Economic Disparity in the Nation's Capitol
Updated: Jan 6
The effervescence and beauty of Washington, D.C. is only part of its narrative. Further examination reveals the city's paradoxical nature. D.C. ranks as having one of the most highly educated populations in the United States yet alleviating the plight of economically fragile residents remains unresolved. The surging problem of homelessness is wrangled with time and time again, but solutions are insufficient.
Washington, D.C. has some of the greatest wealth and influence in the country. Many District residents have highly paid professional jobs such as in the government sector or legal field. The 2018 U.S. Census reports the median income of residents as $85,203 compared with the national median of $61,937. The median value of owner-occupied housing units is $617,900. Surprisingly, 16.2 percent of District residents live below the poverty line compared with a national poverty rate of 11.8 percent. Consequently, one in nine households in Washington, D.C., an estimated 31,000 families, struggle to put food on the table (Bread for the World, 2020).
The infant mortality rate, 7.8 per 1,000 births (CDC, 2017), is on par with countries with poorer economies, such as Ukraine and Nauru. And, for some children growing up in certain areas of Washington, D.C., life expectancy is 27 years lower than children living 10 miles away ("Uneven Opportunities," Virginia Commonwealth University, 2018).
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness reported in January 2019 that of the 705,749 people living in Washington, D.C., 6,521 are homeless. Although homelessness for families is down 12 percent, homelessness for single individuals is up 2.8 percent. Thirty-nine percent of homeless individuals state the number one reason for their homelessness is loss of a job (Point-in-Time Count, 2018). Inadequate housing reserves and low wages are also contributing factors. Wait lists to obtain housing can be anywhere from one week to five years.
Then, the meteor of Covid-19 hit and further crippled the District’s homeless situation. The current unemployment rate is 11.1 percent, the highest in recent history (Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2020). Even worse, the unemployment rates for Wards 7 and 8 are 16.5 percent and 20.7 percent, respectively (D.C. Department of Employment Services, March 2020). Unemployment is growing at an unprecedented speed in Washington, D.C., increasing 5.1 percentage points in one month (from March to April) when 36,819 D.C. residents lost their jobs (Bureau of Labor and Statistics, May 2020). Before the pandemic, residents had the option of looking for work in other locales. Currently, with the exception of "teleworkable" jobs, this is an impractical course of action. One economist, writing for the New York Times, estimates the country’s total unemployment rate is at 13.1 percent, the highest since the Great Depression.
The number of employees working in the leisure and hospitality sector declined from 78,600 to 34,600, or by 5.6 percent, between March and April. Eighty-eight percent of full-service restaurant employees lost their jobs, down from 26,700 to 3,300 employees. Hotel employment went from 16,000 employees down to 8,800. Moreover, administration and support services lost 6,500 jobs, retail declined by 5,300 employees, and transportation/utilities losses totaled 1,000 jobs. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2020)
Part-time workers also suffered great job loss. Many times, these jobs are the first shredded during an economic downturn, and the pandemic crisis proved to be no different. Lacking healthcare benefits or a substantial savings buffer, this group is the most vulnerable to being thrust into poverty and homelessness. Undoubtedly, Covid-19 will exacerbate the gulf of income inequity.
The moratorium on evictions established in March 2020 by the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) is set to expire in August 2020. The CARES Act covers residents of D.C. and 44 U.S. states who reside in federally subsidized housing or in housing with federally backed mortgages. However, after the CARES Act expires, there will be no safety net for renters.
Many applaud the District's efforts in implementing safety measures that help homeless residents, such as installing hand washing stations, providing boxed or to-go meals, and establishing robust guidelines for sanitation in shelters throughout the city. Unfortunately, the city is facing a double whammy of severe job loss and potential evictions. Now more than ever, it is time for donors, philanthropists, and social service organizations to go full throttle to assist marginalized people who are in the throes of homelessness. Working together, we can stave off housing insecurity -- along with the challenges of obtaining adequate food and healthcare -- and provide hope for thousands of D.C. residents who pine for and deserve a better life.