Washington, D.C., History: Changing Population Demographics

Washington, D.C.,’s population grew steadily well into the 20th century, reaching a peak of 802,178 residents in 1950. But as Washington’s suburbs grew, the city’s population declined, hitting a low of 572,059 in 2000.

The city’s racial composition also shifted dramatically in the 20th century. In 1940, roughly 71 percent of residents were White and 28 percent were African American. By 1970, those numbers had flipped: 71 percent of residents were African American and 28 percent were White. Since then, the African American population has declined slightly, while the city has become home to a growing number of Asians and Hispanics.

Recent years have heralded the start of a new trend in Washington’s demographics. After decades of decline, the 2010 census revealed that Washington’s population had grown 5.2 percent over the decade. Growth has since accelerated, with a 2.7 percent increase measured just between April 2010 and July 2011, making D.C. the fastest-growing “state” in the country. Washington’s population growth is on a new trajectory.

Year Population
1800 8,144
1850 51,687
1900 278,718
1950 802,178
1960 763,956
1970 756,510
1980 638,333
1990 606,900
2000 572,059
2010 601,723

Washington has earned the reputation of a recession-proof city, with plenty of jobs to go around. This relative economic health reflects several factors: increases in the federal workforce, government job security in harsh economic times, and the growth of industry and contractors in the Washington area nurtured by federal spending.

Think of it this way: Washington and its environs comprise a very large and successful company town, and the federal government is the company.

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