Last week, I took a crack at the Half in Ten campaign’s updated poverty reduction and shared prosperity indicators for the nation as a whole. It’s also updated a smaller set for each state and the District of Columbia.
Here then is what we can learn from the new figures for the District.
But the District isn’t a state. And however much it deserves to be one, comparisons to other large cities rather than to states as a whole would be more appropriate for issues like Half in Ten’s.
So let’s just look at the indicators themselves.
On the whole, we see more progress than backsliding. But — no news to any of you, I guess — the District has a long way to go on both the poverty and shared prosperity fronts.
For some indicators, the progress would be expected.
For example, the official poverty rate for the District dropped, though it was still well above the national rate. Ditto for the unemployment rate.
We see progress that can’t be attributed simply to the improving economy, however. The backsliding calls for other — or at least, more complex — explanations too.
In addition to the unemployment rate, Half in Ten provides a handful of indicators for the employment prospects of relatively young District residents. Forward movement across the board:
- The percent of freshmen who completed high school in four years increased from 56% to 62.4%* — far below the nationwide 75.5% rate, but progress nonetheless.
- The percent of “disconnected youth” dropped by 1%, leaving us with nine out of every hundred youth who were neither working nor in school.
- The already-high percent of young adults (25-34) with at least a two-year college degree rose to 62.7%.
The good jobs indicators clearly relate to child, youth and family well-being. Unlike these, the indicators Half in Ten puts in the strengthening families category are a good news/bad news story.
In the good news part, the rate of births to teen mothers dropped from 50.9 to 45.4 per 1,000. Still considerably above the national 31.3 rate, but moving in the right direction.
And the percent of residents without health insurance dropped to 6.9% — well below the 15.7% national rate, which also registered a drop last year.
In the bad news part, the pay gap between men and women workers reportedly grew — and by a lot.** In 2010, it was considerably smaller than the nationwide gap. Last year, it was bigger.
And the rate of children in foster care rose from 18 to 20 per 1,000. Notwithstanding what I said about the rankings, I can’t resist noting that the District’s rate is far higher than any state’s.
Good and bad news for indicators in this category also.
On the good news side, the rate of food insecure District households dropped from 13% to 10.9%, while the nationwide rate rose.
And the percent of jobless District residents who received unemployment insurance benefits shot up from 36.3% to 64% — at least in part due to program reforms the District adopted to get its share of the reward money offered by the Recovery Act.
One economic security indicator that looks very positive is, I think, misleading.
We’re told that the number of rental units for very low-income households increased from 53 to 77 per hundred — almost 20 more than the nationwide rate.
How could that be when we know we’ve got an affordable housing crisis here?
The answer lies in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of “very low-income,” i.e., at or below 50% of the median income for families in the area.
The area HUD carves out for the District includes nearby suburbs populated by very well-off folks.
A median income for the District alone would put more units out of reach — even more if Half in Ten had linked its indicator to “extremely poor households,” i.e., at or below 30% of AMI.
Half Full, Half Empty and Now What?
So we’ve got progress on more indicators than not. But we’ve still got well over 109,000 poor District residents and lots more who aren’t getting a share of that prosperity that parts of our envisioned One City enjoy.
Our local officials could move some indicators in the right direction — or further in the right direction.
But much depends on what Congress decides to do about tax revenues and spending cuts in whatever bargain emerges to pull us back from the so-called “fiscal cliff.”
* These figures are for the 2007-8 and 2008-9 school years. After Half in Ten published its update, the U.S. Department of Education released high school graduation rates for 2010-11. These are the first set to reflect a standardized calculation method for all states.
The District’s on-time graduation rate was 59% last year. This, at the very least, raises questions about the prior progress shown.
** The wage gap figure Half in Ten provides is significantly greater than the gap reported by the American Association of University Women. Part of the difference derives from how annual earnings are calculated, but there’s got to be some other factor too.