Demographers and city activists say the difference reflects four decades of upper- and middle-class blacks abandoning the city for the suburbs, coupled with a more recent resurgence of affluent whites moving to the District. Some speak of the city’s middle class as a vanishing phenomenon, propelled in part by rising housing prices.
“A lot of my friends and colleagues say they can’t afford to live in the District,” said Maudine Cooper, president of the Greater Washington Urban League. “Many of the people that moved to the suburbs would like to live closer to work, but it’s not possible.”
In the suburbs, the closing of the income gap has been accompanied by a sharp decrease in residential segregation. Increasingly, neighborhoods are filled with people who have similar levels of education and income, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
Nationwide, the gulf between black and white incomes is pervasive. It exists in every one of the 700 counties with significant black populations, according to census numbers that are to be released Thursday and were analyzed by William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. For every $1 in black income, white per capita income ranges from a low of $1.04 in mid-Michigan, near the capital of Lansing, to a high of $4.15 in Manhattan.
Although the Washington area’s individual jurisdictions are at one extreme or another, as a whole the region falls somewhere in the middle of all metropolitan areas. Whites in the area have per capita incomes of $1.80 for every $1 that blacks earn. The narrowest gap is in Stafford County, where white income is $1.18 for every $1 for blacks.
The disparity persists even though many Washington suburbs boast some of the highest per capita incomes for blacks in the nation. Of the top 20 counties for black income, 10 are around Washington.
Frey said the income statistics show that African Americans in the suburbs are in the vanguard of minorities who are moving closer to achieving income parity with whites.
He attributed the high income levels to federal jobs, which have long been equal-opportunity positions, even during recessions.
“Historically, African Americans came to Washington because they knew they had a better shot of moving up the ranks to the middle class, with higher pay and more security,” Frey said. “Though African Americans have lots of other opportunities now, it’s still true for Washington.”
Kim Lambert was one. Lambert, who is president of Blacks in Government at the Interior Department, grew up in a small town in North Carolina and moved with her sisters to Washington in the 1980s to pursue government employment.