His father works some days for fourteen hours,
And you can bet he barely makes a dollar
His mother goes to scrub the floors for many
And you’d best believe she hardly gets a penny
Living just enough, just enough for the city, yeah
(February 24, 2017) These familiar lines from Stevie Wonder’s 1974 hit, “Living for the City,” carried listeners through the song’s sobering lyrics —lyrics that depict the plight of those living in the city, doing all they can to survive, yet barely able to make a dollar.
While those characterized in the song were “living just enough for the city,” incomes are barely enough for people of color living in the District of Columbia. In fact, the District of Columbia is one of the most inequitable cities in the United States. The District’s communities of color continue to experience deep and persistent inequities not only in higher rates of illness and mortality, but also in income, affordable housing, stable employment, wealth-building opportunities and education. Combined, these inequities significantly hamper the overall quality of life for many in low-income communities and communities of color in the District. The inequities also have a residual negative impact on the District’s overall growth. Data from the National Equity Atlas suggests that the DC economy alone would have been more than $65 billion larger in 2012 if there were no racial gaps in income and employment.
These inequities are unjust and preventable. New policy considerations and a commitment to advance change are urgently needed to achieve racial equity in the District.
The Consumer Health Foundation, in collaboration with the Meyer Foundation, community leaders and stakeholders, is working to envision what an equitable DC would look like —to determine where to invest and how we get there.
According to the November 2016 Urban Institute report, “The Color of Wealth in the Nation’s Capital,” White households in DC have an average net worth (assets minus debt) of $284,000 — an astonishing 81 times greater than the average net worth of African-American households in the city, which is $3,500. This gap is larger now than before the Great Recession.
Underlying data in the Urban Institute’s most recent report, “A Vision for An Equitable DC,” drawn from widely available public sources, revealed stark inequities by race and ethnicity in the District. For example, more than 38 percent of Black children and 22 percent of Hispanic children in DC live in poverty, while the number of White children living in poverty is statistically zero. Black poverty is most acute in Ward 8, the only ward where the poverty rate for any racial/ethnic group is above 30 percent. The unemployment rate for Black DC residents is more than 5.5 times that of Whites and double that of Hispanics.
Eliminating these inequities in a city of more than 670,000 residents, with the majority occurring in communities of color, will be a steep climb. In an equitable DC:
- 33,000 more Black residents and 12,000 more Hispanic residents would have high-school degrees, and almost 98,000 more Black residents would have some college.
- 24,000 more Black residents and 2,200 more Hispanic residents would be employed, including 17,000 in just three of the city’s eight wards.
- 35,000 more Black families and 5,200 more Latino families would earn a living wage (which in DC is more than $38 an hour).
- 14,000 more Black households (more than half in just one ward) and 3,900 more Latino households would own homes.
- Every resident would have access to safe neighborhoods, secure housing, nutritious food, and adequate health care services.
- No child would live in poverty.
Achieving real equity — one element of which is to bring education levels, improved health outcomes, employment rates, income levels, and housing choices for people of color in line with those of white residents — will require significant change over many years. This is long-term work.
Current inequities are the result of hundreds of years of intentional policies that have benefited White Americans and disadvantaged Black Americans and other people of color. While we’ve made collective gains, we believe it’s time for a new approach, one that:
- Acknowledges and builds on the considerable strengths and assets within communities of color
- Engages communities of color in developing policy solutions that directly address their needs
- Advances policy solutions designed specifically to benefit communities of color and to break down the barriers erected by decades (and even centuries) of discriminatory and racist policies
Our city must do better to advance health, economic and racial equity. We possess the resources, brainpower, and policy tools to dismantle the legacy of systemic racism and create bridges to a more equitable DC.
Philanthropy, nonprofits, the private sector, and the public sector must work with increased urgency to advance equity around solutions developed with community participation, rather than watch these gaps widen. As for the Consumer Health Foundation, we are moving forward to do this in our region, and we hope that others will join us. We have no tolerance for the systemic inequity that is causing many DC residents to barely have enough. We have a vision for more than enough.
Yanique Redwood is president and CEO of the Consumer Health Foundation, based in Washington, DC. CHF is focused on creating a more equitable DC region in which everyone lives a healthy and dignified life.