Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

More Statistics on Alarming Rates of Poverty in the District, and U.S.

Julia Lee, Senior Staff Attorney

The District has the third highest income inequality among America’s largest cities, according to a recent report by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DC FPI).  Although the large and widening disparity between the rich and poor in the District is not new, DC FPI’s findings provide a sobering description of what it means to live in poverty in the nation’s capital: 

  • The average income of the top five percent of households in the District is $473,000 and $259,000 for the top 20 percent of District households.  In contrast, the average income of the poorest households in the District (i.e., those in the bottom 20 percent) is $9,100 – just 1/52 and 1/29, respectively, of the above amounts.
  • The unemployment rate for District residents with high school diplomas is 24% in 2011. For those with college degrees, it is just 4%.
  • Funding for two critical housing assistance programs in the District – the Local Rent Supplement Program (LRSP) and the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF) – have recently experienced significant cuts leading to an even greater shortage of already-scarce affordable-housing options.

Legal Aid sees clients struggling with basic housing, employment, and other needs related to their poverty on a daily basis.  When the poorest fifth of District households have an average income more than $2,000 below the federal poverty line for a family of one, we know that many of our neighbors face dire circumstances.  

In November 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau released a supplemental poverty measure with the hopes of more accurately capturing the life of poor Americans.  (The issuance of the revised measure was covered in a number of media outlets, including the New York Times, the Shriver Center, and National Public Radio.)  It factors in relevant and important criteria like healthcare and childcare costs, receipt of such non-cash government benefits as Food Stamps, and geographic variations in the cost of living.  These and other poverty-related data are not included in the current official poverty measure, which has not been significantly adjusted since its creation in the 1960s.  According to the official measure, the Census Bureau recorded a new high of 46.2 million Americans living in poverty in 2010.  Under the new poverty measure, more than 48.2 million Americans are impoverished.  

As many commentators have noted following the release of the latest poverty numbers for the country and the District, more needs to be done to provide persons in poverty with long-term job training, affordable housing, health care, a living-wage, and many, many other forms of basic, public assistance.  Fearing exposure to homelessness, hunger, and isolation from support networks, for instance, many Legal Aid clients struggle to protect themselves and their children and to leave abusive relationships.  These and other challenges arising from growing poverty rates make the work that Legal Aid does harder.  It also reaffirms its value.

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