In cities across U.S., in­comes are ris­ing. Not in D.C.

Cen­sus data shows the District was one of seven ur­ban cen­ters where earn­ings dropped in 2016


In a de­vel­op­ment that caught some lo­cal lead­ers by sur­prise, the District of Columbia is one in just a hand­ful of ur­ban cen­ters in the United States that did not en­joy gains in me­dian house­hold in­come in 2016, ac­cord­ing to Cen­sus Bureau sta­tis­tics re­leased Thurs­day.

The slight de­cline — from $76,233 to $75,506 — fol­lowed at least eight years of in­come growth as the city be­came a mag­net for young pro­fes­sion­als across the coun­try.

The­o­ries for the plateau abound. Among them are the city’s lack of af­ford­abil­ity for even rel­a­tively high-earn­ing fam­i­lies and a drop in the num­ber of high­pay­ing gov­ern­ment jobs. But the news was bet­ter for the Washington re­gion: Loudoun County in the D.C. sub­urbs again ranked as the high­est-in­come county in the na­tion. Three other Washington- area coun­ties also made the na­tion’s Top 10 list: Howard County in the No. 2 spot, Fairfax County in third place and Ar­ling­ton County in sixth.

The Washington Post an­a­lyzed data from the Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Sur­vey, re­leased to the pub­lic on Thurs­day, to ex­am­ine the change in me­dian house­hold in­come from 2015 to 2016 across the 68 coun­ties that the Cen­sus Bureau de­fines as “big­gest city core” coun­ties.

Only seven of the 68 coun­ties saw de­clines in me­dian in­come. The largest drop was in the wealthy D.C. sub­urb of Alexan­dria, where me­dian house­hold in­come de­clined more than 3 per­cent, from $90,848 to $87,920. The oth­ers in­cluded the District and five ar­eas with lower in­comes than the District: Har­ris County, Tex., which in­cludes Hous­ton; New Or­leans’s par­ish of Or­leans; Hart­ford County, Conn.; Philadel­phia County, Pa.; and Mon­roe

County, N.Y., which in­cludes Rochester.

None of the de­clines was large enough to be sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant, but all of these ar­eas missed out on the sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant gains that 27 coun­ties recorded, in con­trast.

Twelve of the 68 ur­ban-core coun­ties, in­clud­ing the Bronx; Meck­len­burg and Wake coun­ties in North Carolina; and Suf­folk County, which in­cludes Bos­ton, saw me­dian in­comes rise at least 6 per­cent.

The largest in­crease in me­dian house­hold in­come was in San Fran­cisco, where me­dian in­comes rose 11.7 per­cent to reach $103,801. The city of Bal­ti­more saw a 5.4 per­cent in­crease to a me­dian in­come of $47,350. Me­dian in­come in Wayne County, Mich., which in­cludes Detroit, grew 3.1 per­cent, to $43,464.

D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber David Grosso (I-At Large) said he was sur­prised to hear that the District’s me­dian house­hold in­come was not ris­ing af­ter sev­eral boom years.

“It seems like a fairly small num­ber to me right off the bat. At the same time, it’s some­thing we need to keep an eye on,” he said.

Spokes­men for the chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer in the District and for the city of Alexan­dria cast doubt on the sig­nif­i­cance of the cen­sus find­ings. Alexan­dria’s Craig Fifer raised ques­tions about the re­li­a­bil­ity of the data, in­clud­ing whether the sam­ple size was large enough in a small city. A spokes­woman for D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

But for Stephen Fuller — who runs the Stephen S. Fuller In­sti­tute for Re­search on the Washington Re­gion’s Eco­nomic Fu­ture at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity — the slug­gish growth didn’t come as a sur­prise.

“It’s slow slip­page. We are a wealthy metro area, so we don’t no­tice around the edges that we’re ac­tu­ally get­ting a lit­tle tat­tered,” he said. “The D.C. gov­ern­ment needs to rec­og­nize the prob­lem. . . . A lot of peo­ple are in de­nial be­cause we look rich. See all the cranes on the skyline? How could we not be do­ing well?”

Those cranes mask the re­al­ity that the District has fewer high­pay­ing gov­ern­ment jobs and more mod­er­ate-in­come hospitality, restau­rant and ed­u­ca­tion jobs than it did just a few years ago.

“We’ve spe­cial­ized in gen­er­at­ing more mod­er­ate-wage jobs,” he said. “It catches up to you. You can only grow slower than the other peo­ple for so long be­fore you drop be­hind them. You’ve lost your ad­van­tage.”

Grosso said he thinks the District’s de­mo­graph­ics are at the root of the cen­sus num­bers: Young peo­ple with just-out-of-col­lege salaries flock to the city, but as they start fam­i­lies and their in­comes grow, the high-earn­ing cou­ples with chil­dren tend to leave for more af­ford­able D.C. sub­urbs or other re­gions of the coun­try. He hopes the District’s new paid fam­ily leave pol­icy and im­prov­ing pub­lic schools can per­suade par­ents to stay put.

“It is an in­di­ca­tor that we need to keep an eye on this, en­cour­age peo­ple to live and make their fam­i­lies and make their homes here in the District of Columbia,” he said.

Ky­ley McGeeney, a for­mer res­i­dent of the District, left when she wanted to raise chil­dren, just as Grosso said is com­mon. She came to the District at 23 to work as a statis­ti­cian and ea­gerly moved into an apart­ment on nightlife­filled U Street. Then she met some­one in the District and mar­ried him. At 26, hop­ing to have chil­dren and seek­ing a more spa­cious home to raise them in, McGeeney and her new hus­band bought a house in Sil­ver Spring.

“I used to joke, ‘We can’t have a stroller on U Street,’ ” she said.

She re­mem­bers rent­ing a Zip­car to go take a look at the sub­urbs and driv­ing into the neigh­bor­hood where she now lives. “There were five birth­day par­ties. Two block par­ties. Moon bounces! Peo­ple were walk­ing around drink­ing wine. I was like, ‘Is this real life?’ ”

Now the McGeeneys have a 2year-old and a 4-year-old, and they’re build­ing an ad­di­tion on the house.

Zach Lip­son, a real es­tate agent, said he works with fam­i­lies like the McGeeneys fre­quently. “A lot of them are mov­ing out of the city as they get into their early to mid-30s,” he said.

Lip­son, 34, knows the pat­tern per­son­ally. Af­ter 10 years of liv­ing in the District, he moved to Bethesda with his wife last year be­cause they wanted to have a baby. They now have an 11-weekold daugh­ter.

It’s mostly the high price of city hous­ing, the lack of space and the schools, Lip­son said. But there’s an­other fac­tor unique to the District that he says may play a small part in mo­ti­vat­ing mid­dle-class D.C. renters to become subur­ban buy­ers: They don’t want to set­tle down per­ma­nently as home­own­ers in a place where they don’t have con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

“In the back of your mind, there’s some sort of im­pact,” he said. “At the end of the day in D.C., where do your tax dol­lars go? Kind of at the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s will.”

Wil­liam Frey, a de­mog­ra­pher in the Metropoli­tan Pol­icy Pro­gram at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, said the re­gion is full of fam­i­lies like the McGeeneys and Lip­sons.

“D.C. is prob­a­bly most dis­tinc­tive of any city in the coun­try be­cause of the young peo­ple that come here. I al­ways like to say that D.C. rents peo­ple; they don’t own them,” he said. His the­ory is that the poor job mar­ket fol­low­ing the 2009 re­ces­sion caused those young peo­ple to stay in the District longer than they oth­er­wise would have and, in some cases, de­lay start­ing fam­i­lies. Now that jobs are back in many other parts of the coun­try, many of those res­i­dents are leav­ing the District and mov­ing to the sub­urbs or else­where.

“The District held on to a lot more of those peo­ple who couldn’t get mort­gages or maybe put off hav­ing fam­i­lies,” he said. “Ev­ery­thing about this is unique to D.C.”

De­mog­ra­phers and politicians alike fre­quently de­bate which peers the District can fairly be com­pared to — it is not a state but more of an in­de­pen­dent en­tity than any other city in the na­tion. Grosso said he thought the ur­ban­core coun­ties were a good choice for com­par­ing house­hold in­comes. Frey sug­gested the 50 largest cities in the na­tion would be a bet­ter ba­sis of com­par­i­son and said that on that list, too, the District fell be­hind slightly while al­most all other cities gained: Just six cities out of 50 saw their me­dian house­hold in­come fall in this year’s Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Sur­vey.

Frey pointed out that the chang­ing for­tunes of D.C. res­i­dents did not af­fect ev­ery­one equally. The me­dian house­hold in­come of white res­i­dents, who make up 36 per­cent of the District, rose $2,568, to $127,369, while the me­dian in­come of black res­i­dents, who make up 46 per­cent, fell $3,631, to $37,891.

This dras­tic in­equal­ity was mir­rored in some but not all of the largest cities in the na­tion: The me­dian black fam­ily makes $104,722 less than the me­dian white fam­ily in San Fran­cisco but $16,809 less in Jack­sonville, Fla.


Real es­tate agent Zach Lip­son took a cue from his clients and moved from the District last year. He and his wife, Stacey, have more room in Bethesda to raise their 11-week-old daugh­ter, Elle.

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