The Economic Well-being of DC Children in Post-Recession America

Last week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released the 2015 KIDS COUNT Data Book profiling child well-being for children across the United States. In this year’s report, the Casey Foundation took a deeper look at child well-being since 2008, the height of the Great Recession.

On the surface, the District of Columbia is a city that defied the economic downturn. As many states faced mounting economic hurdles during the recession, the nation’s capital continued its robust economic growth with the median income increasing by 22 percent between 2008 and 2013. As the national economy has begun rebounding, the new KIDS COUNT report highlights a surprising reality in the District. Despite the city’s prosperity, the economic well-being of children has not improved since the recession: in 2013, 27 percent of children in the District lived in families earning at or below the federal poverty line, and 42 percent lived in families with parents that lacked secure employment. Both of these measures have increased since 2008.


So how can a city that appears to have largely escaped the recession experienced a decline in child well-being? The answer is that the District’s economic growth has not benefitted all residents equally- or even at all. In fact, the median income of families with children in both wards 7 and 8—home to many of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods—have actually declined since 2010. These findings illustrate the opportunity gaps that have long existed in the city. However, these opportunity gaps are more than just a product of geography.

As the city’s demographics and economy have changed over the last decade and a half, the importance of educational attainment in securing stable employment has increased. In the District, more than half of all children live in families headed by someone who has earned a high school diploma or less. The poverty rate for these families is 33 percent, compared to just 8 percent for families headed by someone who has attained at least an associate’s degree or some college, and less than 3 percent for families headed by someone with at least bachelor’s degree.  In fact, families headed by someone that has earned a high school degree or less are now more likely to live in poverty than they were in 2009, the peak of the recession.      

In order for children to succeed in school and beyond, it is critical that their parents or caregivers have a path to meaningful employment. Recent research has begun quantifying the relationship between childhood poverty and later life outcomes. One 2010 study found that a $3,000 increase in income to a working family between a child’s prenatal year through the age of five, is associated with 19 percent higher earnings and 135 hour increase in hours worked a year when that child reaches adulthood.

Encouragingly, the District has recently launched several initiatives to assist low-income families and those facing barriers to employment, including passing legislation to raise the minimum wage and help prevent employment discrimination based on criminal history. However, more must be done. In order to ensure that all of the District’s residents can acquire the skills necessary to succeed in the twenty-first century economy, students must have access to a quality public education that prepares them for college and a career, and that parents have access to workforce training as well as adult educational opportunities. The alternative is a city where the gaps in economic status and opportunity will continue to grow.