DC Made Progress on Poverty Thanks to Public Investment in Residents

Black Residents Continue to Experience Persistent Economic Hardship

Poverty in DC declined in 2022 to 13.3 percent from 16.5 percent the year prior, according to new data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). This improvement likely reflects a combination of factors including the overall decline in unemployment, a growing minimum wage, and federal and local investments in response to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Over 2021 and much of 2022, the District took actions like boosting Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance, raising pay for early childhood educators, and bolstering supports like emergency rental assistance and housing vouchers that help people stay stably housed and, in turn, get and stay employed. Through September 2021, District residents also benefited from federally funded expanded Unemployment Insurance benefits. [Note: The ACS is administered on a rolling basis throughout the year and asks about income over the past 12 months, so the new 2022 data partially reflect the economic situation in 2021.]

The drop in overall poverty appears to be driven by a notable 6.4 percentage point drop in Black poverty. Even with the much-needed improvement, the new data still show deep and longstanding racial inequities in the experience of poverty in the District. Based on the official poverty measure, in 2022:  

  • The poverty rate among Black people in DC decreased to 21.3 percent from 27.7 percent in 2021, a statistically significant decrease. Although this is an improvement, in 2022 more than one in five Black residents were experiencing poverty, and Black poverty was eight percentage points higher than the rate overall.  
  • The poverty rate among non-Hispanic white people, 5.9 percent, remained low and statistically unchanged from 2021. 
  • The poverty rate among Latino people, 10.4 percent, remained statistically unchanged from 2021. However, high margins of error for estimates for this group mean that these data may not be reliable.   
  • Child poverty declined by nearly seven percentage points but remained high at 16.8 percent. Reliable data on child poverty by race and ethnicity will be available in December, when the ACS releases its five-year estimates. 

Moreover, the District’s stark racial disparities in the poverty rate are chronic. Over the last decade (2012 to 2022), the Black poverty rate never dipped below 21.3 percent and was as high as 28.7 percent. In other words, at least one in five and sometimes more than one in four Black residents has lived in poverty in any given year over the last decade, underscoring persistent economic hardship and disadvantage. That stands in stark contrast to the experience of white residents, whose poverty rate over that timeframe never reached 8 percent (or about one in 13) and was as low as 5 percent (or one in 20). The cumulative effect of communities and people living in persistent poverty can lead to especially negative outcomes and limited opportunities, particularly for children.

ACS uses the official poverty measure (OPM) to determine the poverty rate, which experts generally agree is an outdated method for measuring hardship in the United States. The OPM compares pre-tax cash income, including income from earnings, unemployment insurance, and cash-based public assistance, against a threshold that is set at three times the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963 and adjusted for family size. The OPM does not take into account other vital supports that individuals and families in the District may receive, such as the Child Tax Credit or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, nor does it account for the substantial variation in cost of living by geography.

The Current Population Survey (CPS) uses the OPM but also offers a Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which includes tax credits and non-cash benefits like SNAP in calculating income and sets a threshold based on a fuller range of living expenses, including housing, in a given calendar year. At the national level and for many states, the OPM and SPM yield different results due to what they measure. However, the three-year state-level data for 2020 to 2022 shows that the poverty rate in the District is roughly the same across the OPM and SPM, at about 14.8 percent. This likely means that the DC policies that boost residents’ economic security—like a bump in cash supports and rental assistance and a higher minimum wage, for example—helped keep residents afloat in the face of reduced federal aid in 2022 and growing household expenses, such as extremely high housing costs.  

Median Income Remains Highly Inequitable by Race 

Despite the decline in poverty, DC median household income remained statistically unchanged from the year prior ($101,027 in 2022 compared with $97,377 in 2021, when adjusted for inflation). That means that half of all households in the District have income above the median income and half have incomes below it.

Looking at median income by race and ethnicity in 2022: 

  • Median income for Black households, $60,891, remained statistically unchanged from 2021.  
  • Median income for white, non-Hispanic households, $151,084, remained statistically unchanged from 2021 and is the highest in the District among all other racial and ethnic groups. 
  • Median income for Latino households, $117,945, remained statistically unchanged from 2021. Similar to the poverty rate, due to the high margins of error for estimates for this group, these data may not be reliable.    

Median household incomes have grown for both non-Hispanic white and Black households in DC over the last decade, by 6.6 and 21.5 percent, respectively, after adjusting for inflation. Despite the progress for Black households, it falls short of achieving parity. White household income is two and half times higher than Black household income in 2022 and has been anywhere from 2.5 to 3.4 times higher than it has for Black residents over the past decade.   

The District made progress on poverty through higher wages at the bottom, improvements in employment, and major public investments in DC’s residents and communities in 2021 and 2022. This progress demonstrates that the District can’t pull back from continued, intentional efforts to eliminate economic hardship and even deeper focus on undoing longstanding racial inequity.