grew from $63,000 to $76,000, an approximately 20 percent increase. Additionally, total personal incomes grew almost 3 percent between 2015 and 2016 and resident employment rates were up 2 percent over the same time period.