Inequality in the District

By Johanna Bockman

Last October, Mike DeBonis of the Washington Post reported that “D.C. has a higher level of income inequality than at least 66 countries.” Over the past 10 years, the Gini Coefficient for DC has gone from .595 to a high of .656 and now to .627.1 DeBonis noted that the Gini Coefficient moves in a similar pattern to the S&P 500 index, but nothing more was explained. Here I seek to encourage sociologists in the greater Washington, DC area to talk loudly and publicly about the mechanisms behind inequality and the possible ways to reduce inequality.

The U.S. Census Bureau provides the data necessary to demonstrate inequality. However, while Census data demonstrate rising inequality, as I understand, the U.S. Census staff cannot publicly provide explanations for why inequality happens. For these explanations, the U.S. Census Bureau directs the media to academics and other experts. What are these experts telling the media? Are these experts not talking loud enough?

Here are three ways that sociologists have explained inequality and ways out of it. First, sociologists have found that political leaders have a dramatic effect on poverty and wealth. In his comparison of rich democracies, David Brady (2009) found that governments greatly determine one’s risk of poverty and shape the experience of poverty.

Political actors in the formal political arena determine the nature of the welfare state and thus the nature of poverty in each country. In his book, he found, “Poverty is lower and equality is more likely to be established where welfare states are generous, Leftist collective political actors are in power, and latent coalitions for egalitarianism exert influence, and all of this is institutionalized in the formal political arena” (ibid.: 6).2

In the table below, we can see that the percentage of people living in poverty decreased both in the United States and Washington, DC during the 1960s. This large decline can be explained by the federal War on Poverty and the myriad of policies that helped low-income people escape poverty. However, while poverty continued to decline in the U.S., poverty in the District increased in the 1970s.

Then, after Marion Barry become Mayor in 1979, poverty in District decreased — from 18.6 percent to 16.9 percent through the 1980s, while poverty increased in the U.S. from 12.4 percent to 13.1 percent (see table). The unique decline of poverty in District suggests that policies aimed at helping low-income residents made a difference.

Table 1: Poverty Rate D.C. vs U.S.

Year DC % Poverty US % Poverty
1959 22.2 22.1
1969 17 13.7
1979 18.6 12.4
1989 16.9 13.1
1999 20.2 12.4
2009 18.4 14.3

Source: Persons by Poverty Status in 1959, 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999 by State; Poverty: 2000 to 2012; the U.S. Census Bureau:

In the 1990s, however, poverty rate in the District increased to 20.2 percent, even while poverty decreased in the U.S. as a whole. From 1995 to 1999, Marion Barry had his fourth term as Mayor. Within months of his inauguration, the Congress imposed the Control Board. The five-person Control Board could override decisions by the Mayor and the City Council and implemented a broad reorganization of the District government.3 The Control Board implemented significant budget cuts and undermined Home Rule. During the period of the Control Board, poverty increased in Washington, DC.

Second, Charles Tilly, Douglas Massey, and others have argued that opportunity hoarding and exploitation based on cognitive categories cause inequality. In the words of Douglas Massey: “Exploitation is the expropriation of resources from an out-group by members of an in-group, such that out-group members receive less than full value for the resources they give up. Opportunity hoarding is the monopolization of access to a resource by in-group members, allowing them to keep it for themselves or charge rents to out-group members in return for access.

In contemporary American society, the most common form of exploitation is discrimination within markets and the most common form of opportunity hoarding is exclusion from markets and resource-rich social settings. Once established, and in the absence of any countervailing social force, mechanisms of discrimination and exclusion will tend to persist over time to generate and reproduce inequality.”4

Both of these processes allow those who can pay market rates to monopolize access to these new developments.  How might we stop exploitation and opportunity hoarding?

Third, sociologists, like Erik Olin Wright, have called for real utopias like cooperatives and the sharing economy as ways to create a more equal society. Juliet Schor reminds us, however, that not all of the sharing economy is liberatory. Uber and ZipCar are important examples of the sharing economy in District, which are not so liberatory. According to Schor, we must look for other ways of organizing such elements of the sharing economy:

  1. “An alternative to the co-optation path is one in which sharing entities become part of a larger movement that seeks to redistribute wealth and foster participation, ecological protection, and social connection. This will only happen via organization, even unionization, of users.”
  2. “Existing platforms could also potentially become user-governed or cooperatively owned, an outcome some voices within the community are advocating.”
  3. “Alternately, organizations that are part of the solidarity sector, such as unions, churches, civil society groups, and cooperatives, could create platforms for their members. They could build alternatives to the for-profits, particularly if the software to operate these exchanges is not too expensive. These platforms could be user governed and/or owned.”5

The lively cooperative and sharing life in Washington, DC can be a model for other cities across the country, and could also learn from sociologists like Schor.  What do you think the media should hear from sociologists about inequality and poverty? What should every journalist know?


  1. DeBonis, Mike. “D.C. has a higher level of income inequality than at least 66 countries,” Washington Post blog District of DeBonis,” October 29, 2014,
  2. Brady, David. 2009. Rich Democracies, Poor People: How Politics Explain Poverty. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. The Control Board’s official name was the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority. For the entire text of the bill that created the Control Board: H.R.1345, District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Act of 1995 (Enrolled as Agreed to or Passed by Both House and Senate),
  4. Massey, Douglas A. “A Short Treatise on American Stratification,”
  5. Schor, Juliet. 2014. “Debating the Sharing Economy,”

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