Disparities in the District of Columbia: Poverty Is Major Cause

By Stacey Rolland
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Two Measures of Poverty

Poverty can have effects in two ways – family poverty and neighborhood poverty: 

Family poverty is when a family or individual has income below the federal poverty threshold.  It shapes such factors as nutrition, job stability and adequate housing. 

Neighborhood poverty is the share of families and individuals in a neighborhood living in poverty. High neighborhood poverty affects the quality of schools and other social institutions, safety, and peer influence.


Poverty remains persistently high in the District of Columbia, despite a strong economic rebound in recent years.  DC’s poverty rate ‘ 19 percent in 2004-2005 ‘ is higher than the national poverty rate of 13 percent and even higher than the poverty rate in most major cities.  Census data show that poverty in DC has increased in recent years ‘ from 17 percent to 19 percent ‘  as 10,000 more residents fell below the poverty line.  Poverty rates are especially high in some DC neighborhoods, resulting in areas of concentrated poverty.  The number of high-poverty neighborhoods increased in the District of Columbia in the 1990s, while they were falling in many other cities.[1]

Research shows that numerous social problems ‘ such as poor health, low school performance, violence, and teen parenthood ‘ are tied to family poverty.  The impact of poverty reflects the fact that poor families and individuals often live in overcrowded or substandard housing, suffer from poor nutrition, and lack access to health care.  The stresses of poverty also are a major contributing factor behind child neglect and other negative behaviors.

The adverse effects of family poverty are compounded when poor individuals and families live in neighborhoods with high-poverty rates.  Just as the socioeconomic status of a family matters for their well-being, the economic and social environments of neighborhoods have significant influence on the life course and outcomes of individual residents, even after taking account of their personal and family characteristics.

Research tends to show that both family poverty and neighborhood poverty create hardships.  For example:

  • Poor children have lower math and reading test scores than more affluent children within the same schools.
  • Children at all income levels tend to have lower test scores when they attend schools in low-income neighborhoods than when their school is in a more affluent area.  Children from poor families do better when they attend schools in low-poverty neighborhoods.  

A review of data covering the District of Columbia ‘ from the Census Bureau and DC government data sources ‘ confirms that residents of high-poverty neighborhoods in the District suffer from a far-greater incidence of serious social ills than do residents of low-poverty neighborhoods.  For example:

  • Only 20 percent of students in elementary schools in DC’s poorest neighborhoods score at or above grade level, while 60 percent of students in schools in the lowest-poverty neighborhoods score at grade level or better.
  • Nearly half of all children with substantiated cases of abuse and neglect in the District come from the poorest fifth of its neighborhoods.  Children in DC’s poorest neighborhoods are seven times more likely than children in low-poverty neighborhoods ‘ and twice as likely as children in moderate-poverty neighborhoods ‘ to have such substantiated cases of abuse.

Neighborhood-level data also show that rates of violent crime and teen births are far higher in DC’s poorest neighborhoods than in lower-poverty neighborhoods.

These data are striking because they show a consistently strong correlation between neighborhood poverty and negative social outcomes on a number of indicators.  On every measure, DC’s poorest neighborhoods face the worst conditions, high-income neighborhoods enjoy the best conditions, and the conditions in moderate-income areas fall between the two.  The findings confirm that poverty ‘ and the concentration of poor families in certain neighborhoods ‘ is a major contributing factor to many of DC’s largest problems.

These data also confirm that the daily experiences for families living in DC’s low-income neighborhoods are vastly different from those living in higher-income areas.  High rates of crime, poor quality schools, and other factors create tremendous barriers to success for families in poorer neighborhoods.

Family and neighborhood poverty, of course, are not the only factors behind DC’s negative social outcomes.  Public services that are inadequate city-wide also play a significant role in many cases.  For example, test scores among students in DC Public Schools fall below those in many other urban school districts with similar rates of poverty, suggesting that there are significant weaknesses in the District’s public education system.   

A multi-pronged approach is necessary to improve the negative outcomes caused by family and neighborhood poverty. 

  • Boost incomes of low-income families:  Steps to raise the incomes of low-income residents  such as increasing employment, raising the minimum wage, and increasing public assistance benefits can reduce family poverty ‘ which in turn would reduce neighborhood poverty rates;
  • Reduce concentrations of poverty: Steps to prevent the loss of affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods and to promote mixed-income housing developments across the city will help create economic diversity and reduce concentrations of poverty;
  • Target critical social services to the highest-poverty neighborhoods:  Because some high-poverty neighborhoods will persist, targeted services are needed to offset the negative effects associated with high neighborhood poverty rates.

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End Notes:

[1] Paul A Jargowsky, “Stunning Progress, Hidden Problems: The Dramatic Decline of Concentrated Poverty in the 1990s,” Brookings Institution, May 2003.

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