Billions in federal spending, largely a result of two foreign wars, were pouring into the local economy by the early 2000s. Then came the housing bubble. But after it burst, a remarkable inversion occurred: as the country withered, Washington bloomed. Since 2007, the regional economy has expanded about three times as much as the overall country’s. By some measures, the Washington area has become the richest region in the country. It is now home to the three highest-income counties in the United States, and seven out of the Top 10.
The growth has arrived in something like concentric circles. Increased government spending has bumped up the region’s human capital, drawing other businesses, from technology to medicine to hospitality. Restaurants and bars and yoga studios have cropped up to feed and clothe and stretch all those workers, and people like Jim Abdo have been there to provide the population — which grew by 650,000 between 2000 and 2010 — with two-bedrooms with Wolf ranges…
How Washington managed this transformation, however, is not a story that the rest of the country might want to hear, because we largely financed it. As the size of the federal budget has ballooned over the past decade, more and more of that money has remained in the District. “We get about 15 cents of every procurement dollar spent by the federal government,” says Stephen Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and an expert on the region. “There’s great dependence there.” And with dependence comes fragility. About 40 percent of the regional economy, Fuller says, relies on federal spending.
Congress may have passed legislation to avert the middle-class tax increases of the so-called “fiscal cliff,” but it has only postponed what is known as the “sequester” — $1.2 trillion in budget cuts. And that’s on top of several hundred billion dollars in cuts that the Pentagon has already agreed to. The capital’s boom days, in other words, might be over. “Rather than leading the nation, we’re going to be lagging it going forward,” Fuller says.