Urban Wire Mapping economic challenges in DC
Jonathan Schwabish, Gregory Acs
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With a new DC mayor in office, Urban Institute experts prepared memos offering evidence-based recommendations for tackling many of the city’s challenges. Our memo on policies and practices to promote social and economic mobility in DC focused on disparate economic success across different gender, age, and racial and ethnic groups. As part of that work, we also explored how those differences vary geographically across the city. Not surprisingly, many neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River have faced, and continue to face, economic challenges not apparent in other areas of the city.

For our study, we examined the economic characteristics of all 179 neighborhoods in Washington, DC, using 1990 and 2000 Census data and pooled data from the American Community Survey from 2006 to 2010. We then identified neighborhoods that can be classified as “challenged,” meaning that the neighborhood’s unemployment rate, share of residents with less than a high school degree, and share of households headed by a single mother all exceed the citywide average by at least 20 percent.

In all three years of our analysis, we find that about 23 percent of DC neighborhoods are considered challenged by this definition. We also find that those neighborhoods are not equally distributed across the city and follow some distinct patterns.

  • In 1990, about 60 percent of challenged neighborhoods were located east of the Anacostia River. Three clusters of challenged neighborhoods sit west of the river: one along the waterfront where the Nationals’ ballpark now sits, another roughly along the 14th Street corridor in Northwest DC, and another in Northeast around the National Arboretum.
  • In 2000, a few more neighborhoods east of the river became challenged and a few less west of the river. The clusters from 1990 were roughly unchanged.
  • In 2006-2010, we see more challenged neighborhoods east of the river while some areas in Northeast DC are no longer considered challenged.
  • Overall, among the 28 neighborhoods we classified as challenged in both 2000 and 2006-2010, only 6 are located west of the river.
Most Challenged DC Neighborhoods lie east of the Anacostia River

Geographic disparities in DC are not new. Economically speaking, areas east of the river have fared much worse than other neighborhoods for decades. As DC emerges from the most recent recession with a city government seemingly focusing more on changes in education, affordable housing, economic development, and open data, the new mayor has an opportunity to assert her commitment to areas of the city that have been challenged for far too long.


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Research Areas Economic mobility and inequality Education Greater DC
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center
Cities Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV