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The Greater Washington region is a political power center, a market for economic development, and a diverse multicultural landscape. It is also home to 1.6 million children and young people, who represent one-third of the region’s population. Yet few places in America have such great disparities in young people’s health, education, family income and wealth, and opportunity.
Far too many children in Greater Washington are being left behind. While the overall economy in the Greater Washington region has improved over the past decade, large pockets of children and youth experience worsening conditions, including growing poverty disparities deeply embedded in race and ethnicity and income disparities by family structure.
When economic opportunities benefit only some members of the community, economic growth is restricted because the skills and talents of whole groups of residents are excluded, and individual community members struggle to achieve what they want in life. Conversely, when opportunities are inclusive, productivity and living standards rise for all residents. More inclusive opportunities result in growth in tax receipts, which in turn fuels social, educational, and economic structures that attract employers and employees.
The persistent disparities in youth and child outcomes should motivate the region’s leaders to pursue new approaches. At the same time, local leadership should recognize the robust and vibrant foundation that the region’s burgeoning racial and ethnic diversity provides. As in every community across America, every child in Greater Washington has an intrinsic right to thrive, and the future of the region depends on our collective ability to help young people from all backgrounds successfully transition to adulthood.
This report provides a broad overview of how children and youth (birth through age 24) are faring on many key indicators of well-being across the nine jurisdictions that comprise the Greater Washington region: the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church, Arlington County, Prince William County, Fairfax County, and Loudoun County in Virginia; Montgomery County and Prince George’s County in Maryland; and Washington, D.C.
We frame this report around three themes that shape the developmental paths for the region’s youth: first, growing levels of diversity and income disparities; second, education, which is core to opportunity; and, third, factors beyond education that contribute to children’s well-being and long-term prospects.
Diversity and disparities. Few metro areas are as diverse—in terms of race, ethnic origin, and national origin—as Greater Washington. Recent immigration trends are remaking the social fabric of the region, with children of immigrants accounting for nearly half of the area’s children. As the region becomes more diverse, it is increasingly important to examine whether young people from different backgrounds thrive and progress at similar rates. In many cases, we find that groups that have experienced long histories of racial discrimination, such as Black and Hispanic children, fare less well. Due to their smaller numbers in many jurisdictions within the Greater Washington area, many data sources from which we draw for this report tell an incomplete story about the status and recent progress of children from American Indian and Asian backgrounds. We know from national data, however, that the outcomes of children from these two groups are also influenced by the history of discrimination in the United States and, for Asian children, by their immigration or refugee status and national origin (for them or their family).
Education. Schooling is widely considered an equalizer that rewards hard work and achievement and opens doors for economic prosperity. Yet the evidence shows that, in certain respects, such a narrative is more myth than reality. Many students are not gaining the competencies schools intend to foster, as schools rarely are designed to meet the needs of all students and infrequently offer rigorous and relevant learning experiences that prepare students for postsecondary success. In fact, too many young people have only a tenuous connection with schooling; for some, that connection is nonexistent. Those left behind are too often also the victims of intergenerational poverty and structural racism.
Beyond the classroom. A flourishing childhood and an adequate preparation for adulthood are multifaceted. A child’s ability to learn is hindered if that child is not healthy and safe. Well-being must be viewed from a wholistic perspective, in which health, social, emotional, and academic development are interdependent. An agenda to support children and youth must address all aspects of development.
This report provides robust data on how well children and youth in the Greater Washington area have fared since the beginning of the decade. The information in this report can be used by policymakers and public and private funders to help them make decisions about how to fund and target services, and to do this work with finite resources. Program practitioners can use the report to better understand the needs of the young people they serve and the communities in which they live. Finally, researchers can use the report to provide contextual information for studies they are conducting in the region or to identify areas for further study. Residents and activists can use the report to strengthen advocacy efforts in response to the complex challenges that exist regionally.
The first Capital Kids Report, released in 2012, examined trends for children and youth over a timeframe that included the Great Recession and its near-term aftermath.1 Greater Washington suffered less from the economic downturn than many other regions of the country and recovered more quickly. Nevertheless, the recession’s effects on the region’s children and their families—especially Black children and their families—are still evident. More problematically, research suggests that the effects of such severe downturns may persist into adulthood, limiting children’s economic prospects.
The 2020 Capital Kids Report updates these earlier findings and examines recent trends to understand how children in Greater Washington have fared since the end of the Great Recession, and what the data imply for their future well-being.
This report highlights key themes that arose from our analysis of more than 100 indicators on the backgrounds and well-being of children in the Greater Washington area. A forthcoming Technical Appendix will provide a more comprehensive summary of findings across all of these indicators.
The legacy of racism and its current expressions reverberate in many of the indicators in this report. Greater Washington has a long history of systemic and institutional racism that have established the foundations of regional disparities. The frequent associations between race/ethnicity and measures of well-being for children, families, and communities are rooted in patterns of limited or complete lack of access to resources and opportunities.2 In turn, unequal access reflects centuries of policies and practices that are the foundation of structural inequality and discrimination.
The way our society has treated certain groups over time has limited their opportunities. Discriminatory policies and practices in areas such as housing, schooling, and transportation have left a legacy of disparities that persist across all of society.3, 4 For example, measures of socioeconomic status, such as income, wealth, educational achievement, and employment, vary across racial and ethnic groups and genders. Persistent disparities are also reflected in patterns of intergenerational economic mobility.6, 7 Thus, when we call attention in this report to differences on various indicators by race/ethnicity or by gender or family structure, we are not implying that these outcomes are caused by these identities, but rather that they capture the effects of this social and historical context. We believe that all youth can succeed regardless of their racial identity, and that racial identity does not imply or create an inherent deficit of capability.
This report uses U.S. Census Bureau terminology for racial and ethnic groups.
Much of our data in the report are drawn from the census, so we adopt the labels the U.S. Census Bureau uses to designate race (White, Black, Asian, American Indian, and other) and ethnic groups (Hispanic, non-Hispanic), with a few small exceptions. We also capitalize and shorten all racial and ethnic group labels for the purposes of consistency and simplicity. We recognize that for each racial and ethnic group, individuals vary in their preferences for how they are referenced (Hispanic, Latino, or Latinx, for instance, or a label that specifies one’s national origin). Hispanic origin is distinguished from race in the census as individuals can self-identify as Hispanic or non-Hispanic as well as a racial group. Furthermore, in this report, the White population consists of only non-Hispanic White individuals, which is consistent with the Census designations.