Culture

Washington, D.C.’s 'Super Zip Codes'

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The Washington Post is all about maps this week. First it was the “Eleven American Nations,” and now we have been introduced to “super zips,” the wealthiest and most educated zip codes in the United States—many of which are crowded around the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

This article seems to be moderately concerned with the future of Washington, D.C.—that the super-zips surrounding the nation’s capitol have created a “buffer” zone, insulating their wealthy, highly-educated residents from socioeconomic classes lower down the totem pole.

“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.”

William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institute referred to Washington as a “megalopolis of eggheads”–

“Washington is an example of how the country is compartmentalizing itself into clusters of people with different backgrounds and world views.  It’s a magnet for people who grew up elsewhere and came here because they want to be in a place that has an atmosphere of intellectual curiosity. But it means we’re somewhat isolated. A lot of people here may study and advocate for what’s going on in the rest of the country, but they can’t feel what’s going on if it doesn’t touch them.”

I don’t pretend to defend the idea that parts of Washington, D.C. are disconnected with the outside world and I understand that the contents of this study and article could be the cherry on top of the “Washington disconnect” narrative.  However, a very broad generalization has been made about the people living and working around Washington, D.C.  I don’t think it’s fair to paint D.C. professionals with such a broad stroke–especially one that is based solely on zip code or number of graduate degrees.

Soap bubble capturing reflection of the Golden Gate Bridge, Photo Mila Zinkova

Living in a Bubble?

I would like to highlight Frey’s last sentence:

A lot of people here may study and advocate for what’s going on in the rest of the country, but they can’t feel what’s going on if it doesn’t touch them.

The majority of intellectuals who live in the D.C. metro area work for think-tanks, government agencies, and/or the several universities that reside within the D.C. lines.  Some of them are the brightest luminaries in their field.  The fact that they are highly-educated, have a large-ish paycheck, or live in a nice community doesn’t mean they have zero idea of the world out there.

Although you can say that wealth gave them the opportunity, many of these people have traveled and have seen poverty and war throughout the world.  Some must travel for work–to rundown cities in Asia, bombed-out towns in Afghanistan, and/or cities wiped out by natural disasters in our own country.  Some of them have a better grip on reality than most Americans.

Community organizations like churches and boy/girl scouts all focus on outreach, volunteering and giving—fostering contact between people of all backgrounds. Most children and adults are engaged in at least one of these organizations.

In the research world, many luminaries not only study certain types of people, but also go out into the field and engage with them—this is a pillar of good research.  I don’t think it is fair to assume that all the wealthy or highly educated wall themselves off in a bleached bubble.  Some do but many do not.[jwplayer config=”pjm_lifestyle” mediaid=”62948″]

American Dreamers

Also, we can’t assume all of Washington, D.C.’s wealthy, educated population came from perfect backgrounds themselves–causing them to be unaware of our nation’s problems or people of other socioeconomic status.

What about the American dream?  I know plenty of people in this town that have built themselves up from nothing—who worked hard to put themselves through school and to attain a well-paying job.  They know how hard it can be.  Also, don’t we always say education is the key to success?  So why are we now saying educated people are the enemy?  If Americans automatically morph into elitist auto-bots when handed a large paycheck, a diploma, and the keys to a nice home, then we need to shut down all of the universities STAT.

Yes, there are some elitist people in this city–some who are well educated, who receive large paychecks and who have never gone hungry or worried about a place to sleep. But you cannot assume that everyone in a “Super Zip” is a total “egghead,” a royal prince with a whipping boy, or came from a family with money.  Even I will admit that Washington, D.C. is a bit better than that.