New DC Poverty and Shared Prosperity Figures Show Uneven Progress

December 3, 2012

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.

We can look at these in a couple of ways — in comparison to last year’s or to the same indicators for the whole country. We can also see how the District ranks among states.

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.

Good Jobs

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%.

Stronger Families

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.

Economic Security

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.

On the bad news side, the percent of District households without bank accounts — a measure of asset-building capacity — rose from 24.4% to 41%.

Might the marked increase have something to do with the new fees banks are charging — or their higher minimum balance requirements?

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 housingĀ  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.


DC GED Pass Rate Lowest In The Nation

January 16, 2011

As the recent Census figures remind us, a college degree is rapidly becoming the passport to a decent standard of living. This is true both nationwide and here in the District of Columbia.

In the District, 4.5% of adults over 25 with a bachelors degree or higher lived below the poverty line in 2009, as compared to 28.3% of their peers with less than a high school diploma.

Adults without a high school diploma earned, on average, $20,364 for the year. Adults with a college degree nearly three times as much. Even some college or an associate degree boosted earnings by an average of more than $16,000.

The passport to college is, of course, a high school diploma or the equivalent — mostly commonly a GED (General Education Development) credential.

So the District clearly needs to do something big to increase both the high school graduation rate and the pass rate for the GED tests.

According to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Education, fewer than 55% of D.C. public high school students graduate on time — a lower percent than in all states but one.

The Alliance for Education Excellence says that independent researchers generally find higher dropout rates than states report. So it uses figures from the research arm of the nonprofit that publishes Education Week. These put the District’s on-time graduation rate at 49%.

No figure for those who graduate after more than four years. But we do have research suggesting that most students who are held back in their freshman year don’t graduate late. So I doubt a total graduation rate would give us a much rosier picture.

Whatever the true high school graduation figure, the GED certificate will remain a key to living-wage employment and the health of our local economy for an indefinitely long time.

We’ve got nearly 64,500 District residents over 18 without a high school diploma or the equivalent. With a GED, they’ve got a fair shot at better wages and that passport to at least some postsecondary education. Without it, they’re likely to fall further behind. And their children will be at higher risk of becoming high school dropouts too.

So the results of the latest reported round of GED tests are bad news indeed.

In 2009, the District had a lower pass rate than any state — just 53.5% of candidates for the certificate. In half the states, three-quarters or more of candidates passed. In all but seven of these, pass rates were over 80%.

The GED tests aren’t like the highly variable proficiency tests states administer under No Child Left Behind. Both the tests and the passing thresholds are standard nationwide. So we can’t explain the District’s dismal performance by the questions asked, the scoring methods or the minimum pass scores.

A recent New York Times editorial links passing rates to the kind of jobs states do in preparing prospective candidates. This certainly seems to be the case for Iowa, which tops the chart with a 98.1% pass rate.

So might the explanation for the District’s low pass rate lie in the basic education and test preparation programs available to residents who aspire to the GED credential?

Not an easy question to answer. Here’s some of what I learned from the DC Public Library’s Literacy Outreach Specialist and DC Learns board member Ben Merrion.

Unlike most states, the District relies mainly on nonprofits and charter schools for adult education. There are no city-wide standards for their programs, even those that receive funding from the Office of the Superintendent of State Education.

So we can readily find out where GED candidates may get help in preparing, but not the curricula offered or the qualifications of the instructors. Doubtful, I think, that candidates could find out enough to make appropriate choices, though they can get some guidance if they call the Literacy Hotline.

Merrion says that many of the 30 programs listed as offering courses or tutoring expressly designed as GED preparation are short on staff and on the funds they’d need to hire experienced, well-trained staff — or to develop more. Recent cuts in local public funding for adult education have made matters worse.

However, the District requires candidates to pass a standardized pretest before they can take the regular five-test battery. According to the annual report by the American Council on Education’s GED Testing Service, jurisdictions that prescreen with the test generally have higher pass scores. Clearly not the case for the District.

So we’ve got a mystery here. And it’s one I think OSSE ought to get to the bottom of. Because, as the Times notes, the GED tests will soon get tougher.

“States,” it says, “will need to invest much more heavily in programs that prepare people for the G.E.D.” Seems this may well be true for the District as well.

If close to half its test-takers can’t pass the current version of the GED, how will a reasonably large percentage pass tests based on the more rigorous “common core” standards that the District, along with a large majority of states, has adopted?