D.C. Inequalities, Or How the Middle Class Got Stuck
If you made $80,000 in the 80s, you probably make more than twice that today. But if you (or someone like you) made $32,000 two decades ago, your pay has probably gone up only to about $42,000. And if you were unfortunate enough to be on the lowest rung of the income ladder back in the 80s, you've probably made zero progress since then, with average incomes in that lowest fifth of families staying put at about $12,000.
That's the bottom line in the growing inequalities in the economy both across the U.S. and particularly in the District. A national study of income inequalities and a local analysis looking at the numbers in the District show that the poor stayed poor, the middle inched up, and the rich got stupendously richer.
This likely comes as a surprise to no one except the folks in the top fifth of the income scale, who regularly manage to seem themselves as financially beleaguered with only a vague tsk tsk in the general direction of those who must scramble ever harder to get by.
The big political question that such studies prompts is why the vast middle of the population doesn't seem terribly exercised by their persistent problem with falling further behind. The great American binding myth of mobility is generally just true enough to tamp down any notion of class divisions--even within the inequalities shown by the statistics, there's room for people to rise to a higher income bracket through education and initiative. But the numbers don't lie: Most people don't ever make that jump. The beauty of the American system is that vastly more people believe they can and will move on up than ever realistically will do so. And we tend to vote and speak as if we were guaranteed to be the ones who will claw our way up, and we therefore don't vote to soak the rich, because secretly we think we will one day be one of them.
The D.C.-specific numbers show, according to the Lazere analysis linked above, that the city's poor population has not really benefited from the District's economic transformation since the end of the Barry era. But here the numbers don't tell a full story. It's certainly true that large swaths of the city remain mired in poverty, unemployment and the traps of the permanent underclass. But over these past 20 years of gentrification, there's been a big change in the city's population, and a large piece of that change has been the economic uplifting of people who used to be part of that low-income population in the District.
Why doesn't that show up in the stats? Because the great majority of those who benefited from the city's rising tide left town. They moved out to Prince George's County and beyond, cashing in their D.C. homes to fulfill suburban dreams. That may have done little for the inequalities picture in the District, which remains very much a city of rich and poor with scarcely any middle, but it did an enormous amount for those who now boast of being homeowners with real capital out in the county. The old joke about Marion Barry having created Ward 9--the former D.C. residents who populate much of Prince George's--is even truer today than it was when he left office. Except a good chunk of that credit should go not to Barry, but to that much-reviled master of gentrification, Mayor Tony Williams, who is destined to go down in history as the mayor who transformed the District for all while managing to miff most.
By Marc Fisher |
February 1, 2006; 7:14 AM ET
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