Monday, September 2, 2013

Deconcentrating poverty or deconcentrating affluence?

Many people do not realize how wealthy they are relative to the rest of the District, the country, or worldwide. DC, in fact, has the most households in the nation making over $200,000 (8.4% of households or 21,194 households) and has the highest Gini coefficient (.534) in the US, that is, the highest level of inequality nationwide, according to the Census. To make it into the top 5% of American household incomes, your household has to make at least $188,000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in DC, those in the following jobs would quite easily make it into the top 5%:
  • Surgeon, $241,330
  • General internist, $217,330
  • Chief Executive, $198,120
 or as a two-earner household:
  • Family and general practitioner, $173,050
  • Lawyer, $159,790
  • Sales manager, $136,920
  • PR and fundraising managers $129,940
  • Database administrator, $95,690
Where is your household in the income hierarchy? (See here). Where does Ward 6 fit into the income hierarchy? 

Using the Census' American Community Survey, I looked at census tracts 71 (the long-standing lowest-income census tract in Ward 6) and 67 (the long-standing wealthiest census tract in Ward 6)(1).

You can see that these two census tracts are very close to each other. From the data, I found that census tract 67 has a very large percentage of households making over $200,000: about 30% of census tract 67 makes $200,000 or more, while only 5% do in census tract 71. In addition, no families live in poverty in census tract 67, while it is estimated that 47% of those in census tract 71 do. It is further estimated that about 70% of those living in poverty in census tract 71 are under 18 years of age; they are children. Interestingly, census tract 71 looks much more like the rest of the country than census tract 67. The wealth of census tract 67 and the poverty of census tract 71 are, in fact, related.

Many people think that poverty can be reduced by "deconcentrating" poverty, by moving the poor away from areas with concentrated poverty. At the American Sociological Association annual conference this August, sociologists working on poverty and race -- such as Professors William Julius Wilson, Mary Patillo, and Douglas Massey, whom I heard speak -- demonstrated that displacing the poor in almost all cases will not help them because they are usually displaced to areas with even more concentrated poverty. Rather, poverty and inequality have to be dealt with where the poor live, recognizing that areas of poverty and areas of wealth are interrelated.

Alternatively, given the lack of households living in poverty in census tract 67, it might make sense if several of the families living in poverty in census tract 71 moved to census tract 67. In his article about public housing, British geography professor Tom Slater has argued that the problem is not the concentration of poverty but rather the "concentration of affluence" in which people are "utterly insulated from the dignified daily struggles endured" by their neighbors and do not realize that their own actions and decisions impact the lives of those living in poverty. How might Ward 6 deconcentrate affluence?

(1) In this case, the American Community Survey surveyed large samples of households over 2007-2011. Since the survey does not include everyone in the country, it produces only estimates.


  1. In tract 67 there are good potential living spaces for people of very modest means. These are the renovated carriage houses and English basements with separate entrances, good light and full baths that are being used only as expansive playrooms or private studies for small families or couples who also enjoy all the space of a two or three-story main house. Many of these places are the size of studio and one or even two-bedroom apartments. When they are not used or needed for income their owners could easily accommodate renters who can afford to pay very little, without giving up privacy. Sometimes it doesn’t take government policy to deconcentrate affluence, just us.

    In any event, is concentration of affluence evil in itself? It doesn’t equate to “utter” insulation from the struggles of people in poverty unless affluent individuals choose to avoid opportunities for interaction and awareness, such as joining inclusive organizations, volunteering or mentoring.


  2. I definitely don't assume that the government needs to do anything to change this. When I say "ward 6," I mean any person, group, etc within the territorial confines of Ward 6.

    Well, that is the question about whether concentrations of affluence lead to social isolation. Many sociologists who study habitus, say that people often flock to those with similar class standings (like professors hanging out together or business people in certain industries) because they feel more comfortable, which can have quite serious consequences. But people can choose to ignore comfort, etc.


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