Report Cites Racial Income Gap

The Washington, D.C.’s Fiscal Policy Institute’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau federal data found deep racial disparity in the District’s economic recovery after the recession. Although the overall median household income in the District has recovered steadily since the crash, rising some $13,000 above prerecession 2007 levels, incomes for black residents stagnated. In 2015, median incomes for black households were recorded at around $41,000, while median incomes for white households were recorded at $120,000.

Additionally, while the poverty rates for other racial and ethnic groups have improved since the recession, black Washingtonians make up the only racial or ethnic group to see a rise in their poverty levels since the recession. According to DCFPI, around 23 percent of the District’s black residents lived in poverty in 2007. In 2015, the number rose to 27 percent.

DCFPI policy analyst Claire Zippel (GRD ’15) said this report may challenge some common assumptions about the recovery.

“A lot of people think the recession is over, D.C.’s doing great,” Zippel said. “But D.C.’s economic growth since the recession has not been equally shared among the city’s racial groups and that racial inequality continues to be incredibly persistent and troublesome for our city.”

Zippel said the growing number of residents living below the poverty line poses a new challenge by putting a strain on the city’s services.

“There are more poor people in D.C. now who are going to need services from the government to meet basic needs, get back on their feet, get back to work or get a better job,” Zippel said. “The city needs to be increasing its investment in order to meet a greater need.”

McCourt School of Public Policy professor Harry Holzer said the District needs to make a stronger commitment to combatting poverty.

“We absolutely should be trying a lot harder,” Holzer said. “The problems are complex, and people who tell us there are easy solutions, I think, are leading us down a false path. And yet, I think there are things we can do that can help.”

Holzer proposed a modest minimum wage increase and an expanded earned-income tax credit as possible ways to raise the incomes of laborers. Currently, the D.C. minimum wage is $11.50 an hour, whereas the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. He particularly stressed the importance of creating opportunities for children in low-income communities to escape the poverty cycle.

“Even if you think the adults are getting what they deserve, the children born into these families are going to have a hard time in life,” Holzer said. “There is no way that we can say that their opportunities in life are going to be equal to kids in middle-class families or high-income families growing up in the suburbs.”

Holzer emphasized the importance of early childhood education and expanded pathways to apprenticeships and career and technical schools. Holzer said there is no easy solution to addressing poverty, but that these efforts are crucial nonetheless.

“Just because these things are complex and hard to do doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” Holzer said. “Even if we can accomplish a little bit along all these dimensions, you add it up and it can really make a difference in people’s lives. Saying something is complex is not an excuse for inaction.”

Albert Lee (MSB ’17), a volunteer for the Georgetown student group Hoya Taxa, which helps low-income D.C. residents file tax returns, echoed the importance of taking action.

“I think getting involved with issues of inequality is very much aligned with the mission of the university: contemplation and action, women and men for others,” Lee said. “There are a lot of problems with poverty and inequality in D.C., but sometimes we don’t acknowledge them because we don’t want to.”

Zippel encouraged Georgetown students to stand in solidarity with the broader D.C. community by informing themselves and engaging in these issues.

“We may be a city divided into four quadrants, but we’re all still one city,” Zippel said. “I think it’s important for everyone to be attentive that there are people in this city who are struggling every day. It’s important to support policies that would help improve lives.”

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