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A demographic portrait of the District: 2008

The Census Bureau recently released social and economic data from the 2008American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS is a nationwide survey conducted yearly by the U.S. Census Bureau. Unlike the Decennial Census, the ACS collects and produces population and housing data every year based on sample estimates.

What does the 2008 ACS tells us about the District of Columbia? Below is a basic social and economic snapshot of the District in 2008.

Total population: 591,833.

Gender and age: Female: 53%; Male: 47%. Median age: 35.

Race/ethnicity: White: 38%; Black: 53%; Hispanic: 9%.

Educational attainment for population 25 and over: Less than high school: 15%; High school: 20%;
Some college/Associate's degree: 18%; Bachelor's degree: 22%; Graduate or professional degree: 27%.

Income and poverty: Median household income: $57,936. Median household income for Whites: $101,171; Median household income for Blacks: $39,182.

Percent of families at or below the federal poverty line: 14%. Percent of female-headed families at or below the federal poverty line: 27%.

Marital Status: Married: 25%; Divorced: 10%; Never married: 56%.

Commute to work: Public transportation: 36%; Walk: 12%; Bike: 2%; Work from home: 5%.

In general, the District population continues to grow (population in 2007 was 588,292) and remains a majority Black city (although the percent Black has been declining over the past several years). The District is also fairly educated and young. While the District has a larger median household income compared to other parts of the country, there is a sizable difference by race. The median household income for Whites is about $60,000 more than the median household income for Blacks.

Keep in mind these data are for 2008 and do not reflect current economic conditions or show effects of the economic recession. We will have to wait until next year for that data.

Lynda Laughlin is a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau. She holds a PhD in sociology and enjoys reading, writing, and researching issues related to families and communities, urban economics, and urban development. Lynda lives in Mt. Pleasant. Views expressed here are strictly her own. 


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So, 45% drive to work? Don't the census figures also say what % drive alone and what % carpool?

by Ken Archer on Oct 5, 2009 12:08 pm • linkreport

I don't get the last pie. Public transport seems to be ~60%, but the legend says 36%. And where are the drivers?

by Jasper on Oct 5, 2009 12:09 pm • linkreport

Thanks for compiling this interesting data. Like the previous commenters I have a problem with the transportation chart. The modes listed don't =100% yet the entire pie is used. It's misleading. Usually an entire pie implies 100% is accounted for. If you made this chart I think you should redo it and either leave a place for the 45% of travel modes that aren't accounted for by transit, walk, bike, work-from-home or better, find out what that 45% does and lable it. Thanks! Looks like a simple mistake easily corrected!

by Bianchi on Oct 5, 2009 12:22 pm • linkreport

That was my fault - I set up that pie chart wrong. It should be fixed.

by David Alpert on Oct 5, 2009 12:27 pm • linkreport

Pretty good that >50% of DC does not drive to work. Are 55% of DDOT's funds dispearsed for improving those non-driving modes - that is, to serve the majority of income-tax paying DC residents?

by Bianchi on Oct 5, 2009 12:34 pm • linkreport

Are Hispanics included with Whites in the median household income statistic?

by Nick on Oct 5, 2009 12:37 pm • linkreport

Bianchi is right about this- if 50% of us do not drive we should get parity of spending from DDOT for non- car projects.

by w on Oct 5, 2009 12:38 pm • linkreport

I'm interested in learning more about the 'Commute to Work' data. Does this involve just people living AND working in the District? Does it involve people who live outside the District and commute in? People who live in the District and commute out?

by Tim Maher on Oct 5, 2009 12:43 pm • linkreport

The more detailed transportation numbers are based on the number of residents within the District that work (~300k of the District's 590+k residents):

37.2% drive alone to work
6.6% carpool
35.7% take public transportation
12.1% walk
4.7% work at home
3.7% use other means (taxicab, etc)

Keep in mind a couple of things - this is only for people that live in DC, it does not include those who commute to DC. Adding in that number would likely result in a much higher transit usage within the district.

This also only accounts for work commute trips, which are only a small portion of the total trips taken. Indeed, that universe of ~300k of DC workers is a relatively small portion of DC's total daytime population/employment - and some of those DC workers are invariably commuting outside the District for their jobs as well.

The Census Transportation Planning Package usually has data on where people live and work (thus, where their commute goes), but the most recent data available is quite old (2000).

by Alex B. on Oct 5, 2009 12:51 pm • linkreport

so... no asians live in the district?

by Tim on Oct 5, 2009 12:58 pm • linkreport

The correct race numbers are 38% White, 53% Black, 3% Asian, 3% other, 2% two or more races. Hispanic or Latino ethnicity is a separate question from race for the census. Latinos do make up about 8% of the total, but for the most part they are counted as either White or Black. If you wanted to count Hispanic as a separate category, you'd have to pull them out from the White and Black percentages.

You can disagree over whether this is the best way for the census to count race/ethnicity, but you cannot just add the Hispanic percentage to the race percentages.

by Matt on Oct 5, 2009 1:03 pm • linkreport

@ Alex B: Keep in mind a couple of things - this is only for people that live in DC, it does not include those who commute to DC.

Yeah, and how does that matter? DDOT serves the folks that live in DC.

This also only accounts for work commute trips, which are only a small portion of the total trips taken.

This is relevant.

by Jasper on Oct 5, 2009 1:24 pm • linkreport

"Yeah, and how does that matter? DDOT serves the folks that live in DC."

All departments of transporation "serve" the people who use their roads and mass transit ... regardless of whether they live in the jurisdiction or not. In DC, as a federal enclave, this is even more true than in surrounding jurisdictions. Stop serving the commuters who come in to work in the federal government in DC ... and watch how fast our limited home rule would get pulled out from under us ...

by Lance on Oct 5, 2009 1:37 pm • linkreport

@ w & Jasper -several years ago a private company did a "all trips" survey for residents living in a radius around the closed portion of Klingle Road. The study was commissioned by the group (public entity or private i don't recall) that wanted supporting data for the argument to rebuild a road in Klingle Valley. Their method was to issue all residents/or households -I don't recall- a data collection diary that was to be kept for a limited time (two weeks?). Particpants were instructed to record each time they left the residence, where they were going (for distance data) and how they were getting there. The data presented by the Bergen firm was very similar to this commuter census data. About 55% travelled by train or bus, foot or bike wherever they were going.

by Bianchi on Oct 5, 2009 1:52 pm • linkreport

Please check the race/ethnicity numbers. Matt is correct in that Census questions conventionally ask about race and ethnicity in two seprate questions, since the majority of Hispanic/Latino respondents self-identify as White when given the chance (and some respond as "Black or African American").

THe usual way of tabulating data from these kinds of surveys is to create a set of mutually exclusive race/ethnicity categories:
Black, non-Hispanic
White, non-Hispanic
Hispanic (or Latino)
Asian or Pacific Islander
Native American or Alaska Native

Sometime the categories below Hispanic or below Asian are combined. Hispanics who identify themselves racially as Asian or Native American tend to be rare enough that this classification works.

Because respondents are usually allowed to "check all that apply", a "multiple" category is important (and will be increasingly in the coming years). One can further create categories out of modal combinations, and some researchers use rules like, "code anyone as black if black is in any of ther categories." For example, Barack Obama would be coded as black. Others prefer more detailed and transparent coding, to respect the wishes of multi-racial respondents. It really depends on the application.

by Ward 1 Guy on Oct 5, 2009 1:58 pm • linkreport

Jasper: DDOT does serve, and answer to, the citizens/taxpayers of DC. However, itÂ’s in DCÂ’s best interest to facilitate commuting or other trips into the city, or at least not alienate the other DOTs. I donÂ’t think antagonism is going to get any new transit built anytime soon.

But all the warm fuzzies about cooperationleave out the obligations put on DDOT by Uncle “interstate commerce” Sam - for federal funding.

by цarьchitect on Oct 5, 2009 2:00 pm • linkreport

DDOT does indeed serve the folks that live in DC, but they also serve the folks that work in DC. You'd be hard pressed to argue that DC is better off without outside workers coming into the District.

Anyway, I wasn't trying to make any larger point, really - just better explain exactly what that data point is saying. The simple fact, however, is that the reality we experience when we commute is a regional one, not an abstraction based only on where people live. I bump shoulders with folks from Maryland and Virginia on my commute every day, yet that statistic doesn't necessarily reflect that. Likewise, when we speak of transit oriented development and the ability to use transit/walking/biking for everyday trips, that data isn't represented in this sample, either.

by Alex B. on Oct 5, 2009 2:11 pm • linkreport

Similarly found that, even within Georgetown, only 46% of residents drive and only 38% drive alone. The focus on commuting is correct because all networks are designed around the busy hour. I would love to survey DC Council and ANC members for their off-the-cuff estimates of modes of commuting transportation of their constituents. The universal premise is that the majority of workers drive to work.

by Ken Archer on Oct 5, 2009 2:11 pm • linkreport

Ken, I wouldn't say the focus on the commute is 'correct' or 'incorrect.' It's one way to frame the data, and it's worth noting the limitations that data set has.

by Alex B. on Oct 5, 2009 2:26 pm • linkreport

No comments on the rather large difference between the median income for white and black families. White families double what black families. Can we get a breakdown of the transit for each race?

by matt on Oct 5, 2009 2:30 pm • linkreport

Any breakout on how the tax dollars that pay for DDOT funding come in? I.e., the percentage of tax dollars coming from people who drive to work vs. from people who use public transporation.

by Lance on Oct 5, 2009 2:39 pm • linkreport


Im sure that the commuting statistics vary neighborhood to neighborhood.
Im also curious how they arrived at the cycling/walking numbers- to me these seem that they would be extremely hard to figure out- and I bet that they are actually higher than those given.
In the past 2-3 years I have seen more & more cyclists on the streets of DC.Cycling- be it people coming into the city or those of us who live here- is most definitely on the rise.
And the good thing about these numbers- sketchy as they might be- is that DC actually has one of the largest mode shares for transit of any place in the entire USA.These numbers are increasing- which should give all of us reasons for optimism...
trick is- how to make it even more so...

by w on Oct 5, 2009 2:44 pm • linkreport

No comments on the rather large difference between the median income for white and black families? White families double what black families.

Income is not a function of race. If you desire insight into income the more appropriate request is a chart of incomes by level of educational attainment...

by Paul on Oct 5, 2009 2:59 pm • linkreport

I don't believe the median income for whites is over $100,000. That is really surprising and anomolous. If true, it points to a huge hole in the demographic fabric of DC: low to moderate income whites. Why is this demographic so under-represented in DC? Of course, I'd check the numbers before exploring this too far. It just doesn't make sense.

One reason why it's hard to get a number like that is that income questions on surveys are usually top coded at something like $100,000, which would put more than half of white respondents in the maximum category. In this case they may have used a higher top-code, but I recently completed a government survey of DC residents that maxed out at $75,000 (household).

by Ward 1 Guy on Oct 5, 2009 3:30 pm • linkreport

On the subject of household income and race, I'd note that income inequality by race is substantial throughout the metropolitan area, but it's higher in DC than in the area as a whole. That's because DC has many neighborhoods that tend to be attractive to higher-income white households, while higher-income black households tend to locate in the suburbs, especially Prince George's County.

ACS data on median household income by county and for the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria MSA:

Total MSA (56% of households white non-hispanic, 26% black)
WNH $102,700
Black $61,574 (60% of WNH median)

District of Columbia (37% WNH, 51% black)
WNH $107,583
Black $39,182 (36% of WNH median)

Prince George's County (20% WNH, 67% black):
WNH $77,447
Black $72,060 (93% of WNH median)

Montgomery County (61% WNH, 15% black):
WNH $109,705
Black $63,895 (58% of WNH median)

Alexandria County (66% WNH, 17% black):
WNH $103,485
Black $53,999 (52% of WNH median)

Arlington and Fairfax Counties are both under 10% black so I haven't listed the data.

by Josh B on Oct 5, 2009 4:03 pm • linkreport

w - I took the survey, and it's not hard to figure out who bikes and walks. One of the questions was something like "how to you get to work?" and the answers were car, public transit, bike, walk, etc. I don't recall for sure, but I believe it specified a time frame and also specified the majority of the time (i.e., if you usually metro but sometimes bike, then you should answer metro).

by ah on Oct 5, 2009 4:25 pm • linkreport

I was born in DC and have lived here almost my entire life and to this day, as an adult at least-
I can never recall having been given a US Census questionairre.

How can they make these assumptions when they never ask



by w on Oct 5, 2009 4:47 pm • linkreport

w, the American Community Survey is based on a sampling. It replaces the long-form decennial census that asked similar questions. But even the long-form census was sent only to a sampling of people. Most people have only answered the basic short-form demographic decennial census survey.

by Reid on Oct 5, 2009 6:15 pm • linkreport


At a minimum, every household in the US gets a Census form to fill out every ten years. They'll be sending them out in March of next year.

If you want to improve DC services, you'll fill it out.

If you don't get one, there will be several sites where you can pick one up.

by Alex B. on Oct 5, 2009 7:01 pm • linkreport

Im confused on the race thing arent Hispanic's, Native Americans, Inuits, Amerindians are all the same race but with different ethnicity.

Most Hispanics are either Mestizo, Mulatto or Zambo which equals either White plus Amerindian or African plus White or African plus Amerindian and the occasional White+Black+Amerindian

This whole things has just reminded me how much the whole census thing needs to be redone there are more than just black and white. We have Black African, White, Berber, Amerindian, East Asian, Pacific Islander, Australian/Tora Straits, and so forth.

Any data on race plus age or what type of work each has; Im curious to know what percentage of DC residents work in Arlington, PG & Montgomery Counties or blue collar vs white collar jobs.

With the percentages on marriage what is the other 9% widowed ?

Where is the education data for the 18-25 age group; why aren't all age groups included this seems kind of bias.

by Kk on Oct 5, 2009 11:25 pm • linkreport

Ward 1 Guy,

You ask why working and middle class whites do not seem to live in large numbers in the city. Three answers: (1) all the safe/low crime neighborhoods in DC are very, very, very expensive to live in (Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Woodley Park, etc), (2) the DC public schools have a horrible reputation and lower and middle class whites cannot afford to send their kids to the private schools in DC (and let's face it -- many of those schools [like Sidwell Friends etc] are too snooty to admit the children of a middle or working class white family), and (3) very limited "middle America" options in DC -- how many Applebees do you see or JC Penney's etc? I know you don't like Applebees or the Olive Garden (and so on) but many of these families do (and with mom and dad paying for them plus the 2-3 kids to eat out they can't exactly afford a downtown DC restaurant if they are middle or working class.)

Shorter version of the above: there are few middle or working class whites in DC because it's so expensive to live there. And what is affordable is a non-starter because of (a) crime and (b) public schools.

by maw on Oct 6, 2009 12:32 am • linkreport

Maw, I take your point about schooling and housing, but you aer very wrong about restaurants. I have found chain restaurants to be more expensive then I think they shodl be base dont eh quality of the food. I know many restaurants in DC that are cheaper than these chains and have better food.

by nathaniel on Oct 6, 2009 8:39 am • linkreport

As for income, the American Community Survey numbers cited are MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD. Most households in the District have two working adults.

ACS is not as accurate as the Decennial Census, and individual margins of error (depending upon the number of respondants for each question) will vary.

Department of Transportation survey data find a few more transit commuters than this particular instance of the ACS.

American cities have long been morphing toward a mix of rich/poor. Middle class percentages in most cities peaked in 1940 or 1950.

by michaelA on Oct 6, 2009 9:11 am • linkreport

A close friend of mine recently received an "invitation" to fill out ACS. He started to do it. Then he realized how unbelievably long and involved the thing was; he said it was like doing his taxes all over again. He actually showed it to me after he'd started filling it out, and he was not exaggerating. He ended up throwing it in the trash.

Long story short, they kept bothering him with letters and home visits, but he just ignored them. Finally they gave up.

The penalty is supposedly up to $100, but it's impossible to enforce if the govt. can't prove who lives at a particular address. (The survey is sent to the home, not any particular person.) Plus it's the Commerce Dept, not Justice.

Based on what he went through, I dread receiving one of these things and will probably do as he did. If they would just send the old-school brief one, I'd fill it out. It really did look incredibly time-consuming and onerous.

by JB on Oct 6, 2009 3:10 pm • linkreport

@JB - your friend sounds like a great american.

Fact of the matter is not everyone can get the short form. The census needs a sample of some people to provide the more detailed information.

by Jason on Oct 6, 2009 6:22 pm • linkreport

@Jason's little "great American" comment:

He has a Purple Heart and a Silver Star, so you tell me, sport.

by JB on Oct 6, 2009 7:42 pm • linkreport

Purple Heart and Silver Star aside, he couldn't bother with his civic responsibility of filling out a *form*? Give me a break.

by Chris on Oct 7, 2009 8:49 am • linkreport

There is no more long form. All 10-year census forms are short this time around. They all have only 10 questions, and should take 10 minutes of your time.

The ACS will happen every year and will contain all of the more in-depth demographic questions. I've received the ACS before, myself. It can take a while to fill out, but it's of vital importance. Just look at this thread: people are asking if we have this information or if we have that information. Filling out the form is how that information is collected.

I'm disappointed your friend didn't work with the Census folks to fill it out, JB. They're quite helpful in helping you figure out what goes where and where to find the information you need.

I certainly hope you'll fill out your Census form when it comes in March. Again, short form only this year for the 2010 Census.

by Alex B. on Oct 7, 2009 9:04 am • linkreport

hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race. its people that are from a certain region and culture.

but by no means are people from a country limited to race.

by nobody on Oct 7, 2009 9:40 pm • linkreport

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