Whether its residents relish the role or not, the District of Columbia is the nation's capital city. As such, it symbolizes what America stands for. What it does, and how it does it, is broadcast around the world. It helps shape global opinion of our down-to-earth success in achieving our lofty goals and ideals. Who lives here, votes here, pays taxes here, and governs here has the unique burden of being on display as America's urban showcase.
The city is now struggling to prepare a new 20-year Comprehensive Plan that appropriately recognizes virtually every American special interest. A combination of idealism and pragmatism, it will provide a public guide book on how the city should grow. How it grows will depend on who it attracts to live here and work here. This in turn depends on how the city's limited land is zoned for continued development. Housing, and all that goes with it, will help define the desired evolution of the city's "residential mix", the lifeblood of the capital city's 'body politic'.
This analysis is intended to provide some (updated) quantitative data to inform that ongoing debate.
[It is also the subject of NARPAC's Editorial for February, '06]
Due to the amount of quantitative graphic data presented in this new analysis (much of it from the Census Bureau's 2004 American Community Survey), this work has been broken into seven bite-sized pieces for easier loading, printing and greater reader selectivity. You can read the brief summary immediately below, and then decide to continue to the end of this chapter, or shift to another one by clicking on the chapter titles listed below.
One of the most difficult issues in planning the future of the nation's capital city is what to do about its disproportionate number of poor adults, poor kids, and poor households. There is an understandable humanitarian tendency to try to alleviate the suffering rather than to alleviate the underlying problem. This plan proposes to actually increase the share of DC housing devoted to the poor, even 20 years hence. NARPAC thinks this is, in fact, inhumane. Surely there must be a better way to help the poor and help the city at the same time.
Issues addressed here:
Who are the poor?
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In a humanitarian advocacy document focusing on housing the underprivileged, it may well be sufficient to accept the existence of various categories of low income residents and work solely towards improving their housing conditions. DC's comprehensive plan, however, is intended to shape the future of not just your average mid-sized American city, but its capital city no less, and for the next generation. In this broader context, sheltering the poor is surely a necessary consideration, but not a sufficient basis for building the future. Planners must come to understand the taxonomy of that poverty and develop a broad-based plan to significantly reduce that humiliating condition within the generational time frame.
The CHSTFR addresses some of these issues at least tangentially with its intentions to "deconcentrate" large clusters of urban poverty, and to work towards "mixed-income and mixed- race communities" which should make it easier for households to creep up the economic ladder. But it also retreats behind the customary disclaimers that nobody should be displaced either by having their decrepit housing units eliminated, by letting "gentrification" tax people out of their meager homes, or even by raising the rent. While politicians may have to appear to be avoiding the tough choices, surely their planners must work to face and shape reality.
Who are the poor?
The chart below shows the magnitude and distribution of poverty (in real numbers, not percentages) for DC and its immediate neighbors. The darker shading indicates the black share of poverty in each set. Several things are immediately clear. With a smaller population and fewer households than PG or Monty, DC has a more poor people, way more black poor, and a disproportionate share of them are female (not just among the elderly, but among the regular adult population below 65). A stunning number of them are kids and they are clearly at risk of repeating the failures and hence the lifestyles of their parent(s).
The next chart focuses on the poverty amongst kids. It may be the most egregious single statistic concerning poverty in DC: Exactly one-third of DC's kids are born into families with two parents present. Twice as many are born and raised by single parents (58% moms and 8% dads). While only 8 % of kids with two parents are below the poverty level for assistance, half of all kids raised by single moms are below the poverty level, and so are one-quarter of all those raised by single dads. Right next door in affluent Montgomery County, 82% of all kids are blessed with two parents, and only about two percent of them are in poverty. And of the 15% born to single moms, only 15% of them are below the poverty line. Talk about head start. DC has an almost unique head start towards perpetuating if not proliferating an underclass which would make many "emerging nations" blush with embarrassment.
In NARPAC's opinion, any long-term plan for DC that focuses only on sheltering these underprivileged households, rather than methodically reducing their numbers is simply a non- starter. And any plan that tries to focus on only what schools can do for those kids almost certainly misses the mark. The key to success lies in alleviating the despair of the young moms, high school drop-outs or not, who are unprepared to pull themselves out of poverty or to prevent their still impressionable kids from following their own dead-end lives.
Do the poor work?
It is also of more than passing interest to note the differing work status of adult (over 16) persons in poverty. This is shown on the chart below in terms of both numbers and percent. DC has more than twice as many such individuals as Monty, and 50% more than PG. But DC's percentage that works full time is lower, and the percentage that doesn't work at all is higher. This may well reflect the difficulty for single moms, very often with more than one young dependent, and sometimes with less than a high school degree.
Are families poor?
Finally, it is instructive to look at the differences in family size between those below the poverty line and those above. The chart below shows that married couples in poverty in DC have two kids, while those above the poverty line have only one. Poor, female-led households have on average three-quarters of a child more. These trends are much less pronounced in PG and Monty, except that PG's poor couples have one and a half more kids that their wealthier counterparts.
Distribution of family size (upper right) is remarkably similar, but cumulative poverty (lower right) shows how much more concentrated DC poverty is at the low end of the poverty scale.
At this writing, neither the so-called comprehensive housing strategy, or the citywide comprehensive plan even insinuates a need to set specific year-by-year goals over the next twenty years to significantly reduce the number of single moms below the poverty level. Consider that if DC could halve that number in 20 years, it would then still have a larger share of poor single moms than PG County has now, and almost twice as many as Monty has now.
Why aid and abet counter-productive households?
There is no discussion in the CHSTFR executive summary, or in the current draft of the citywide comprehensive plan, of the relative merits of single- and two-parent households, particularly with kids. There is virtually no evidence from the educational community to suggest that a single (mostly working) parent can do as good a job at raising self-sufficient kids as two (mostly working) parents. There is a sizable body of evidence that the educational achievement of the kids can be correlated well with the educational capabilities of their parents (and two are better than one). There is indisputable evidence of the close correlation between adult earning power and the level of their educational achievement. And there are no arithmetic tricks in the axiom that two earner households can live and succeed better than single-earner households, particularly if their education achievements have been modest. There can be little doubt that one of the factors driving up the cost of homes has been the proliferation of two-earner families.
How on earth can a one-earner, lone parent with little formal education (perhaps not even finishing high school), hope to compete in either economic life style or the prospective prosperity of their offspring with two working college graduate parents? And why on earth should there be major programs to improve the living conditions of the educationally-challenged single parent without an equivalent effort to improve his or her potential for moving both "upward" and off governmental subsidies?
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This page was updated on Feb 5, 2006
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