What it takes to be a 1 percenter in the Washington area

February 1, 2012

If that end-of-the-year bonus didn’t send your household income well north of half a million dollars, you can’t count yourself among the elite 1 percent in the Washington region.

It took household earnings of almost $520,000 to make it into the region’s top tier in 2010, according to a new analysis of Census Bureau data. That represents a slight increase from $517,000 in 2007, despite the many intervening months of recession and economic stagnation.

By any measure, the region sets a high income bar for the rich to hurdle. Nationally, the top 1 percent of all households had annual incomes of $387,000 or more in 2010. Only 11 metropolitan areas had a higher threshold than the Washington area’s. Most of them are in Connecticut or New Jersey, within commuting distance of New York City. The San Francisco and Boston areas round out the top dozen big-money citadels.

The District’s threshold for a 1 percenter — $617,000 — was even higher than the region’s, though it had dropped from $673,000 in 2007, before the recession. If the District were a state, it would be second only to Connecticut, home to several Fortune 500 companies and major hedge funds, as well as many commuters to Wall Street.

Among the states, Maryland had the fifth-highest threshold, almost $477,000. And Virginia’s was eighth highest, at more than $427,000.

The figures come from a report released Wednesday by Sentier Research, a firm that analyzes census income data. If anything, the statistics understate wealth, said Gordon Green, one of the report’s two authors. It includes just income, not capital gains or one-time windfalls.

The Washington area pops up repeatedly in the report as one of the most prosperous in the nation, even though median household incomes slipped in many local jurisdictions during the recession.

The local slippage did not drag down the District, which stood out with an 8 percent increase in median income from 2007 to 2010. In the same period, median household income dropped 3.5 percent nationally, 2 percent in Maryland and Virginia (the entire states, not just the D.C. suburbs), and 1 percent in the Washington region.

Eric Friedman, who lives in Ohio but spends two days a week in Washington, remarked on the difference between the rich in Ohio and the rich here.

“In Ohio and a lot of areas like it, the wealth is manifested in the suburbs and not so much in the cities,” said Friedman, a principal in Deloitte Consulting, as he left the Willard Hotel. “If you live in a city in Ohio, you are probably not in that 1 percent.”

Economists and demographers said Washington’s relative prosperity is largely a result of the region’s many government-related jobs and the preponderance of highly educated, two-income households.

“When you talk about household incomes, we have an advantage,” said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. “It’s a more professional workforce. If there are two adults in a household of working age, they usually are working.”

The report underscores how unevenly the recession affected the nation. About three-quarters of the states and metropolitan areas experienced income losses. The list of gainers is dominated by areas that have a lot of industry related to energy production.

“One of the terrible things about recession is it does unequal damage” said Gary Burtless, a former Labor Department economist who researches income distribution at the Brookings Institution. “We have record-high unemployment lasting longer than a year. They experienced terrific losses. But if some suffer a lot, some don’t suffer at all. There are those wage slaves among us who hang onto our jobs. Those who bought houses 20 years ago are living in the same house, even if it’s worth less.”

That unevenness is evident throughout the region. The median household income in Maryland dropped $1,200, to $70,000, from 2007 to 2010. In Virginia, it fell by $1,100, to about $61,000.

By contrast, the District’s median household income grew from $55,500 to $60,000 in that time, even though the city’s unemployment rate in 2010 was almost 10 percent. The city gained population in the decade beginning in 2001, attracting college-educated young adults and burnishing its reputation as a cool place to live.

“The District during the downturn didn’t shrink like other  places,” Fuller said. “It didn’t really crash, because the federal government was ramping up its outlays and activities in support of the recovery. This generated a lot of contracting, and there was an inflow of consultants and senior-level people.”

But if the federal government has shielded the region from past downturns, the local economy could soon become more vulnerable. Talk of cutbacks in federal spending lead some to believe that the region’s prosperity will weaken noticeably.

“If the federal government gets more serious about cutting back, if you see a general emphasis on reducing federal expenses, either employees or contractors, we might see a reversal of fortune,” said Peter Tatian, a researcher in the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.

GMU’s Center for Regional Analysis has predicted that the region will grow at a slower pace than the nation for several years, something that hasn’t happened since the Vietnam War ended more than 35 years ago.

“Clearly, we’re not going to grow as fast,” Fuller said. “We’ll still have a lot of good jobs here. But we won’t add to our prosperity. We won’t have as many new rich people in the future.”

Staff writer Katherine Driessen contributed to this article.

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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