The greater Washington region has experienced enormous growth and change in the 1990s. It is enjoying economic growth and steady prosperity. The central city, once nearly bankrupt, is now posting budget surpluses. The region, already the nation’s seat of governance, is also becoming the nation’s capital of information technology and digital communication. This is a wealthy region and it has many economic, historic, and natural assets that will continue to attract visitors, new workers, and businesses that will keep this economy humming.
The booming economy has made growth a more pressing issue in this region, particularly in the fast-growing counties where traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, and threats to overall quality of life have elected officials, business leaders, and citizens scrambling for solutions. This report reveals that the challenges of growth are broader and more complex. In short:
- The Washington region is divided by race, income, jobs, and opportunity, with the eastern half of the region carrying the area’s burden of poverty and social distress while the western half enjoys most of the region’s fruits of prosperity. But the divide cuts through jurisdictions so that the District and its suburbs have both pockets of distress and areas of affluence. In the end, these polarizing trends hurt fast-growing counties and ultimately shape the pattern of growth in this region. Struggling neighborhoods with poor performing schools and wealthier neighborhoods with expensive housing-both located in the core of the region-compel some businesses and families to locate in outlying suburbs, putting additional pressures in these already fast-growing communities. The problems of hyper growth on one hand and social distress on the other are intertwined.
- The Washington region has the resources to bridge this divide. This is primarily a prosperous region. The central city has traction in the new economy. The region’s economy is rapidly diversifying. Capital and philanthropic investments are rising. Poverty here, while deeply troubling, is not as severe or as concentrated as in other communities. And while Washington is a region with two states, a state-like central city, and an engaged federal government, this region has a low degree of local fragmentation that makes building collaborations more possible than in other places.
- The Washington region can grow smarter and must do this now. First, the regional debate in the Washington area is picking up momentum -at the federal, state, regional, and local levels. But this conversation is mostly aimed at trying to ease the crowding out of roads, schools, local budgets, and the last remaining open space in neighborhoods. Unless these current efforts broaden and embrace the fuller set of factors that fuel decentralization, this region will not be able to realize its full economic potential. Secondly, growth is not going to go away. This region will continue to gain jobs and people and consume more land. If our regional divisions widen as growth proceeds, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to create a region that is competitive, prosperous, and livable.
1. A Region Divided
The maps in this report and the research on which this report is based depict a region that is divided-by income,
race, job growth, and type of public investment. The dividing line runs along 16th Street NW in the District, and along I-95
in Maryland and Virginia. For the most part, middle- and upper-income families, substantial public and private sector
investment, and economic expansion are found on the west side of this line, while lower-income families, minorities, and
little or no job growth are found on the east side of this divide. Of course, not every western community is affluent, and not
every eastern community is struggling. But the trends indicate an east-west fault line.
In some cases, the divide cuts right through communities, so that a single jurisdiction can be, paradoxically, both
prosperous and troubled. The District has affluent neighborhoods and the area’s highest concentration of jobs within the
same borders as the largest concentration of poor families and welfare recipients. Arlington has a strong commercial and
office sector, and some neighborhoods of expensive housing in North Arlington, but also signs of economic distress in its
school population in South Arlington. Prince George’s County has a very low overall poverty rate and many middle-class
families living beyond the Capital Beltway, but also a high number of working families earning less than the regional
median income. Counties on the western side of the region are generally prosperous but are struggling with traffic
congestion, school overcrowding, and poorer student populations in some schools.
a. Main Findings
- The Income Divide At the end of 1996, 45 percent of the region’s poor lived in the District of Columbia. By May 1999, 64
percent of the region’s welfare recipients lived in the District, while 15 percent lived in Prince George’s County. In 1996,
the District and Prince George’s County had the most single-parent households with children. Also in 1996, 30.1
percent of District households, and less than half of the families living in Alexandria, and Prince George’s, Frederick
and Arlington counties earned more than $50,000 a year, compared to 71.3 percent in Fairfax County, 66.4 percent in
Montgomery County, and 61.1 percent in Loudoun County.
- The Race Divide In 1996, the District of Columbia and Prince George’s County had 70 percent of the region’s black
population and 57 percent of the region’s non-white population, but only 32 percent of the region’s total population.
The region is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, however. Other jurisdictions, such as Arlington,
Alexandria and Montgomery and Fairfax counties, saw significant increases in their non-white populations from 1990
- The School Divide In 1997, the District of Columbia and Prince George’s County had 32 percent of the region’s public
school students, but 55 percent of the region’s low-income students and 62 percent of the region’s black and Latino
public elementary school students. In 1996, there were 75 public schools in the region with more than three-quarters of
their students eligible for free or reduced cost lunches. All but three were in eastern D.C. There were 53 public schools
in the region with roughly half to three-quarters of their students eligible for free or reduced cost lunches. Thirty-nine
of these were in older suburban neighborhoods, including 20 in Prince George’s County, and nine in Arlington.
- The Job Divide As of June 1998, the District had 24 percent of the region’s jobs, while the suburbs outside of the Capital
Beltway were home to half of all regional jobs and two-thirds of all suburban jobs. Yet, the areas with the densest
concentrations of jobs are mostly found in the central city, Arlington and Alexandria, and near the Capital Beltway.
- The Transportation Divide Of the $2.8 billion spent on major highway improvements in the Washington suburbs
between 1988 and 1998, 10 percent of the public
- Other Consequences of Growth
For three years, the Washington region has been ranked the second most congested metropolitan area in the country,
behind Los Angeles. In 1996, the region also ranked first for the number of hours a person wastes sitting in traffic.
- Loudoun County projects needing 22 new schools in the next six years; Prince George’s County needs 26 new schools
in the next 10 years. Fairfax County has 14,000 students learning in 550 trailers. In addition to needing more
classrooms, the “big three” suburban counties are also seeking additional funds to renovate older schools.
- From 1970 to 1990, the population of the Washington region increased by 35.5 percent, while the amount of land used
for urbanized purposes (houses, shopping centers, office buildings, parking lots, etc.) increased by 95.7 percent, or
almost two and a half times as fast.
The eastern portion of this region bears the burden of poverty. Washington, D.C. and Prince George’s County
bear the highest costs-fiscally and socially-of housing the region’s poorest families and children. Even affluent households
in northwest Washington and east Prince George’s County cannot escape the price of higher poverty, which they pay in
higher taxes and reduced services. Arlington County and Alexandria also have a relatively large proportion of low-income
and working families.
The western part of the region enjoys most of the fruits of prosperity. Wealth and prosperity primarily
benefit those living west and north of the central city, in Fairfax, Montgomery, and Loudoun counties as well as other
communities outside of the Capital Beltway. These jurisdictions have high proportions of their residents earning more than
$50,000 and have become the location of choice for new firms.
The divisions in this region cannot be explained as “city versus suburb.” Because the rough dividing line
cuts through many counties and the central city itself, the region cannot be described as strong suburbs surrounding a weak
city, nor even as strong outer suburbs ringing a weak urban and inner suburban core. Many sections of the District and
inner suburban communities are facing economic and social challenges, but the other parts of the District and those suburbs
are affluent. This region is starkly divided by race. There is no denying the presence of racial segregation in this region: 70
percent of the area’s African-Americans live in Washington, D.C., and Prince George’s County. The racial divisions are in
part, but not entirely, class divisions. In this region, as in so many others, poverty and race are intertwined. The areas with
higher poverty rates and more schoolchildren receiving free or reduced cost lunches are areas where black and Latino
families live. Not all minority families in the region are poor—there is a thriving black middle-class in the portion of Prince
George’s County outside the Beltway. But it is true that black families of all income levels tend to live in the eastern portion
of the region, while whites live in the western half. Mitigating this division somewhat is the increasing numbers of
minorities and recent immigrants living throughout the metropolitan area.
These polarizing patterns hurt fast-growing counties. Growth is not only a concern of the communities that
are struggling economically and losing residents. Fast-growing counties are straining to provide new schools, services, and
infrastructure while preserving open space
and protecting the environment. Of all of the area’s jurisdictions, Prince George’s County is in the toughest bind; it must
deal with both the high costs of social distress in inner Beltway communities and the high costs of new growth elsewhere in
The patterns of extensive growth in some communities and significantly less growth in others are
inextricably linked. Poor neighborhoods with high costs, low services, and poor-performing schools push out families
with resources, who move to the edges of the region. As these families leave, so do jobs, services, and businesses. This flight
only further weakens already struggling places and puts more pressures on other, fast-growing jurisdictions. Another factor
pushing families to the outer edges of the metropolitan region and exacerbating the crowding and congestion there is high
housing prices in many affluent communities, including the northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., North Arlington and
other places on the west side of the region. Most families cannot afford to live in these expensive, centrally located
neighborhoods, so they move to the region’s edge.
2. A Region With Resources
The divisions in this region may seem intractable but Washington has the assets to bridge them. In the 1990s, the
region as a whole has experienced dramatic population gains, with accompanying job growth and rising median household
incomes. Despite federal government downsizing, the Washington area’s economy has been expanding steadily. Capital
investment is rising, and the region’s housing, retail, and office markets are among the hottest in the country. Philanthropic
giving, from traditional foundations and corporate leaders, is growing. The region has seen remarkably low unemployment
rates, declining poverty levels, and less crime.
This region is home to the federal government, a major employer that will not relocate, and a tourism industry that
is the envy of other cities. Unlike other metropolitan areas, this region’s task is not bailing out a failed central city. The
District, despite its challenges, is a city with traction in the new economy, a high concentration of jobs, and many
neighborhoods that are attractive to businesses and residents. The regional economy is now diverse and, thanks to the
area’s three major airports, it is globally competitive. Poverty here, while deeply troubling, is not as severe or as
concentrated as in other communities. The divisions in this region are serious, but not so deep that the strong economy
cannot lessen them. Also, despite the complexities of including two states, a unique city with many state-like powers, and a
closely-involved federal government, the Washington metropolitan area has a low degree of local fragmentation. Unlike in
other regions, the political leaders from each of the area’s jurisdictions can actually sit around one table and build regional
collaborations and coalitions much more easily than other places.
3. A Region that Can Grow Smarter
All of the jurisdictions in the region, no matter what their social or economic condition, are linked. One reason that
low-income families live in the eastern part of the region is that there is almost no affordable housing elsewhere
(Montgomery County is an exception). This initial imbalance can spark a chain reaction of increasing instability and the
subsequent flight of families with resources. As poverty and distress increase in one community, and as schools cease to be
able to educate students, families and businesses flee to the edges of the metropolitan area, further weakening older
communities, accelerating the decentralization of the region’s economy, and creating additional crowding in schools and on
roads. Another factor feeding growth on the fringe is the high cost of housing in many affluent, centrally located western
areas. Families who cannot afford to live in these communities also head to the region’s edge or remain in neighborhoods
with cheaper housing. Leaders in this region must understand that the problems of explosive growth in one half of the
region and little growth in the other are inextricably linked, and must be solved together.
In fact, these problems are often linked in another way, because many if not all of them can be found in the same
jurisdiction. As noted above, the rough east-west dividing line between wealth and distress cuts right through the District
of Columbia and many counties and communities. Thus, just about every decision-maker in this region has a reason to join
in the search for solutions.
Now is the time to begin that search, for two reasons. First, issues of traffic congestion, school overcrowding and
loss of open space have become central elements in regional (and local, and individual) conversations, and have led to some
policy changes. The State of Maryland has been a leader in defining and implementing smart growth policies. Individual
counties in Southern Maryland and Northern Virginia have taken steps to manage growth, imposing impact fees and even
moratoriums on development in communities already struggling with overcrowded schools. Community groups,
faith-based organizations, and environmentalists have organized around regional growth and workforce strategies.
High-tech and other business leaders have rallied around a regional agenda involving transportation, education, and
workforce development. However, the proposed and enacted solutions to these problems have not addressed the full range
of forces that shape our region’s patterns of growth and opportunity. Second, this region will continue to gain jobs and
people and consume more land. If our regional divisions widen as growth proceeds, it will be difficult if not impossible, to
create a region that is competitive, prosperous and livable.
A number of studies have been conducted on different aspects of the greater Washington region. Some separately
examine social, economic, and demographic trends, others focus on the region generally or the District of Columbia in
particular. This report brings together some of the best knowledge of this region and introduces new research to show how
the health of each jurisdiction here affects the overall metropolitan area. But this report is by no means comprehensive. It
tries to link trends, such as social isolation, school composition, and traffic congestion, that are normally not discussed in
This report is based on a longer report entitled, “Washington Metropolitics” by researcher Myron Orfield and his
Metropolitan Area Research Corporation. Orfield, a Minnesota state representative and metropolitan researcher, has
mapped and documented the social, economic, and demographic trends in 22 regions across the country.
This report supplements Orfield’s analysis of the Washington region with the Urban Institute’s most recent
findings about job growth in the region and with the Greater Washington Research Center’s latest analysis of census figures
on the social and demographic trends in this region.
This project examined trends in the following communities of the greater Washington region: four counties in
Maryland (Charles, Frederick, Montgomery, Prince George’s); four counties in Virginia (Loudoun, Prince William,
Arlington, Fairfax); five independent cities in Virginia (Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas, Manassas Park); and
the District of Columbia. This region of study is smaller than the Census-defined Washington MSA (which also includes
Stafford and Calvert counties). But this region expands upon the region as defined by the governance boundaries of
Washington’s primary formal regional body, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, by including Frederick
and Charles counties.
This Brookings report will be the first in a series of papers on the future of growth in the Washington region.
Brookings will issue studies that build on these trends and identify a range of policy considerations that address such
pressing issues as transportation, affordable housing, and workforce development.
The report includes: (1) an overview of the region’s economy, how it has performed and evolved in recent years;
(2) an examination-trend by trend, map by map-of growth in metropolitan Washington; (3) a summary of what the
response has been to date in the region to address some of the concerns around growth; and (4) thoughts about how this
region can begin to frame its vision and efforts for building a vibrant region. The report also provides an Appendix of
tables, which support its main findings.