For many Americans, the latest U.S. census figures, out this week, are cause for celebration: Median household income jumped more than five percent in 2015 over the previous year, to nearly $56,500. But in D.C., more people lived in poverty last year than before the recession.
Although the District also saw approximately the same percentage increase in median income in 2015 (a rise of $4,000, or 5.6 percent, to $75,600), low-income residents did not benefit equally from these rising economic tides. According to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which analyzed the census data, the absolute number of people living in poverty grew by 18,500—from 92,000 in 2007 to 110,500 last year, or 17 percent of the total population. DCFPI used federal poverty guidelines to calculate those figures: Considered poor are families of four and couples making less than $24,000 and $16,000, respectively.
While this wasn’t a statistically significant increase given D.C.’s population growth over that period, poverty among African Americans rose from 24 percent to 27 percent, or 81,200 black residents in 2015. Black people are the only racial or ethnic group in the District to experience an increase in the poverty rate since before the recession, DCFPI says, comprising roughly three-fourths of all D.C. residents living in poverty.
“Looking at the median income for the whole city could wash out some of the differences among socioeconomic groups,” says Claire Zippel, an analyst at DCFPI. “The gains haven’t been equally shared.” For example, the median income for white D.C. households last year was $120,000 as compared with $41,000 for black households.
It’s possible that low-income residents haven’t been able to find better-paying jobs in the District’s post-recession economy, or that certain jobs no longer exist here at all. It’s also possible that within the black population, higher-income earners have moved elsewhere as others have stayed. At the same time, younger, more affluent newcomers are settling in D.C., driving the citywide median income up.
DCFPI sees the increase in concentrated poverty as a reason to support policies that would alleviate its burdens, like early childhood education subsidies so low-income workers could more easily arrange childcare, and making sure cash-assistance programs persist.