Unemployment Rates

Economic disparities in the Washington, D.C. metro area offer opportunities for political action

It is well known that in every city in the United States there is a significant set of economic disparities between whites and people of color. In this blog, we have explored the current contours of economic opportunity in the five counties (Prince George’s, Montgomery, Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax) and Washington, DC that make up the DC metropolitan area better known as the DMV.

In an effort to identify trends relevant to economic mobility in the DMV, we examined existing 2019 data on life expectancy, income, unemployment, poverty, education, and property by race in the DVM. Each of these factors is generally considered to impact an individual’s ability to experience economic well-being and generate wealth.

An opportunity to support thriving black life in Washington, DC

What we found was that across these five counties and Washington, DC, Washington DC had the largest negative racial disparities in life expectancy, income, unemployment, and poverty. Black DC residents, in particular, experience the greatest negative disparities in these categories.

For example, black life expectancy in Washington, DC was the lowest of any race with an average of 72.7 years. That compared unfavorably to an average of 88 for whites, 88.3 for Latinos and 88.9 for Asians in Washington, DC. Blacks also had the lowest median annual per capita income and the largest income disparities at $29,927 compared to whites at $92,758 and Latinos at $41,151. Additionally, in 2019, black people in Washington, DC experienced the highest unemployment rate, 4.8%, of any jurisdiction we examined. The largest percentage of black residents living below the poverty line, 21.6%, lived in Washington, DC.

The areas of Washington DC with the greatest disparities are east of the Anacostia River and are red line legacy communities. It is clear that policy makers have the opportunity to do more to support the economic and general well-being of the residents who live in these communities.

Some Important Distinctions

But there were important differences between the jurisdictions that could inform further policy investigation. For example, in Montgomery County, Maryland, black and white unemployment rates in 2019 were relatively low and nearly identical, suggesting that Montgomery County could pursue a number of policies and approaches to ensure fair employment.

We also found that Prince George’s County has the highest black homeownership rate among the jurisdictions examined. Homeownership depends on a complex set of factors, but it’s clear that Prince George’s County offers important lessons about black homeownership that could inform other efforts to increase wealth. communities of color through the DMV.

Although we found that Latinos experienced the highest negative educational disparities in all of the jurisdictions examined, Washington, DC has the highest high school graduation rate among Latinos. This is promising, so it would be helpful to understand what is driving this trend in Washington, DC We also found that in Arlington County, Asians experienced disproportionately high poverty rates at 20.5%.

It is important to note these nuances and for policymakers to address and provide opportunities for cross-fertilization of policy approaches across the DMV.

Racial Wealth Gap

Since wealth in the United States is strongly determined by property and income, we provide some additional geographic analysis. In the five counties and Washington, DC that we examined, there are large negative racial disparities in income and property. Black and Hispanic/Latino residents experience the largest negative disparities in the two wealth measures we analyzed.

We used 5-year census income and property data from the American Community Survey (ACS) to identify the census tract clusters where people of color had the lowest incomes in the region. We made an additional overlay to name the places in the DC area where homeownership rates among Blacks and Latinos remain the lowest. Through a visual analysis of these location trends, we found “hotspots”[i] regions suffering disproportionately from the persistent racial gap in home ownership.

Homeownership Racial Gap

Overall, in the jurisdictions we analyzed, there is a $156,000 gap in median home value between black and white residents. Additionally, black residents are nearly twice as likely to be burdened with rent, meaning housing costs make up 30% or more of a household’s income. Both of these factors contribute to the difficulties faced by black residents when trying to accumulate generational wealth through home ownership.

Source: United States Census Bureau. 2019. 2005-2019 American Community Survey Detailed 5-year tables. Retrieved using Census API. Click the image above to view a full size version in a new tab.

The most concentrated and contiguous disparities occur in the eastern part of the region, in Washington, DC east of the Anacostia River and inside the ring road in the western part of Prince George’s County. Disparities in Northern Virginia are relatively more dispersed compared to the rest of the region and include concurrent and co-located inequalities experienced by Hispanic/Latino and Asian communities.

Geographic map showing DMV areas with the highest homeownership rate for black homeowners.
Source: United States Census Bureau. 2019. 2005-2019 American Community Survey 5-year Detail Tables.¬ Retrieved using Census API. Click on the image above to view the full interactive map.
Geographic map of DMV zones with homeownership rates within the Latinx community.
Source: United States Census Bureau. 2019. 2005-2019 American Community Survey Detailed 5-year tables. Retrieved using Census API. Click on the image above to view the full interactive map.

Blacks consisthave the lowest homeownership rates of any race or ethnicity in the region. However, on average across the region, about 20 percent of homeowners in each county identify as Hispanic, Asian, and Native American, with Hispanics making up the largest portion of this group. In Montgomery County, Fairfax County, and Prince George’s County, census tracts with the highest concentrations of Hispanics/Latinos have homeownership rates below 23%.

Racial income gap

Bar chart showing household incomes in all DMV regions by race/ethnicity, with non-Hispanic white households having the highest median income.
Source: United States Census Bureau. 2019. 2005-2019 American Community Survey Detailed 5-year tables. Retrieved using Census API. Click the image above to view a full size version in a new tab.

Across all counties included in the study, Blacks and Hispanics/Latinos consistently experience the lowest median incomes in the region. In places with the greatest income disparities, Blacks and Hispanics/Latinos have median incomes of $45,072 and $63,862 respectively. In Washington, D.C. in particular, the disparity between white and black households is most disproportionate because the median household income of white residents, at $141,650, is more than three times that of black residents, which is 45 $072. The disparities between whites and Hispanics/Latinos are deepest in Alexandria City, where Hispanics/Latinos earn a median household income of $63,862 and whites earn $141,650, and where Latinos also have the median income lowest household in the region. Montgomery County and Washington DC also have high levels of income disparity. In both counties, whites have a median household income about 1.75 times that of the Hispanic/Latino population.

Political opportunities

Black and Latino residents of the DC metro area do not have the same opportunities as their white counterparts when it comes to employment policies and practices, home ownership, and education. Local policymakers should focus on promoting higher income opportunities, homeownership rates, educational opportunities and environments, and services that support better health and wellbeing outcomes.


­­[i] We define four types of “hot spots” in our research. Where there is a clustering of two or more census tracts with high concentrations of a) Blacks or b) Latinos living with c) income below the regional median or with d) low homeownership rates, these locations s light up as beacons of problem areas that would benefit most from targeted community support. Our analysis begins with the location of high concentrations of black and Latino populations. This approach focuses on areas where the most impact can be made to improve the lives of large numbers of people. We then determined the level of disparity around income and home ownership. Areas that have both a concentration of our populations of interest and low incomes or low homeownership rates are the places we recommend increased attention to, the “hot spots”. In the following sections, we describe trends in priority areas based on the low measures of our two wealth indicators and lessons learned from our research that will hopefully encourage community organizations as well as local governments to pay attention to the massive disparities allowed to worsen in their neighborhoods. . (back to top)