The declines have produced a Cinderella-worthy change in wealth rankings: Montgomery County, home to Congressional Country Club, now has a lower median household income than Prince William County, home of the Potomac Mills outlet mall.
“The image folks have that the county’s full of super-rich people — we’re past that assumption,” said Montgomery County’s director of human resources, Joe Adler. “The county’s population has changed.”
Demographers say that the changes are as much about population shifts as about the recession and that they may signal a more long-term rearrangement of our understanding of who lives where in the region.
The Washington area overall weathered the decade better than the rest of the country. It was one of just two metropolitan areas that registered median income gains, up $1,300, according to Alan Berube, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. Virginia Beach was the other gainer. Nationwide, the decade was the first since World War II in which household incomes declined.
The region’s gains, however, varied widely. Loudoun County led the pack, with its median income up $14,000 to more than $119,000. It attracted highly educated workers with jobs near Dulles. Arlington County median incomes rose more than $12,000 as the area drew singles and families with few or no children wanting to live close to the District.
In the District, household incomes rose more than $8,000 as the city proved a magnet to young professionals.
But the two places considered the engines of growth and prosperity at the beginning of the decade stumbled.
Anne Cahill, the Fairfax County demographer, believes that much of the decline in Fairfax was because of the economy and that the area will recover.
“I don’t think it means a whole lot,” she said of household income levels. “Fairfax remains one of the most wealthy jurisdictions in the country.”
Numbers are no surprise
The census statistics are estimates, based on questionnaires mailed at random, but they are considered the most accurate numbers available. Government officials say they were not surprised by the findings, because they have observed median incomes slipping in places once considered the epitome of posh.
Poverty rates are creeping up, even in neighborhoods with some of the highest income levels. Adult children are moving back in with their parents when they can’t find jobs.
Many economists and demographers think that long-term demographic changes are driving household incomes lower and that they are likely to stay there for the long run.
They point to an increase in immigrants who earn lower wages. A lot of Fairfax County’s poor are immigrants, Cahill said. Around the country, recent immigrants are more likely to live in suburbs than in core cities.