Get our free newsletter
As gentrification exacerbates economic inequality in the District, a new report out today illustrates just how big the wealth gap in “Chocolate City” has been throughout its history.
The analysis looks at disparities in financial power between the D.C. metropolitan area’s black and white residents, including before the Great Recession, which devastated communities of color. Researchers from the Urban Institute, Duke University, The New School, and the Insight Center for Economic Development conducted a survey in this region and four others (Boston, Miami, Tulsa, and Los Angeles) in 2014, collecting information on household assets, liabilities, savings, and investments, and on homeownership, foreclosures, use of payday lenders, and demographics. Six hundred surveys were registered for the D.C. area.
The researchers found that—as of a couple of years ago—white households in the region had a median net worth of $284,000 compared with $3,500 among black households, or 81 times more. (Net worth refers to assets minus debts.) Accounting for age also revealed stark differences. Among 31- to 51-year-olds, black households reported a median net worth of zero, versus $221,000 for their white peers. Meanwhile, among 51- to 65-year-olds, black households showed $4,000 in median net worth, versus $516,000 for white households—or 120 times more. In other words, wealth disparities associated with race rose with age.
Net worth wasn’t the only fiscal measure where the D.C. area’s white and black residents diverged. As a spokeswoman for the Urban Institute highlights, white households were “24 percentage points more likely to have a checking account, 34 percentage points more likely to own stocks, 38 percentage points more likely to have a retirement fund, and 10 percentage points less likely to have a student loan” compared with black residents born in the U.S.
“Discrimination and systemic racism have contributed to today’s wealth gap in the nation’s capital,” the authors write. “Building wealth is hindered not by character flaws but by a history of structural barriers and practices that helped create wealth for White families and blocked asset building from Black families.”
Notably, controlling for educational attainment didn’t close the observed wealth gap: Black households headed by a college graduate had a median net worth of negative $19,000, less than that of white households headed by high school graduates or GED-earners. “This may be driven in part by a greater likelihood of having student loans, and may also be indicative of racial difference in labor market opportunity for college graduates,” the researchers explain.
The report notes that the District’s share of black residents has declined steadily in recent years, from 65 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2014, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Over that period, the share of white residents has risen from 27 percent to 36 percent. These trends oppose those seen nationally: Across U.S. cities from 1990 to 2014, the percentage of black residents increased from 12 percent to 14 percent, whereas that of white residents decreased from 76 percent to 67 percent.
The researchers point the finger squarely at “more than two centuries of deliberately constructed barriers to wealth building” as the reason the region’s black families have had less wealth than white ones, putting the former at risk of displacement. Among those barriers, they say, are: slavery, disenfranchisement of D.C. residents, segregation (“preventing Black people from attending White colleges and universities, such as Georgetown”), restrictive racial covenants on property, and exorbitant subprime loans.
“Any assertions that the racial wealth gap can be eliminated with behavioral changes on the part of Black people, rather than addressing structural racism, is fundamentally flawed,” the authors conclude. A few highlights from the report, funded by the Ford Foundation, follow below.