Figures the Census Bureau released two weeks ago indicated that the poverty rate in the District of Columbia had gone up — and by a lot.
Looking at the two-year average to compensate for the small sample size, the poverty rate hit 19.7% in 2010-11. This is 4.6% higher than the comparable rate for the U.S. as a whole — and higher than the rates for all but two states.
Now we’ve got results from the much more comprehensive American Community Survey. It uses samples large enough to make one-year figures for states — and even smaller jurisdictions — reasonably accurate. Also figures for specific age and race/ethnicity groups.
And, lo and behold, the overall poverty rate in the District didn’t rise after all. Here’s more detail on that, plus some other notable numbers.
Poverty and Severe Poverty Rates Halt Upward Climbs
The new D.C. poverty rate looks like a decline — down from from 19.2% in 2010 to 18.7% last year.
The Census Bureau, however, says that the change is not statistically significant.* Even a level rate is, of course, better news than what we read earlier.
As with the two-year averages, the rate in the District was higher than the nationwide ACS rate — by 2.8%. Rates in nine states were higher.
Similar news for the severe poverty rate, i.e., the percent of residents who lived below 50% of the applicable poverty threshold (just $23,021 for a family of four).
It dropped a bit — from 10.7% to 10.3%. Doubtful that this change is statistically significant.
Whether or no, it means that more than half of all D.C. residents counted as officially poor — 109,317 — were so very poor as to meet the severe poverty standard.
Unequivocally bad news for the District’s children. The poverty rate for the under-18 population — 30.3% — was virtually the same as in 2010. The new rate is 7.8% higher than the also disturbingly high national rate.
As with the District’s poor population generally, more than half of all poor D.C. children lived in severe poverty last year — 16.5%. That’s nearly 17,285 children in truly desperate circumstances.
Race/Ethnicity Gaps Still Very Large
We’ve got new figures, but no new story for the challenges to Mayor Gray’s One City vision. For example, in 2011:
- The poverty rate for blacks was more than four times the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 27.8%, as compared to 6.8%.
- The severe poverty rate for blacks was also much higher than the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 14.6%, as compared to 4.8%.
- The poverty rate for Hispanics was 18.1% and the severe poverty rate 8%.
We see the same disparities in household income.
- The median income for non-Hispanic white households was a very comfortable $107,679.
- For black households, the median income was barely more than a third of that — $39,302.
- Hispanic households did better, on average, with a median income of $59,607, but their median income was somewhat higher in 2010.
More Jobs Would Help, But …
Commenting on the earlier Census figures, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute noted that the jump in the poverty rate reflects mainly “stubbornly high unemployment” for “some groups of residents.”
Well, we had no jump. But the analysis still applies, with some qualifications.
Nearly half — 47.3% — of the District’s poor residents between the ages of 16 and 65 didn’t work at all last year. Another 25.5% worked less than full time and/or year round.
That leaves 27.2% of working-age residents who were employed full time, year round and nevertheless in poverty.
So it’s pretty obvious that more jobs would be helpful. But it’s also obvious that more jobs alone won’t cut it.
Education is commonly touted as the answer to persistently high poverty rates. I, among others, am inclined to think that’s over-simple, though no doubt part of the answer — certainly here in the District.
According to the ACS, the poverty rate for adults 25 years and older who had just a high school diploma or the equivalent was 22.8% last year — and for those with less, a whopping 35.6%.
The poverty rate for those with at least a bachelor’s degree was just 4.2%. This is lower than the rate in 2010, while the rate for those with less than a high school diploma or GED is markedly higher.
We could surely narrow the income gaps in the District with better — and more equal — educational opportunities for residents without the advantages of their well-off peers.
Those opportunities unfortunately may diminish, due to the across-the-board federal spending cuts that Congress isn’t even close to averting.
We know that the District’s public education programs would take a significant hit — estimated, for only three major sources, at more than $9.1 million next year.
The cuts would also throw a lot of people out of work — estimated at upwards of two million nationwide. The District would lose its share — perhaps more than its share.
Lost jobs mean lost tax revenues that could be used to shore up our fraying safety net and for programs that reduce needs for the aid it should provide.
All sad — and wholly avoidable — prospects for our egregiously large poor population.
* As the text indicates, the severe poverty rate change I report here may not be statistically significant either. The Census Bureau’s brief doesn’t cover levels above and below the poverty thresholds, though the ACS tables do. They show error margins, but they’re not multi-year.