The income gap between whites and blacks living in the District is one of the widest in the country, new census statistics show. That stands in stark contrast to the Washington suburbs, where the gaps have become some of the nation’s narrowest.
The per capita income for whites in the District is more than triple what it is for blacks, and the difference has only widened since 1990. In several suburbs, including Prince George’s, Loudoun and Stafford counties, incomes for blacks and whites are closer than ever, and today whites earn $1.30 or less for every $1 that blacks earn.
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.
“There was a huge migration,” she said. “If you were to take a poll of people working with you, you’d see a large number came from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and other states in the South. Many more than came from the North. Back in the ’80s, people bypassed a Charlotte or an Atlanta. D.C. was seen as a hub for federal jobs.”
But even by the time Lambert arrived, many well-off blacks were leaving the District for the suburbs, especially Prince George’s County. Census figures show that trend continuing through the past decade, although there are indications that it has slowed. African Americans still make up the largest group in the District, but last year they slipped below 50 percent for the first time in half a century.
The movement of more upper-income and young professional whites to the District during the past decade exacerbated the divide between blacks and whites.
“The African Americans who stayed in the District were the poorest, who didn’t have opportunities to leave,” said Peter Tatian, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute’s Center on Metropolitan Housing and Communities. “The District does provide affordable housing in many neighborhoods, particularly east of the river, so there’s the opportunity to stay if you’re poor. But if you’re middle class, it’s a different story. As housing became more expensive here, those folks moved to the suburbs.”
The bifurcation can be seen in education levels reported by the census. Almost nine in 10 whites in the District have college degrees, while barely two in 10 blacks do. Although the education gap exists in virtually every jurisdiction in the region, it is much narrower in the suburbs. In Montgomery County, for example, more than four in 10 blacks have college degrees, compared with two-thirds of whites.
Ed Lazere, head of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said the District’s economy is so dominated by people with higher educations that even jobs that don’t require a degree are often filled by college graduates.
“We have a high-end economy, and not much of a blue-collar economy,” he said. “It’s increasingly hard to get a decent-paying job in the District without an advanced degree.”
Lazere noted that during the city’s financial crisis in the 1990s, vocational training programs were cut that would have helped people who weren’t headed to college.
“We’re reaping the effects of that now,” he said. “We do have a mayor who talks a lot about jobs, but we don’t have a citywide strategy to address the literacy and skills gap.”
Cooper of the Urban League said the income gap also reflects the large number of people who work in the city, where wages are relatively high, but live in the suburbs. She said that if the city required its employees to maintain a residence in the District, as it used to, the gap would narrow.
“You’ve got police, firemen and other blue-collar workers crossing the river to work in the District because they get better wages,” she said. “The teachers’ parking lots are filled with Maryland and Virginia tags. Wages here are good. It’s that the people who collect those wages live elsewhere.”
Families will be reluctant to stay, or move to the District, unless schools improve.
“If families don’t feel schools are good enough, and you’re not wealthy enough to live where schools are better or you can send your kids to private school, that’s another incentive to move elsewhere,” Tatian said.
Few people expect the difference to diminish anytime soon.
“Unless there’s a significant intervention, both to preserve affordable housing throughout the city and to invest in building up the skills of D.C. residents, the gap will grow,” Lazere said. “When there are job fairs, the line’s out the door. People want to work and feed their families. But if we’re creating jobs at Wal-Mart, not giving people the skills to compete for higher-paying jobs, the problems are going to perpetuate.”
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