Income Soaring In 'Egghead Capital'

By N.C. Aizenman and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Washington region's stature as the "egghead capital," as one expert put it, has boosted the median income of all ethnic groups to among the highest in the nation.

Census figures released last week show that, when compared with other affluent major metropolitan areas, Washington ranks first in median income among blacks and non-Hispanic whites, and the region's Hispanics and Asians rank second.

The fact that residents of all races enjoy high median incomes in the Washington region is a product of the area's "knowledge" economy, said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, who analyzed the census figures for metro areas with populations of 1 million or more.

"This is an egghead capital, and therefore one with high incomes," Frey said. "But the lack of major income inequality also reflects the area's plethora of government jobs and perhaps the lack of the kind of large waves of low-skilled immigrants seen in New York and Los Angeles."

It is also an indicator of the area's success in retaining well-off African American households, despite a national trend of blacks moving to faster-growing Southern metro areas such as Atlanta.

Still, the census figures reveal significant differences among the region's racial groups and highlight several pockets of stark inequality. Although the median household incomes of the Washington area's minorities are substantially higher than those of minorities and even non-Hispanic whites nationally, they remain well below the median incomes of the area's non-Hispanic whites.

In the Washington area, the overall median household income is $78,978. Non-Hispanic whites in the region have a median household income of $94,290, but the figure drops to $83,908 for Asians, $58,945 for Hispanics and $55,547 for blacks.

The disparities are particularly pronounced in the District, which ranks third in income inequality among cities with populations of 300,000 or more. Non-Hispanic whites in the District have a median household income of $91,631, and the figure drops to $34,484 for blacks. Hispanic residents fare only slightly better, with a median household income of $43,547. Asians have a median household income of $67,137.

The city's high inequality also shows up in the poverty rates of each group. Twenty-seven percent of blacks in the District and 18 percent of Hispanics have incomes below the poverty line, compared with 8 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

Joni Lynch of Manna Inc., a nonprofit developer of affordable homeownership projects in the District, said the figures underscore the extent to which the construction boom and gentrification of formerly blighted city neighborhoods is bypassing a substantial section of the population.

"D.C. has experienced a renaissance, but unfortunately many longtime residents are not sharing in the benefits," she said. "Instead, they are getting displaced because they cannot afford to stay."

The median incomes of minorities are significantly higher in Washington's suburban counties. Five of these -- Fairfax, Loudoun, Howard, Montgomery and Prince William -- are among the 10 wealthiest large counties in the nation, while five others -- Calvert, Charles, Arlington, Stafford and Alexandria city (considered a county for census purposes) -- are among the 10 most prosperous small counties.

In several of those Virginia counties -- including Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William -- the distribution of wealth is very top-heavy, with the vast majority of residents concentrated at the top end of the income scale and relatively few at the bottom or even in the middle.

Yet even in such places, there is evidence of a growing subgroup of poor Latinos. For instance, although Prince William's poverty rate is 5 percent overall and 3 percent for non-Hispanic whites, 10 percent of its Hispanic residents live in poverty. Similarly, in Fairfax, the poverty rate of non-Hispanic whites is 2 percent, compared with 12 percent for Hispanics and 13 percent for blacks.

Such numbers may explain some of the social tensions around immigration that have surfaced in such counties, resulting most recently in a unanimous decision by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors to deny many public services to illegal immigrants and a week-long boycott of local businesses by some Latino residents in response.

"It's not always immigration per se that gets people going," said Audrey Singer, a demographer at Brookings who has studied both local and national immigration patterns. "A lot of times the tension is around economic status. . . . People see changes around them that give them concern about things like their property values and the look of their streets."

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