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Not Your Parents' District of Columbia

Economically, the Washington, D.C. region is one of the strongest in the United States. Increasingly, that is true of the city at its core as well. The District is also changing in other ways, as long-time residents move out and new residents move in. This changing District may come as a surprise to many, particularly to some of the newer members of Congress. Of course, for those living here the churning of the city is not news. Last fall’s mayoral election was a case in point. Though viewed by many through a racial lens, last fall’s mayoral election (between two black candidates) was also a referendum on management styles, and the winning candidate campaigned on a platform of bridging differences to create “One City.”

Our new brief on demographic change in the District, published in partnership with the Urban Institute, puts a finer point on the racial and economic change occurring in D.C. What follows is a preview.

Non-Hispanic blacks have long been the largest group in the District, but their share of the population is shrinking. In 1980 African-Americans made up 69.7 percent of the population, but by 2000 they were only 59.4 percent, and by 2009 their share had fallen to 52.7 percent. Meanwhile, the number of non-Hispanic white residents grew; from 25.7 percent in 1980 to 27.8 percent in 2000 and 33.3 percent in 2009.

Overall, the total population of the District declined from 1950 through 2000, when it reversed direction and grew 5 percent over the next decade to just over 600,000. If the trends from 2000 to 2009 continue, blacks will lose their majority status by 2014, though they will remain a plurality in the District for years to come.

The income distribution of households is also changing. In 2009 there were 37,601 fewer households in the District making less than $50,000 than in 2000, a decline of 25.8 percent. Meanwhile, the number of households with income greater than $75,000 grew by 39,632, or 62.8 percent.

At the same time, the total number of households in the District was essentially unchanged at 249,000. In some respects rising household income is good news for the District (increased income tax revenue, increased consumer spending at local businesses). However, lower-income residents may no longer be able to afford to live here, raising questions about who is benefiting from this rising tide.

One bit of particularly good news is that the District is safer than ever. Homicides, which peaked in 1991, have since fallen more than 70 percent. Aggravated assaults dropped by one-third between 2000 and 2009. Robberies, while relatively stable over the last decade, are at their lowest point since the 1960’s. These trends mirror the decline in violent crime nationally.

Cities change over time, and residents and political leaders have to decide how to respond to those changes. District residents both old and new are understandably concerned with how the District is changing and what their place will be in this transforming city, As the District goes through this period of redefinition, with rising incomes and shifting demographics, it must work hard to make sure that it affords opportunity and inclusion to all.