Washington: A world apart

Washington: A world apart

This map highlights in yellow the nation's Super Zips — those ranking highest on income and college education. The largest collection of Super Zips is around Washington, D.C.

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Washington: A world apart


A Zip’s ranking is a number between 0 and 99 representing the average of its percentile ranks in college education and in income. The 650 Zips with rankings of 95 and higher are called Super Zips. The analysis was adapted from one used by author Charles Murray. Click the map for details.

Sources: American Community Survey, U.S. Census, ESRI

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A Zip’s ranking is a number between 0 and 99 representing the average of its percentile ranks in college education and in income. The 650 Zips with rankings of 95 and higher are called Super Zips. The analysis was adapted from one used by author Charles Murray. Click the map for details.

Sources: American Community Survey, U.S. Census, ESRI

This map highlights in yellow the nation's Super Zips — those ranking highest on income and college education. The largest collection of Super Zips is around Washington, D.C. Learn more about this metric.

Published on November 9, 2013

A photograph hanging in Cherry Farley’s home office in a neighborhood of big houses and big ambitions reminds her what it means to have no home at all.

The image is an aerial view of Saigon, taken by her father from a helicopter as the family was fleeing Vietnam in 1975, when Farley was 10.

The family wound up in North Carolina, where her parents found blue-collar jobs at a cotton mill. But they went to college at night and became engineers, an achievement that allowed Farley and her two siblings to grow up in a modest three-bedroom house with one bathroom.

Now Farley and her husband, Michael, who was raised on a farm and went to college on a ROTC scholarship, work for defense contractors. Their combined income affords them a spacious five-bedroom house with 3.5 baths. Two of their three daughters have left for college, so it’s just the three of them now.

“I’ve come a long way,” said Farley, 46, pondering her path from a refugee camp to one of the country’s most affluent and educated Zip codes. “This is a wonderful area. I’m not sure all the people who live [here] recognize that. If all you’ve ever known is an upper-middle-class life, it’s hard to see how nice we have it.”

Farley resides in Clarksville, Md., a bedroom community midway between Washington and Baltimore where the median household income tops $181,000, more than triple the national average.

An astonishing 98 percent of River Hill High School’s graduates head to college. Volvos, Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs are scattered throughout the student parking lot. Even pets get in on the refined tastes of their owners; in a small shopping center near the school, a shop specializing in organic dog food is next door to the organic grocery store.

Finding Super Zips: The Washington Post analyzed census data to find Zip codes where people rank highest on a combination of income and education. They are Super Zips.

The ranks, ranging from 0 to 99, represent the average of each Zip’s percentile rankings for median household income and for the share of adults with college degrees. Super Zips rank 95 or higher. This approach is adapted from one used by author Charles Murray.

The map at top shows the nation’s 650 Super Zips. Among them, the typical household income is $120,272, and 68 percent of adults hold college degrees. That compares with $53,962 and 27 percent for the remaining 23,925 Zips shown. Only Zips with at least 500 adults are displayed.

Clarksville sits in one of the nation’s “Super Zips” — a term coined by American Enterprise Institute scholar and author Charles Murray to describe the country’s most prosperous, highly educated demographic clusters. On average, they have a median household income of $120,000, and 7 in 10 adults have college degrees.

Although these areas would be considered rare in much of the country, they’re fairly ordinary by Washington standards.

A Washington Post analysis of the latest census data shows that more than a third of Zip codes in the D.C. metro area rank in the top 5 percent nationally for income and education. But what makes the region truly unusual is that so many of the high-end Zip codes are contiguous. They form a vast land mass that bounds across 717 square miles. It stretches 60 miles from its northern tip in Woodstock, Md., to the southern end in Fairfax Station, and runs 30 miles wide from Haymarket in Prince William County to the heart of the District up to Rock Creek Parkway.

One in four households in the region are in a Super Zip, according to the Post analysis. Since the 2000 Census on which Murray based his analysis, Washington’s Super Zips have grown to encompass 100,000 more residents. Only the New York City area has more Super Zips, but they are a much smaller share of the total of that region’s Zip codes and are more scattered.

Largest clusters of elite zips

Here are the nation’s largest contiguous Super Zip collections, and their nearest major city or area, ranked by number of households.

Zip codes are large swaths of territory, and people from many different walks of life live in them. But many Washington neighborhoods are becoming more economically homogenous as longtime homeowners move out and increasing housing prices prevent the less affluent from moving in. The eventual result, in many cases, is a Super Zip. And because the contiguous Super Zips are surrounded by areas that are almost as well-off, it’s possible to live in a Super Zip and rarely encounter others without college degrees or professional jobs.

“It’s a megalopolis of eggheads,” said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. Frey said Washington is an example of how the country is compartmentalizing itself into clusters of people with different backgrounds and world views.

“It’s a magnet for people who grew up elsewhere and came here because they want to be in a place that has an atmosphere of intellectual curiosity. But it means we’re somewhat isolated. A lot of people here may study and advocate for what’s going on in the rest of the country, but they can’t feel what’s going on if it doesn’t touch them.”

The growing number of people living in Super Zips here is redefining and reshaping the region, turning modest inner-suburb neighborhoods into upscale enclaves and outer-suburb farmland into sprawling housing developments, often gated.

Yet many who live in these rapidly evolving communities do not think of themselves as rich or elite. The cost of living, particularly for housing, eats up a large chunk of the two incomes it typically takes to afford a comfortable home in a good school district.

Life surrounded by affluence can also breed worries that might seem absurd to people who do not live in Super Zips — such as whether to hire a professional tennis coach to help a child make the school team, or get an iPhone for a child in elementary school. Some question whether their children can achieve the same level of comfort as adults they know now.

So do the children themselves.

“My parents set me up with something great,” said Heather Burns, 23, adding that she grew up hearing her Loudoun home town of Ashburn described as “Cashburn” — as in “cash to burn.”

Burns said being raised in an area with good schools gave her a foundation to succeed. Even so, she said she may soon move away: “I can’t afford to keep up their lifestyle.”

The ‘skyboxification’ of America

An aerial view of a subdivision in Clarksville, Md. In this Clarksville Zip code, 75 percent of adults hold college degrees and the median household income tops $181,000. Figures at the high-achieving River Hill High School show 98 percent of graduates head to college. (Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Although the wealthiest Americans have always lived in their own islands of privilege, sociologists and demographers say the degree to which today’s professional class resides in a world apart is a departure from earlier generations. People of widely different incomes and professions commonly lived close enough that they mingled at stores, sports arenas and school. In an era in which women had fewer educational and professional opportunities, lawyers married secretaries and doctors married nurses. Now, lawyers and doctors marry each other.

A recent analysis of census data by sociologists Sean Reardon of Stanford and Kendra Bischoff of Cornell highlighted how middle-income neighborhoods have been fading away as more people live in areas that are either poor or affluent.

In 1970, 65 percent of families lived in middle-income neighborhoods; four decades later, 42 percent did.

Meanwhile, the share of families living in affluent neighborhoods doubled, from 7 percent to 15 percent, as did families living in poor neighborhoods, from 8 percent to 18 percent.

Some sociologists think the trend is isolating well-to-do Americans from the problems of the poor and the working poor, and impeding upward mobility that has long been part of the American dream.

“So much of opportunity in America depends on what sociologists call social capital,” said Stephen Klineberg, a Rice University sociologist. “Who you know. Who’s willing to invest in your skills.”

As the affluent become more isolated, the working class and the poor become confined “to communities where no one has a college education and no one has connections to the world,” Klineberg said. “The social capital that’s so necessary for upward mobility is more difficult to come by than it was in the old days when there was broad-based prosperity.”

Michael Sandel, a Harvard philosopher who wrote “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” calls the parallel lives led by the affluent and everyone else the “skyboxification of American life,” characterized by skyboxes in public arenas and faster security lines at airports.

The impact may be greater on children who grow up with a distorted view of the world, because they don’t know anyone from a different socioeconomic class.

“We ought to worry about what this means for society when kids who are the most advantaged don’t grow up with much experience or understanding of how the other 95 percent live, particularly the bottom half,” said Reardon, who studies the consequences of income inequality. “Will they be less empathetic? Do they understand what it’s like to grow up poor?”

‘Not everyone lives like this’

Pastor Gayle Annis-Forder prays with Jonah Taylor, 5, and his brother, David Taylor, 7 at the Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church in Clarksville, Md. To counterbalance the area's affluence, the church sponsors youth service missions to places like Appalachia. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

The Rev. Gayle Annis-Forder of Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church in Clarksville tries to bridge the gulf of class difference by sponsoring youth service missions to impoverished places such as Appalachia.

“We try hard to give young people opportunities to understand not everyone lives like this,” Annis-Forder said. “Otherwise, how would they know they’re living in a bubble?”

Several teenage church members spent a weekend helping to repair an elderly woman’s small house on a winding country road. For some, the experience was an eye-opener.

“I don’t usually encounter people who aren’t like us,” Zach Hannan, a River Hill High School senior who hopes to become a doctor, said as he joined adults replacing a damaged kitchen floor. He added, “I’m not used to seeing small houses.”

Pastor Gayle Annis-Forder administers communion at the Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church in Clarksville, Md. The church is in a Zip code in which 75 percent of adults hold college degrees and the median household income tops $181,000. The church also sponsors youth service missions to places like Appalachia. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Hannan said that he has accompanied his parents, both psychologists, on cruises to Europe and Alaska and that most of his friends have been to Europe, too. Working nearby, Brandon Pelletier, who headed to Ohio State University this fall to study business, said his friends all have smartphones and shop for high-end clothes at the local mall.

“Polo is big,” he said of the Ralph Lauren brand.

Breanna LaTondre, who recently graduated from Marriotts Ridge High School in Marriottsville, wants to become an architect and design shelters for impoverished and disaster areas. That’s different from most of her friends, who aspire to become doctors and engineers like their parents, she said.

She has gone on six church missions to Appalachia and New Orleans, where she has met people living in flimsy house trailers and converted chicken coops.

“It was the first time I’d seen anyone who lived that way merely because they couldn’t afford better,” she said. “In Howard County, if your house doesn’t have a garage, you’re considered poor.”

Farley, a former PTA president, said some parents go to great lengths to ensure that their children succeed in some of the most desirable schools in the country. Many pay for private tutoring to help students prepare for their SATs or shell out for college resume-building summer camps and trips.

“I know people who have housed a soccer pro in their house for the summer, to train their kids,” she said.

Still, Rhonda O’Guinn, a real estate agent who has lived in the River Hill section of Clarksville since 1995, said outsiders unfairly cast it as elitist. She said many neighbors do volunteer work, and rush to help in a crisis.

“This area gets a bad rap for affluenza,” she said. “When I first moved here, I wouldn’t tell people I lived here. I’d say I live in Columbia. If I said River Hill, they’d say, ‘Oh, you live over there.’ ”

A neighborhood in transition

Annika Harley, 11, and her mother, Anna Mangum, play on their trampoline in Fairfax County. Mangum analyzes health policy for hospitals and health care systems and has neighbors on Overbrook Street who work for the State Department, World Bank and USAID. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Many of the Super Zips in the Washington region didn’t start out that way.

A sorting out is underway in the Sigmona Park neighborhood of Fairfax County, near Falls Church. Census data show that median households incomes in the Zip code approach $102,000. Six in 10 adults have college degrees.

Most of the houses on Overbrook Street used to look like one Brian Sherry grew up in during the 1970s. Now, he shares his childhood home of 1,200 square feet, with three bedrooms and one bathroom, with his wife, Lisa, and their 10-year-old daughter.

Up and down the street, mansions are being built on lots where much smaller houses were razed; two sold recently for about $1.5 million.

In the top drawer of a dining room sideboard, Sherry keeps a neighborhood newsletter dating, he estimates, from the late 1960s or ’70s. It lists the professions of Overbrook’s residents — a land surveyor, a Marine major, an interior designer, an insurance agent, a teacher, a lawyer, an FBI agent and an engineer. But also a bus driver, a hairdresser, a policeman, a maintenance worker and a secretary.

“Today, it’s mostly government workers,” said Sherry, a contractor. “There are six, seven, maybe eight lawyers. Doctors. Some of their kids go to private school. They all seem to have professional house cleaners and professional landscapers.”

The Sherrys, who left college to start working and earn money, are among a handful of residents who didn’t graduate from college.

“You don’t live in this neighborhood doing what we do,” said Lisa Sherry, who works in the cafeteria at Haycock Elementary School, mainly because the job pays benefits. Even without a mortgage, she walks dogs to make ends meet. Her parents help, covering their granddaughter’s horseback-riding lessons. But the contractor’s family can’t afford the new porch Lisa Sherry would love to build. And she worries that the financial pressure will increase when their daughter enters high school and sees her classmates wearing nice clothes and playing sports that require expensive club memberships.

“It’s hard in this area if you try to keep up,” she said.

Then she paused and added, “Maybe things would be different if I had a college education.”

In some ways, Michelle and A.J. Valinote have the life the Sherrys yearn for.

The couple, who live with their three children down the street, are graduates of Marymount University. A.J. works as a government contractor designing software. Michelle is a human relations assistant manager for a consulting firm.

They moved to the neighborhood seven years ago, and soon put on a small addition that gave them a fourth bedroom and a third bathroom, including one on the ground floor.

Their three children, ages 5 to 11, attend parochial schools, where A.J. volunteers for playground duty. Fundraising auctions at the school reflect the status of the parents. A congressman whose son attends the school donated a tour of the Capitol. A store owner contributed items imported from Italy. Another father who owns an indoor bounce house arena donated blocks of playtime there.

Despite the advantages of living in a modern-day version of Lake Wobegon, where all the kids are above average, residents worry. Many of them, having grown up less economically comfortable, are keenly aware of what it took to get where they are in life. They know that the world has only grown more competitive since then. Will their kids believe big houses and luxury vacations come easy?

Even with good jobs, many residents find it difficult keeping up with the cost of living. And neighbor envy is not uncommon.

Michelle Valinote looks longingly at the large additions some neighbors have made to their homes, and she wishes they could afford the same. Living in the Washington area has simultaneously shielded them from the vagaries of economic downturns, and made it more difficult to keep up.

“We have decent salaries. If you’d have asked me when I was going to college if I’d ever make the amount of money I’m making now, I’d have laughed,” said A.J., who grew up in a semi-rural county outside Philadelphia where only half his high school classmates went to college. “But with the mortgage and tuition, despite having decent salaries, it’s not a cakewalk.”

Some people worry that their children may be too far removed from the way most people live — not just materially but in terms of social values.

Nathan Kulp, 8, W. David Kulp III, Heather Kimmel and Rachel Kulp, 11, are seen at their home in Great Falls, Va. Kimmel, a neuropharmacologist, has a doctorate from Emory University and grew up on the Eastern Shore. Her husband, W. David Kulp III, is a nuclear physicist who works at the Pentagon. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

“I do get a little concerned they don’t realize the spectrum of intellectual diversity,” said Heather Kimmel, a neuropharmacologist at the Environmental Protection Agency who lives just off Overbrook Street. “We talk to them a lot about it, that not everyone has a college degree and a big house.”

Kimmel, who has a doctorate from Emory University, grew up on the Eastern Shore. Her father, who met her mother in college, taught at a university. But most of their neighbors were blue-collar workers, including their mailman and a paralegal whose husband worked for the local power company.

Her husband, W. David Kulp III, is a noted nuclear physicist who works at the Pentagon. But he grew up in Allentown, Pa., watching the implosion of blue-collar manufacturing.

The couple do not live lavishly. Kimmel, for example, drives a 15-year-old Volkswagen. The divide they feel is intellectual, they said. When Kulp travels outside the region, he says he realizes that people he meets don’t talk much about things such as foreign policy and countering nuclear terrorism, as he does at home with other people with advanced degrees. Instead, he said, “people elsewhere talk more about what they see every day.”

“They mention ‘those people in Washington,’ ” he said, echoing a common feeling that the words are perjoratively pinned on everyone who lives in the region, not just its politicians and bureaucrats.

Anna Mangum lives with her two children behind Kimmel and Kulp, in a three-story house surrounded by a white picket fence.

An executive at a health-care association, she earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia, two master’s degrees from Berkeley, and went to Scandinavia as a Fulbright scholar.

Many of Mangum’s neighbors are also products of the best schools in the nation and the world, and now work at the kind of jobs that abound in Washington — associates at large legal firms, consultants, think tank scientists and nonprofit executives. Graduates of Harvard, MIT, Duke and the London School of Economics live a few doors away.

While she was growing up in nearby Falls Church during the 1970s and ’80s, Mangum said, the area did not seem as overtly affluent as it is today. Many of the neighboring houses like hers have been transformed, with spacious additions, or replaced by much larger houses.

But the biggest change she notices is how many women have well-paying jobs, sometimes earning more than their husbands do.

“Yes, nationally more women work outside the home than in the ’60s,” she said. “But locally, the additional change is that so many now work in these higher-level jobs.”

Mangum is glad the schools have a community service requirement, exposing children to people who have less. Her son works in a thrift shop and at the Humane Society.

Life in the bubble, she said, carries its own burdens, particularly for children growing up knowing that a four-year college degree is the minimum expected of them, and most will need go on to graduate school.

“It’s a paradox,” she said. “People have lush lives, with all the things they have. But the pressure is intense.”

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