A mural on Trinidad Avenue near the intersection of Florida Avenue shows a new growth of art and culture in the Trinidad neighborhood of Washington, DC
Story A Vision for an Equitable DC
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In the November 29 version of this feature, we explained that our racial equity focus was limited to Washington, DC’s, black and Hispanic residents because reliable data estimates are not available for Asians, American Indians, or other races and ethnicities. This focus is not meant to imply that other groups do not also face barriers to equity. The feature has been revised to correct that implication.


What would an equitable DC look like? Communities of color have faced decades of systemic racism and discriminatory policies and practices. These actions have barred people of color from certain jobs and neighborhoods and from opportunities to build wealth, leaving a legacy that persists today. If the nation’s capital were free of its stark racial inequities, it could be a more prosperous and competitive city—one where everyone could reach their full potential and build better lives for themselves and their families.


An east-west racial divide

Washington, DC, is one of most racially segregated cities in the United States, stemming from public policies and private actions that once limited where black residents could live, whether they could secure mortgages, and whom they could buy homes from. Today, Wards 4, 5, 7, and 8 on the east have a majority of black residents, and Wards 2, 3, and 6 on the west are majority white. About half of Hispanic residents live in Wards 1 and 4.

Since the 1950s, DC has been a majority-black city, but that majority has steadily shrunk. The black share of the population fell from 70 percent in 1980 to 61 percent in 2000 and 51 percent in 2010.

For this feature, we focus on equity for DC’s black and Hispanic residents. We rely on the American Community Survey (ACS) as a primary data source because it provides current information on a variety of socioeconomic measures for the city and for each of the eight wards. Although 6 percent of DC’s population is made up of Asian, Pacific Islander, and American Indian residents and those identifying as other or multiple races, the ACS cannot produce consistently reliable ward-level estimates for these smaller populations.  


The education equity gap contributes to racial inequities over a lifetime

Nearly all of DC’s white residents older than 25 have a high school diploma and some college education, but nearly 31 percent of Hispanic residents and 17 percent of black residents lack a high school diploma or general equivalency diploma. Roughly half of black and Hispanic residents have some college education. The education-equity gap contributes to racial inequities in employment, income, housing, and even health, putting disadvantaged groups behind in other areas over the course of their lives.

One way to envision an equitable DC is to close the gaps between black and Hispanic residents and white residents, using white citywide averages as a target. In an equitable DC where the share of black and Hispanic residents with high school degrees matches the citywide share for whites, roughly 33,000 more black residents and 12,000 more Hispanics would have high school degrees, giving them access to more job options. Almost 98,000 more black residents would have some postsecondary education, including more than 80,000 in the majority-black wards.


More than a quarter of DC’s black residents live below the federal poverty level

Black poverty is most acute in Ward 8, the only ward where the poverty rate for any racial/ethnic group is above 30 percent. Overall, DC’s black poverty rate is 26 percent, compared with 7.4 percent for whites (these data include off-campus college students who have little income). The city’s communities of color, hit hard by the Great Recession, have not been able to fully participate in DC’s recent growth. In fact, the poverty rate for black residents was lower before the national recession (23 percent in 2007) than it is now.

Looking at child poverty, the poverty rate for white children in DC is essentially zero, a staggering distance from the 38 percent black child poverty rate and the 22 percent Hispanic child poverty rate. In an equitable DC, no child would be poor.


The black unemployment rate is five times that of whites and highest in Ward 8

The unemployment rate for black DC residents is more than 5.5 times that of whites and more than double that of Hispanics. It’s also higher than the national black unemployment rate (19.5 percent versus 16.1 percent). Inequities in education contribute to inequities in employment as the fastest-growing jobs now require some postsecondary education.

Ward 4 has the lowest unemployment rate for black residents at 14.2 percent, and Ward 8 has the highest at 26.2 percent.

In an equitable DC, 2,200 more Hispanic residents and 24,000 more black residents would be employed, including more than 17,000 black residents in Wards 5, 7, and 8.


Many DC families struggle to earn a living wage

The cost of living in DC is among the highest in the nation, partly because of the high cost of housing and child care. The living wage for a parent to be able to support two children in DC is $38.10 an hour, or about $79,000 a year, according to an MIT study.

Data show that 67 percent of black families and 59 percent of Hispanic families had annual incomes under $75,000, meaning they earned less than DC’s living wage, but only 11 percent of white families did. Even when looking at full-time workers, more than 70 percent of blacks and Hispanics earn less than the city’s living wage, compared with 44 percent of whites. East of the Anacostia River, four out of five black residents working full-time earned less than this living wage.

We see similar racial inequities in the share of full-time workers earning less than $35,000 (which is greater than the annual salary of a full-time worker earning $15 an hour, or DC’s planned minimum wage for 2020). These inequities are partly because of differences in the types of jobs people hold, with a larger share of black and Hispanic workers in service jobs and in other lower-paying industries.


Racial equity has economic benefits for DC as a whole

Communities of color aren’t the only ones that would benefit from racial equity. DC’s economy benefits when racial inequities in employment and income are closed. When households have higher incomes, they spend more and make investments in businesses and in their own educations, all of which drives economic growth and job creation.

If people of color earned the same as their white counterparts, DC’s economy would have been more than $65 billion larger in 2012, according to the National Equity Atlas.


White homebuyers have greater freedom to choose where they want to live

The average white household has more freedom to choose where they want to live, based on what they can afford, than black or Hispanic households. A first-time homebuyer with the average white household income could afford 67 percent of the homes sold between 2010 and 2014, including all homes sold in Wards 7 and 8.

In comparison, a first-time homebuyer from the average Hispanic household could afford 29 percent of homes sold and a first-time homebuyer from the average black household could afford 9.3 percent.


Renters also have limited choices for affordable housing options in DC

Rentals that cost more than 30 percent of a family’s income are considered unaffordable. By that standard, very low income families can afford 67 percent of rental units east of the Anacostia River and less than 7 percent of units west of Rock Creek Park. (Affordability is calculated for a family of four earning $53,500, which is considered the upper threshold for “very low income” when compared with the DC metro area’s median income of $107,000 in 2014.)

Though renters of all races struggle to find affordable places to live in DC, black and Hispanic renters have higher housing cost burdens than white renters, meaning that they pay more than 30 percent of their monthly incomes on rent.


In an equitable DC, more black and Hispanic mothers would receive adequate prenatal care

Beyond economic inequity, we also see large racial inequities in health and health care for babies, including sobering inequities in infant mortality rates. Rates of adequate prenatal care for mothers also varied by race and ethnicity. In 2011, 83 percent of births to white mothers were to mothers who had received adequate prenatal care, compared with only 50 percent of births to black mothers and 57 percent of births to Hispanic mothers.

In a more equitable DC, at least 970 more black mothers and 190 more Hispanic mothers would receive adequate prenatal care.


Employment, education, and income inequities also lead to health inequities

How much we earn, where we live, and what we do for a living all have an effect on our health. So racial inequities in employment, education, income, and neighborhood conditions also show up in measures of health and well-being.

Black residents in DC are more likely than white residents to die from diabetes-related complications, strokes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer. Black residents were more than twice as likely as whites to die from colorectal, lung, and prostate cancer in 2009–13, and more than three times as likely as Hispanics to die from lung cancer. Ward 7 had the highest cancer prevalence among adults (7 percent) in the city in 2011, and Ward 2 had the lowest (4 percent).

In an equitable DC, policies and practices aimed at addressing racial inequities would also support better health. Every resident would have access to safe neighborhoods, secure housing, nutritious food, and adequate health care services.


Achieving this vision requires systemic change

These measures of inequity are just a starting point, but they can help us see a portion of what needs to be done to become an equitable city. Although this feature focused on blacks and Hispanics because of data limitations, an equitable DC must also address the barriers specific to Asian, Pacific Islander, and American Indian residents and those of other or multiple races. 

Achieving this vision requires reforms that go deeper than just alleviating the symptoms of poverty. Dismantling barriers to equity requires an understanding of the city’s history of discrimination and systemic racism, and a firm commitment to pursuing racial equity from DC’s policymakers, agencies, nonprofits, philanthropic institutions, and businesses.

 This feature has been translated into Spanish by the Consumer Health Foundation.


About the Data

Because of the tabulations available in the American Community Survey (ACS), the race and ethnicity categories used in this feature are not all mutually exclusive. We use the shorthand “whites” to refer to non-Hispanic whites, but blacks may refer to either Hispanic black or non-Hispanic black residents (less than 2 percent of blacks in DC identified as Hispanic). The smaller population sizes for other races meant reliable estimates were not consistently available.

In the “racial equity” scenarios, we calculated how many additional people would benefit if the rate for blacks or Hispanics matched the citywide rate for whites. At the ward level, black and Hispanic rates are still compared with the citywide white rate. The estimates for blacks and Hispanics are not mutually exclusive and should not be added together.

The ACS data are based on survey samples, and the five-year estimates therefore have associated margins of error. We have suppressed estimates from this feature where we do not consider them to be reliable. We recommend that users use caution when comparing estimates, particularly at the ward level, and check the margins of error available on the detailed tables for download. These tables also contain additional indicators not discussed in this feature.

Project Credits

RESEARCH Leah Hendey, Somala Diby, and Maia Woluchem, with thanks to Margaret Simms

WRITING Leah Hendey and Serena Lei

DEVELOPMENT Ben Chartoff and Hannah Recht

DESIGN Christina Baird

EDITORIAL Elizabeth Forney

This project was funded by the Consumer Health Foundation and the Meyer Foundation. Visit the Consumer Health Foundation’s website for more information on the history of people of color and social policy in Washington, DC.

Copyright © December 2016. Urban Institute.

Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros Race and equity Greater DC
Tags Racial and ethnic disparities