Washington, D.C. in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000

November 1, 2003

Executive Summary

Census 2000 reveals that while Washington, D.C.’s status as the nation’s capital makes it unique among large cities, rapid suburban growth contributed to widening social and economic division within the core.

Washington lost a moderate amount of population in the 1990s, though more recent statistics suggest that the outflow has abated. Over the decade, however, Washington’s suburbs grew by 20 percent, so that today only one in eight residents of the region lives in the central city. Population decline was not uniform across the city—most neighborhoods west of 16th Street grew, while those in the Northeast and Southeast quadrants lost residents. Population loss was especially pronounced among African Americans, whose numbers declined by 55,000 over the decade. Even immigrants to the region are, in large part, moving straight to the suburbs. Still, the federal government’s presence in Washington makes the city a strong employment center. Amid population loss, the city continued to attract singles and other nonfamilies, though these groups are now too choosing the suburbs in greater numbers.

These population patterns reflect a broader decline in the city’s middle class in the 1990s, and continued struggles for lower-income families. Median income declined slightly, poverty rose, and nearly a quarter of the city’s children live in families without working parents. Disturbing racial differences underlie these aggregate trends. Blacks and whites in the city and its suburbs live in largely segregated neighborhoods. Annual household incomes for Washington’s blacks and Hispanics trail those for whites by at least $30,000. While Washington is a highly educated city overall, only 17 percent of African Americans hold college degrees, compared to 81 percent of whites. In spite of these gaps, homeownership rates for whites, blacks, and Hispanics in Washington all increased during the 1990s, suggesting that many of the city’s neighborhoods provide opportunities for affordable ownership.

Along these lines and others, then, Washington, D.C. in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000 concludes that:

  • Washington, D.C.’s population declined during the 1990s as the region continued to decentralize. Washington lost about 5 percent of its population in both the 1980s and the 1990s. While many neighborhoods in the city’s Northwest quadrant gained residents, population loss was widespread throughout Northeast and Southeast D.C., as well as in many inner suburbs in Prince George’s County, MD. At the same time, though, Washington’s suburbs grew by 20 percent. Nearly 60 percent of area workers now commute between homes and jobs in the suburbs. Still, Washington’s status as the nation’s capital maintains it as a continuing employment destination for the region. While only one in eight Washington-area residents lives in the central city, nearly one in three area workers is employed there.

  • The city’s racial and ethnic profile is changing. Like many other cities in the South, Washington has a predominantly African American population. Yet the city actually lost black residents in the 1990s, while it gained modest numbers of Hispanic and Asian residents. These gains are owed in part to growth in Washington’s immigrant population, many of whom come from El Salvador. As with population generally in the Washington metro area, however, immigrants are choosing the suburbs over the city by wide margins. Overall, the city and region remain separated by race, with African Americans concentrated largely east of 16th Street in the city, and in suburban Prince George’s County to the city’s east.

  • Washington, D.C. has a significant number of young professionals, but very few married couples. A large share of Washington’s population is in its twenties. Many of these individuals are students, but others are young professionals who live alone or with friends—54 percent of the city’s households are “nonfamilies.” The city’s appeal for such young singles is confirmed by the significant share (26 percent) of Washington residents who arrived within the last five years, as well as the fact that just 23 percent of Washington households contain a married couple, compared with 36 percent in the average Living City. In addition, trends in the 1990s suggest that young families continue to leave Washington: The number of married-couple families grew in the suburbs by 116,000, but declined in the central city.

  • Stark differences in education, work, and income divide the city’s racial groups. Overall, Washington remains one of the most highly educated cities in the nation, with 39 percent of adults holding a bachelor’s degree. These high education levels correspond with the large numbers of city residents employed in government and professional services. At the same time, however, the city’s median household income slipped in the 1990s, poverty rose, and the number of middle-class households dropped. These disparate stories are rooted in dramatic racial differences. In particular, while the typical annual income for white households is $67,000, that for Hispanic households is $36,000, and black households typically earn only $30,000. While more than 80 percent of white adults in Washington have a bachelor’s degree, only 17 percent of blacks and 25 percent of Hispanics do. The result is that a large proportion of the city’s minority families, while not necessarily poor, struggle to make ends meet on low-to-moderate incomes.

  • Homeownership spread among all groups over the decade, but Washington, D.C. remains a city of renters. Overall, Washington ranks low among large U.S. cities on homeownership, reflecting the young age profile of its residents and its large multifamily housing stock. Still, all racial and ethnic groups—African Americans, in particular—managed to make homeownership gains in the 1990s, suggesting that the city’s neighborhoods provided ample opportunities for ownership. Meanwhile, rents in Washington remain moderately expensive compared to other cities, although a smaller proportion of the city’s renters are burdened by housing costs than in other Living Cities.

By presenting the indicators on the following pages, Washington, D.C. in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000 seeks to give readers a better sense of where Washington, DC and its residents stand in relation to their peers, and how the 1990s shaped the city, its neighborhoods, and the entire Washington region. Living Cities and the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy hope that this information will prompt a fruitful dialogue among city and community leaders about the direction Washington should take in the coming decade.

Washington, D.C. Data Book Series 1

Washington, D.C. Data Book Series 2