The Agenda

Simple Factoid to Help Illustrate D.C.’s Racial Divide

As a former resident of the District of Columbia, I’ve followed Adrian Fenty’s defeat with interest, not least because I’ve purchased running shoes from his father, the well-known and well-liked proprietor of a sporting goods store in the semi-gentrified Adams Morgan neighborhood. Freeman Klopott of the Washington Examiner has described the racial divide in the District’s Democatic primary:

The city’s black majority wards on the east side of the Anacostia Rive helped push Fenty into office in 2006, but in 2010 they combined to give 82 percent of their vote to challenger D.C. Council Chairman Vince Gray. Fenty picked up just 16 percent of the vote in Wards 7 and 8.

In the city’s two whitest wards in Northwest, Fenty took in 76 percent of the vote to Gray’s 23 percent.

Gray also dominated in predominantly black, yet rapidly gentrifying Ward 5, picking up nearly 76 percent of the vote. The race was closer in more racially and economically mixed Wards 4, 6 and 1.

The median income of a white man in the District is $71,823.38. For a white woman, it is $51,085.39. In stark contrast, the median incomes for black men and women are $29,822.39 and $31,691.27 respectively. I prefer looking at median earnings for individuals to median household income because doing so helps clarify the role of assortative mating and household formation.

If the median white man and woman marry to form a household, the resulting household income would be $122,908.77. In an expensive metropolitan area like the District, this couple could feel cash-strapped, particularly if the couple has school-aged children. Tuition for private education is a burdensome expense, and the prospect of better schools is powerfully attractive, as it has a big impact on disposable income. 

Among African Americans, marriage rates are lower than for whites. Note that black women earn more than black men in the District, and a disproportionately large share work in the public sector, including municipal government. African American families with children, many of them female-headed households, are undoubtedly concerned with the quality of public schools, yet there are also cross-pressures. And for a married African American couple, with a household income of $61,513.66, the prospect of cutbacks in public sector compensation or wage freezes or the end of tenure pose an immediate, potent threat, as Courtland Milloy suggests in his Washington Post column:

Having taken office promising to cradle the most vulnerable residents, Fenty set out almost immediately shooting the wounded. Closing homeless shelters. Forgetting about job-training programs. Firing city workers with the wave of a callous hand — black female heads of households more often than not.

Fenty boasted of being a hard-charging, can-do mayor. But he couldn’t find time to meet with 98-year-old Dorothy Height and 82-year-old Maya Angelou. Respect for elders — that’s too old school for Fenty. Dis the sistas — his supporters will understand.

Watch them at the chic new eateries, Fenty’s hip newly arrived “creative class” firing up their “social media” networks whenever he’s under attack: Why should the mayor have to stop his work just to meet with some old biddies, they tweet. Who cares if the mayor is arrogant as long as he gets the job done? 

Myopic little twits.

And lordy don’t complain about Rhee.

She’s creating a “world-class school system,” they text. As for you blacks: Don’t you, like, even know what’s good for you? So what if Fenty reneged on his promise to strengthen the city from the inside by helping the working poor move into the middle class. Nobody cares that he has opted to import a middle class, mostly young whites who can afford to pay high rent for condos that replaced affordable apartments. [Emphasis added.]

Milloy’s extraordinary outpouring of anger really does reflect deeply-held sentiments of many of the most loyal Democratic voters in the District, and indeed in the country. We often hear about the supposed anger of Tea Party activists. But the anger expressed by Milloy hardly ever gets a hearing, for a number of reasons. The left-of-center media voices we tend to hear are from the “myopic little twits” that Milloy derides. 

This is part of why the debate about compensation for public employees has proven so intense. Public employees are a central part of the Democratic base.

And consider the relative costs of meeting the basic needs of the poorest of the poor, many of them non-voters and immigrants, as opposed to funding the middle-class welfare state. As Andrew G. Biggs of AEI asks in The American:

While aid for vulnerable groups obviously drives a lot of government spending, we could lift every American, young or old, above the poverty line with government transfers of around 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Yet the federal government today spends more than 25 percent of GDP. Big government isn’t generated by caring for the truly poor; after all, despite spending 25 times more than needed to fill the poverty gap, we nevertheless leave millions in poverty. Rather, rising pension and health spending on middle- and upper-class Americans—principally through the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid programs—is the true fiscal burden and the largest imposition on personal choice and freedom. Without these three programs, the current size of government would be much smaller and the dangers of future fiscal catastrophe due to rising spending and debt would be all but eliminated. The question is: How did we get here?

This is a good way to think about our political debates: consider all of the energy expended on defending middle class entitlements and the notional danger posed by rising compensation for the most affluent as compared to the lack of energy expended on poverty-fighting transfers. It is telling that the main progressive achievement of this Congress has been the creation of a new middle class entitlement to health insurance rather than, say, the creation of a permanent program of wage subsidies. 

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