Economy

DC Beltway Is America's Wealthiest, Brainiest, Most Insular Region

Democracy's Capitol is now America's biggest gated community.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock

All politics are said to be local—and so too are vanities, as the Washington Post so reliably reminds us. This week, it did the media equivalent of the smartest kid in the class answering a question before the teacher asked it. It posted a nationwide map of its newest elite designation, super zip codes, where the richest, brightest, most coddled people live.

Here’s how it described one cush cerebral locale, Clarksville, Maryland, where median household income is at least $120,000 and seven out of 10 adults have college degrees. “An astonishing 98 percent of River Hill High School’s graduates head to college,” the Post preened. “Volvos, Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs are scattered throughout the student parking lot. Even pets get in on the refined tastes of their owners; in a small shopping center near the school, a shop specializing in organic dog food is next door to the organic grocery store.”

There are all kinds of rankings by zip code of American pecularities. Netflix ranks the most popular movie rentals. The business press is always telling us where the priciest homes are. Or which zips have the highest and lowest taxes, or which zip codes donate more to political campaigns. And there’s the other end of the spectrum, such as where worst crime is, or most foreclosed homes lie, or the poorest place to live. 

But the Post’s latest pat on its subscribers (and advertisers) backs goes further. It tells readers that whole sections of the Washington suburbs are a unique wealthy enclave.

A Washington Post analysis of the latest census data shows that more than a third of Zip codes in the D.C. metro area rank in the top 5 percent nationally for income and education. But what makes the region truly unusual is that so many of the high-end Zip codes are contiguous. They form a vast land mass that bounds across 717 square miles. It stretches 60 miles from its northern tip in Woodstock, Md., to the southern end in Fairfax Station, and runs 30 miles wide from Haymarket in Prince William County to the heart of the District up to Rock Creek Parkway.  

And then it goes further and touts, with a slightly raised eyebrow, that those who are fortunate enough to live in this rarified paradise almost never have to interact with the rest of dreadful (or less privileged) humanity. They christen this mix of affluent and highly educated people, a “megalopolis of eggheads.”

Zip codes are large swaths of territory, and people from many different walks of life live in them. But many Washington neighborhoods are becoming more economically homogenous as longtime homeowners move out and increasing housing prices prevent the less affluent from moving in. The eventual result, in many cases, is a Super Zip. And because the contiguous Super Zips are surrounded by areas that are almost as well-off, it’s possible to live in a Super Zip and rarely encounter others without college degrees or professional jobs.

“It’s a megalopolis of eggheads,” said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. Frey said Washington is an example of how the country is compartmentalizing itself into clusters of people with different backgrounds and world views.

I’m not sure there’s an everlasting silver lining to Washington’s golden monoculture. The Capitol has always been an old-fashioned company town, the company being the federal government. I have great respect for civil servants, who have to turn sloppy promises by political rulers into some semblence of functional reality. But in the country’s other top concentrations of super zip codes, such as in New York City or Chicago, there is more apparent mixing of economic and educational diversity. The result seems to public life and attitudes that are more grounded in less cerebral pursuits. In D.C., the government shutdown unfolded like a bad Broadway play. In New York, the powers that be did not derail a populist surge electing a mayor who put inequality on top of his agenda. Does place, as so many writers have said forever, shape character and destiny?

Now, one can push generalities and generalizations about super zip codes too far. I am sure that the parents of the high school kids driving Volvos and BMWs in DC’s suburbs are aware that the more money they report on their federal taxes, the higher their kids’ SAT scores are likely to be. (Yup, those correlations exist). But there was something noticably missing from the Post’s new super zip code metric: a sense if those living in these latest oases were better people, or kinder, or more generous, or even happier?

The jury is out on most of these deeper questions, but, when it comes to generousity, the richest Americans are not known for their selfless examples. Philanthropy.com reports that the wealthiest Americans give the least to charity. They track this by city and do not have kind works for Washington’s ritzy super zipped enclaves. It seems Washington’s more working-class sections give far more of their money to charities.

Middle-class Amer­i­cans give a far bigger share of their discretionary income to charities than the rich. Households that earn $50,000 to $75,000 give an average of 7.6 percent of their discretionary income to charity, compared with an average of 4.2 percent for people who make $100,000 or more. In theWashington metropolitan area, for example, low- and middle-income communities like Suitland, Md., and Capitol Heights, Md., donate a much bigger share of discretionary income than do wealthier communities like Bethesda, Md., and McLean, Va.    

To be just a tiny bit fair, the Post’s report does admit that there’s trouble in paradise. But they don’t suggest a common-sense or even a wise way to deal with the problems that the Beltway’s “eggheads” face, starting with what they are modeling for their kids.

Despite the advantages of living in a modern-day version of Lake Wobegon, where all the kids are above average, residents worry. Many of them, having grown up less economically comfortable, are keenly aware of what it took to get where they are in life. They know that the world has only grown more competitive since then. Will their kids believe big houses and luxury vacations come easy? Even with good jobs, many residents find it difficult keeping up with the cost of living. And neighbor envy is not uncommon.

The Post talks about parents sending their kids on volunteer trips to Appalachia and notes that elite high schools do have community service requirements. And then the super zip code report abruptly ends. It's easy to be snarky about the busy, brainy, competitive lives that Washington's elites have to get back to. But it is another dismal sign of our times when the epicenter of American democracy is also a capital of concentrated wealth and insularity. And the hometown paper brags about it. 

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).