The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 27, 2014

The state of the District

February 27, 2014

In his 2013 State of the District address, Washington, DC, Mayor Vincent Gray highlighted the city’s continued economic growth but expressed concern about widening inequality.

“We once worried about the District becoming a city of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’” he said. “But now we are increasingly in danger of becoming a city of only ‘haves.’”

For some, DC’s growing prosperity has made the District unaffordable.

In anticipation of next Monday’s 2014 State of the District address, five Urban Institute experts provide their assessments of the state of the city.

Tax revenue is up

Norton Francis, Senior Research Associate, Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center

“The District is riding high. Population is booming and the housing market is hot. Income and property tax receipts have been larger than expected, and the District finished 2013 with a $1.75 billion ‘rainy day’ fund. The mayor and council are debating what to do with the extra money, and, as if on cue, the D.C. Tax Revision Commission just released its recommendations ‘to increase fairness, broaden DC’s tax base, promote competitiveness, and encourage business growth.’ The Commission, which heavily relied on experts from the Tax Policy Center, has some good ideas on broadening the tax base in order to lower the corporate tax rate and provide individual tax relief. With a price tag of $74 million, the mayor will have to figure out how it fits in with his other priorities.”

Too little affordable housing

Mary Cunningham, Senior Fellow, Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center

“The city’s prosperity and the rising rents that come with it have put pressure on its poorest families. Family homelessness has spiked over the past few months, leaving the city scrambling to find space in shelters. For some, crowded ‘temporary’ accommodations have become permanent housing; it’s the only space they can afford. We need a robust plan for affordable housing in the District. New-build and preservation should be part of it. But in the meantime, a good first step: put $40 million of the budget surplus into rent subsidies that can help families secure existing housing in the private market.”

Inequality has health consequences

Marla McDaniel, Senior Research Associate, Center on Labor, Human Services and Population

In DC, asthma is an undeniably discriminating disease. The District is a national leader in the percentage of its children covered by health insurance. But in 2008, asthma prevalence in DC was three times higher among African American youth than among non-Hispanic white youth. And in 2010, the emergency room visit rates for asthma among children in the most disadvantaged zip codes of Southeast were more than 10 times greater than in the more advantaged zip codes of Northwest DC. Within the city, access to primary care varies greatly by location, but wherever children live, asthma is manageable. Our work suggests ways that even some of the most disadvantaged families can get support to treat the disease.”

The study “Making Sense of Childhood Asthma: Lessons for Building a Better System of Care” is forthcoming.

How should we measure school progress?

Austin Nichols, Senior Research Associate, Income and Benefits Policy Center

Test scores in the District are up, but tracking the percentage of students in a school who score proficient on standardized tests—as is often done—can be misleading. DC is absorbing thousands of new residents per month. As better-resourced, higher-performing students enroll in a school, the sample of students that you’re trying to evaluate can change considerably. Measuring how much students learn over time is very difficult, but fortunately, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education has a measure—the median growth percentile (MGP)—that compares performance of students at similar ability levels across schools to measure learning, or the value added by a school relative to other schools. There are limits to this measure. Because of ups and downs in error-prone tests, very few individual schools can be reliably distinguished from the typical school. But some of the broad trends within MGP rankings are worth investigating. For example, while charter schools tend to rank higher than the typical school, traditional public schools are overrepresented at both the highest and lowest ranks.”

A MetroTrends analysis of DC public school median growth percentile figures is forthcoming.

The next phase of crime reduction

John Roman, Senior Fellow, Justice Policy Center

The Gray administration, including Police Chief Cathy Lanier, has done an exceptional job reducing crime and violence in the District. The next step is to think about public safety beyond law enforcement. We need to understand how families and at-risk youth touch multiple systems— the courts, child and family services, the schools—and address their multiple needs to put them on a path to a brighter future. Families and children cannot be effectively served unless all their needs—and strengths—are understood. And at the moment, that isn't happening in the District.”

Photo by Matt Johnson, Urban Institute

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.