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How the Growth of 'Super Zips' is Transforming Washington

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Bethesda, Md. is located in three Zip codes identified by high median incomes and high educational attainment — the so-called "Super Zips."
Bill Holmes: http://www.flickr.com/photos/flaneur/218097935/
Bethesda, Md. is located in three Zip codes identified by high median incomes and high educational attainment — the so-called "Super Zips."

When it comes to wealth, there isn't just one Washington. Statistics show the region has an extremely high rate of the poorest of the poor, as well as an extremely high rate of the richest of the rich. And many of the latter reside in what have come to be called “Super Zips.”

The Washington Post featured a colorful map of the nation’s Super Zips toward the end of last year. And you don’t have to look too closely to see that a massive cluster of these areas are right here in the D.C. region — including the Penn Quarter neighborhood, or Zip code 20004. There’s a fairly new condo building on F Street NW, where units can go for nearly $1.5 million.

And that’s where we met up with the man who coined the term “Super Zips”: Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a non-partisan think tank in D.C.

Murray recently wrote a book about Super Zips, called Coming Apart. His other books include Human Accomplishment, Real Education, and the 1994 bestseller, The Bell Curve.

To determine the Super Zips in the United States, Murray took all the country’s Zip codes, and analyzed the average income in each, along with the percentage of people who had college degrees. He ranked all the Zips, and dubbed the top 5 percent “Super Zips.”

So we’re talking Zips where people are very affluent and well educated. Do the math, and that means they have a median household income of $120,000, and seven out of every 10 adults have a college degree.

In the D.C. metropolitan area, more than a third of Zip codes would be considered “super.” And as Murray points out, many of these Zips are contiguous.

“You’ve got Northwest Washington, McLean, Virginia, Bethesda, Chevy Chase,” he says. “You take those areas alone and look up the home addresses of the people who run this city. They are within about 13 zip codes, and of those 13 zip codes, 11 of them are not only in the 99th percentile of this index, 11 of them are in the top half of the top percentile.”

As for why the region has such a high concentration of Super Zips, Murray says, in short, Washington is where the action is — not just for politics, but for corporate America.

“Forty or 50 years ago there were hardly any corporations that even had an office in Washington, D.C.,” he says. “Since then, there are lots of ways that the bottom line of corporations are affected by what happens in Washington. And as a result, you have a whole lot of people brought in here [who are] very well-educated, very smart, very capable to deal with the federal government on behalf of a whole lot of different kinds of organizations in the rest of America.”

Murray says the aforementioned cluster of Washington-area Super Zips can be problematic, since “the children who grow up in that concentrated area of wealth go to school with kids who are pretty much exactly like them.”

He’s referring to similar socio-economic status, not ethnicity.

“On the west side of Washington you have all kinds of ethnicities from all around the world,” he says, “lots of diversity there.”

But what happens, he says, is these children “go from K to 12 in that kind of environment. And those same kids from western Washington then go to good schools, also filled with people like them. They get internships at places like the American Enterprise Institute or the Brookings Institution. They can go all the way from childhood to career without ever moving outside the bubble.”

As a result, he says, we don’t just have income inequality. Even more problematic is the issue of cultural inequality.

“I don’t think reducing income inequality is going to do a thing to bring us back together again culturally,” Murray says. “Of all the bubbles in the country, I think the one in Washington is in many ways the most removed, because at least if you’re in the bubble in New York City, you’re in the midst of a city which is engaged with the ordinary American economy. In Washington, D.C., it’s this public policy, government-centered thing, which is really weirdly different from cities anywhere else in the country.”

When he looks toward the future, he says he’s of two minds when it comes to Super Zips and this issue of isolation within them.

“When I’m being pessimistic, I say it’s going to be much, much worse,” he says.

Pointing to the Penn Quarter neighborhood, he explains that “where we are standing right not was virtually a slum 30 or 40 years ago. Now it is the belly of the beast in terms of this new elite I’m talking about.”

And if that continues, he says, “it’s worse than a European kind of class structure. I think it’s more like an an aristocratic one where there will be a set of people who are second- and third- and fourth-generation elite who will take on some of the characteristics of a caste.”

But when he’s being optimistic, Murray says, it’s a different story.

“When I give speeches on this [subject], I get reactions from parents in the room when I say, ‘To what extent are your children being systematically deprived of the kinds of experiences that made you who you are?’ Because a lot of times I’m talking to very successful people who [grew] up in small towns, working class.

“And I get nods. I get people saying, ‘this is correct. We are raising our children as hothouse flowers. We ought to do something about it.’ “And so in my optimistic moods I think the idea of getting out of the bubble is one whose time may have come.”

[Music: "Zip" by Rita Hayworth from The Rita Hayworth Legacy Vol. 2]

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