Documenting Neighborhood Conditions in Washington, DC

Martha Ross


  • The number of District residents living in poverty increased over the 1990s, from 17% of the population in 1990 (about 96,000 residents) to 20% of the population in 2000 (about 110,000 residents). In addition to the overall increase in poverty, the concentration of poverty also grew. All individuals living in poverty face difficulties in meeting their basic needs. However, residents of high-poverty neighborhoods face particularly daunting challenges. The problems associated with poverty are magnified in these neighborhoods, which are generally characterized by low educational attainment, joblessness, single-parent households, and high crime. Few neighborhoods of this type can support the businesses and civic organizations necessary for a healthy community.

  • The unemployment rate declined from 6.6% in 1990 to 5.7% in 2000. However, there was substantial fluctuation over the decade, with a high of 8.9% in 1995. Since 2000, unemployment has increased to 6.4% in 2002. Unemployment rates vary across the city, and in both 1990 and 2000, were highest in Wards 5, 7, and 8. High unemployment rates in parts of the city are related to neighborhood residents’ relatively low levels of educational attainment, as well as poverty rates equal to or higher than the city average.

  • Consistent with national trends, welfare caseloads in the District decreased dramatically in the mid-to-late 1990s following the transformation of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC) into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Since 2000, however, caseloads have remained fairly stable, with slight variations up and down. In 2003, households east of the Anacostia River accounted for about half of the city’s TANF caseload, although the area accounts for only about a third of the city’s families with children. Those who leave TANF for employment usually join the ranks of the working poor. One study calculated that about 60% of District residents who left TANF were employed a year later, typically working full-time at about $8 an hour

  • Throughout the city, the number of businesses and small business loans has increased over the past few years. The District’s commercial fortunes are on the upswing, and there are active neighborhood business districts across the city. However, neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River lack the commercial density of their counterparts across the river. Residents throughout the city, including those east of the Anacostia River, have expressed interest in more neighborhood-serving retail, such as grocery and drug stores.

  • Four neighborhood clusters (Columbia Heights/Mount Pleasant; Shaw; Union Station/Near Northeast; and Edgewood/Bloomingdale) account for nearly half of the city’s total number of vacant and abandoned commercial properties. Clustered together, such properties are signs of weakened commercial markets, legacies of a more robust era.

  • Some neighborhoods have more check-cashing outlets than banks. In neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, Shaw, Ivy City, and Union Station, check-cashing outlets outnumber banks. Although these outlets are designed to be convenient and they do offer a way for low-income households to fill some of their financial services needs, their services come at a relatively high cost. Customers pay high fees and interest rates, and lose opportunities to access mainstream credit.