DC Mythbusting: DC is a Company Town

Photo courtesy of
‘The Capitol’
courtesy of ‘Tyrannous’

Welcome to another Mythbusting feature!  This week, we’ll be tackling the myth that the District of Columbia is a company town– that is, that the majority of jobs in the city are federal government jobs.  DC is the center of the federal government, so wouldn’t it make sense that most of the jobs in the city are federal government jobs?  And secondly, aren’t the majority of federal jobs here in DC?  And what are the largest federal agencies here, anyway?  Read on for the answers to all of these questions, as well as the surprise largest private employer in the city.

First off, even though it seems like the majority of jobs in the area are government jobs (especially on federal holidays when it seems like I’m the only person going to work), federal jobs account for only 27% of all the jobs in the city.  There are less than 200,000 federal employees who work in the city, and around 234,000 federal employees in the whole DC area.  So only one quarter of DC workers are working for the feds.  That definitely doesn’t sound like a company town to me!

Granted, many of the jobs in the district are related to the federal government presence here.  Many non-profits, law firms, and lobbying firms have headquarters here to solidify access to the federal government.  So when you factor in all the contractors working for the federal government, you’d see that many jobs in DC are here because of the federal government.

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘Kevin H.’

What about the biggest federal employers?  What are the largest agencies?  In no big surprise, the largest government agency in the area is the Department of Defense, with 65,000 employees.  Here’s the rest of the top ten:

  1. Department of Defense: 65,000 employees
  2. Department of Health and Human Services: 28,000
  3. Department of Justice: 23,000
  4. Department of Commerce: 21,000
  5. Department of Homeland Security: 20,000
  6. Department of the Treasury: 14,000
  7. State Department: 12,000
  8. Department of Agriculture: 11,000
  9. Department of Transportation: 9,000
  10. Department of Veterans’ Affairs: 7,000

As a caveat, these figures show DC-area jobs, not just jobs in the city itself, so it’s definitely over-counting the DoD since it is including the Pentagon and Fort Meade in that total.  And interestingly enough, even though it feels like most federal employees work in DC, only one tenth really do.  Ninety percent of federal employees work outside of DC!

Photo courtesy of
‘GWU Hospital Entrance’
courtesy of ‘Mr. T in DC’

So who are the other biggest employers in the city?  Well, DC government has about 35,000 employees total, and Metro has 11,000 employees in the area.  And then there are about 460,000 employees who work in the private sector.  Who are the largest private employers, you may ask?  Here’s the top ten (as of 2003):

  1. George Washington University
  2. Georgetown University
  3. Washington Hospital Center
  4. Howard University
  5. Fannie Mae
  6. Children’s National Medical Center
  7. Georgetown University Hospital
  8. Howard University Hospital
  9. American University
  10. Providence Hospital

I found this list surprising, because for some reason I thought that lawyers and lobbyists would far outnumber any other group.  But since there are lots of law firms out there, and only a few major hospitals and universities.  In the private sector, the largest employers by far are hospitals and universities (and the now-government-owned Fannie Mae).  Many of these businesses don’t publish employment figures, but GWU’s employee base is around 10,000 for reference.

Photo courtesy of
‘commuters’ fate’
courtesy of ‘cacophony76’

The above data shows that DC really isn’t as government-focused as you’d think.  Only a quarter of jobs in the city are federal jobs, and the majority of federal jobs in the country aren’t in DC.  Of the remaining 3/4 of jobs, many are in the city government or in WMATA, and outside that, hospitals and universities dominate.  So long story short, DC is not as much of a company town as you’d think, though having the large federal presence here does buffer the area from the recession.

Thanks to Jay for suggesting this myth to bust.  Have a DC myth that you’d like to see busted?  E-mail me at shannon at welovedc.com, or leave it in the comments!

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

12 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: DC is a Company Town

  1. Your methodology is flawed and your argument is based on a straw man statement that DC is a company town because most people here work for the government.

    DC is indeed a company town, not because most people are feds, but because so much industry (most?) revolves around the federal government. To really evaluate the impact of the government on employment in DC, you need to add in everyone who works for a defense contractor, an NGO, international institution (like WHO, OAS, IMF, World Bank), lobby shop, and think tank just to start.

    Ignoring those employees would be like measuring the economic impact of film studios on LA without taking into account the caterers, event planners, agents, managers, etc that are part of the industry.

    You nod to this fact in paragraph 3, but you don’t give the numbers, and then go back to your silly argument. Do your homework and report back.

  2. Though the information is good, I completely disagree with your conclusion. Okay, so a quarter of the jobs are federal, but once you take into account all the contractors or other jobs intimately tied to the federal agencies, that surely makes a majority.

    Even if, for some reason, we only wanted to count federal jobs, a quarter of the jobs in a city from one “company” is huge.

    So the conclusion really should be that of course it’s a company town!

  3. After 10 minutes of googling, at least 45% of people working in DC have government related jobs:

    Total DC workforce: 711,700

    federal civilians in DC: 284,000

    military personnel: 10500

    World Bank: 8000

    IMF: 2400

    Registered lobbyists: 13426

    Anyone who wants to do more digging can help top 50%

  4. Wow Josh, maybe you could be a little more condescending next time. Just cause you think you’re right doesn’t make it immutable truth.

    I think this really comes down to an argument of what constitutes a company town or not. If we use the strict definition of “jobs in government,” then Shannon’s clearly correct, but if we want to talk about all the related jobs, then you can make an argument the other way. You overstep as well though; not every NGO revolves around the feds, and the international institutions you listed could just as easily be located in New York.

  5. Who peed in your cheerios this morning, Josh? You don’t have to agree with Shannon’s chosen definition of “company town” but you don’t have to be rude about it.

  6. Challenge accepted!

    Yes, if we use an absurd standard, we can make any ridiculous argument we want. How do I know there is life on Mars? Because Hollywood makes movies that say so.

    You see, that’s why I used numbers–you know, those little symbols that kind of look like letters. Now, your point that not every NGO is here because of the government is fair, but nitpicky. I wasn’t talking about the Tabby Cat Lovers of America, after all. I gave examples like the World Bank and IMF because those are NGOs that are in DC *because* it is the capital, not because of its beautiful scenery.

  7. The crazy thing is, I actually did have cheerios this morning. Well, Trader Joe’s Os. I can’t afford the good stuff, I’m a fed.

  8. Hey Josh, your numbers also don’t mean what you say they mean. That 284,000, for example, is non-postal Federal Government jobs IN THE DC AREA, which includes the entire metropolitan area, not just DC. Meanwhile, your 711,700 is from state-by-state employment data, which means those 711,000 are jobs within the borders of the Distrct ONLY.

    Additionally, the registered lobbyist number is ALL registered lobbyists *nationally*. It stands to reason many of them would be located in or around DC, but it also includes state-specific organizations that may not be headquartered anywhere near here, groups headquartered outside the bounds of the District, etc.

    If you want to use DC-area numbers, you have to compare them to DC-area workforce, not District-specific workforce.

  9. It’s funny how comment 1 and comment 2 say similar things but come off very differently. Josh, I hope your parents didn’t raise you to be a jerk.

    I also disagree with Shannon, though, because I would lump in all the affiliated groups that are here because it is the capital. To me, all the hangers-on like me, who work for associations, lobbying groups, think tanks, etc. make up part of the government industry. However, this is more an argument of definition than anything else.

    Good read. Thanks for writing it!

  10. I agree with Carl. This is an argument of definition. The federal government certainly attracts a lot of business and people to the District.
    What I’ve always found distressing is that the people that are coming here as lawmakers and their staff are often claiming residency in other states and therefore paying state taxes elsewhere.
    Likewise, those going to school here, those who work for associations, contractors and lobbying groups in DC but live in MD and VA aren’t helping to support DC. No wonder our Metro is having trouble with its budget!
    Is there any way to find out how many people are living in DC as non-residents? I’d love to know that number!

  11. Actually, Metro is funded jointly by MD, VA, and DC, not to mention the fares that commuters from MD and VA pay.