Poverty grows in high-income Washington suburbs


Tom Ryan, left, who distributes food, clothes, and toys for St. Stephens United Methodist Church in Burke, Va., receives a truckload of food from volunteer Devon Wallace, second from left, and food bank staffers Rossio Senzano and Melvin Bonilla, at the Food forr Others food bank on Friday. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)

Some mornings they line up before the door is even open. All day long, needy residents stream by the food pantry on Prosperity Avenue in Fairfax County, coming for fresh vegetables, canned goods, milk and eggs.

Food for Others sits on a street whose name rings with bounty. But the number of people seeking help there has almost doubled over the past four years, as the number of poor grows.

Newly released Census Bureau statistics show that poverty rates rose last year in the Washington suburbs, even as the same data showed that the region is home to seven of the 10 highest-income counties in the United States.

From 2010 to 2011, poverty rates shot up in Loudoun, Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties. They stayed about the same for that period in Prince George’s County and declined a little in Montgomery County, as well as Alexandria. Almost all suburban counties showed large leaps since the recession began in 2007. Poverty in the District declined somewhat from 2010 to 2011, although it is still persistently high, at nearly 19 percent.

The stark contrast between wealth and want here comes at a time of growing income inequality nationally. However, even though more people are poor and struggling, the region’s poverty rate of 8.3 percent is the lowest of the country’s metropolitan areas and significantly less than the national rate of about 15 percent.

But that’s small comfort if you’re among the poor.

Dulce Arroyo, 57, was barely making ends meet with a $21-an-hour job as a certified medical assistant in Fairfax County. This month, she was laid off with just two weeks of severance pay. Although she is optimistic she will find another job, Arroyo often marveled at the wealth around her while she lived paycheck to paycheck. At her former office, it seemed, that “every single one was rich” — except she.

“I work as hard as anybody,” Arroyo said, as she volunteered at a free-lunch program at her church in Falls Church. “I wonder why I’m so poor. I don’t have to be homeless and hungry to be poor.”

Suburban communities in the area have been experiencing staggering increases in the number of poor people, according to a 2010 Brookings Institution study of census data, called “Strained Suburbs.” Among the suburban cities and towns in the Washington area, Centreville, Chantilly, Leesburg and Linton Hall in Virginia and Bowie, College Park and Germantown in Maryland had the largest increases, according to Brookings.

“Our ideas about where poverty is have not changed,” said Anne Cahill, the Fairfax County demographer. “We still think of it being in the inner city. The reality is, poverty in the suburbs is where the growth is.”

Three years into the recovery, officials in the region say the need appears to be easing, but it remains well above the levels experienced in pre-recession 2007.

In Prince William County, where the number of people using food stamps has more than doubled since 2007, people are staying on assistance longer, said spokesman Jason Grant. And in Montgomery County, where the Census Bureau said the poverty rate dropped, caseloads have remained heavy.

In Loudoun County, which has been ranked the most affluent jurisdiction in the United States for several years, the numbers of residents seeking emergency care packages of food and federal assistance are continuing to rise. The county was the only place outside the District where the number of homeless people significantly increased this year over last.

“We’ve seen a resurgence in job growth and home sales, but typically people at the lower end do not benefit from that kind of growth,” said Ellen Grunewald, director of the Loudoun County Department of Family Services. “When you have very significant wealth at the top end, that drives the price of rents and the price of homeownership and the price of everything else. People of moderate income in Loudoun County . . . just don’t have enough income [to pay] these kinds of rents, or pay for child care.”

At Loudoun Interfaith Relief’s food pantry, Bonnie Inman, the group’s executive director, has seen an increase in demand — up 80 percent since 2007 — and expects the need to remain high.

“I can’t believe how many new people are walking through that door,” she said. About 1,800 people a month now show up to get a twice-monthly allotment of food.

In Fairfax County, the Department of Family Services saw a 3.7 percent increase in the number of people requesting public assistance in the past year.

Kerrie Wilson, who heads Reston Interfaith, said the Fairfax County hotline for assistance gets about 400 calls a day — far less than the 600 calls it logged every day in 2010, but well above the 200-calls-a-day level before the recession began.

Fairfax officials attribute the rise in part to foreclosures and the high cost of living.

“Well I know everybody brags about Fairfax being one of the richest counties to live in, but what people don’t understand is it’s one of the most expensive, too,” It’s very hard to afford to live here,” said Diana Lutchey, 28, a mother of three who lives in Alexandria.

Jeffrey Tibbs, 46, has been homeless in Fairfax County for three years and sometimes slept in the back of his truck before he landed a bed at the Crossroads Community Shelter in Baileys Crossroads. Despite sometimes chaotic living conditions, he’s always managed to hold a job, even if it was seasonal or part-time.

“I think the economy is hard for everyone,” he said. “I know people with careers and who have been at jobs longer than I have who have lost their jobs. Everything is so devastating. . . . It’s hard, hard for everybody.”

Now he’s working two $11-an-hour jobs at a fast-food restaurant and caterer while trying to find an affordable apartment. OnThursday, he was rejected for a studio apartment at one rental complex because he wasn’t working full time. Disheartened but not ready to give up, he said he would ask for more hours at work. He said he hopes to stay in Fairfax County, even if the high cost of living has made it difficult.

“This might be a county that might have more opportunity or be more wealthy, but if that’s the case, why am I still homeless?” he wondered.

One day this week at Food for Others, a 38-year-old woman, there with her husband and two of her four children, loaded cardboard boxes full of hamburger buns, eggs, milk and canned food into their SUV. Because the family is newly homeless, she did not give her name, citing embarrassment.

The woman said she and her family had moved to Burke from Prince William a few years back because of the well-regarded public school system. Her son, who had struggled academically, began to excel at school.

In recent months, she and her husband, who are delivery truck drivers, have seen their work hours cut back dramatically. They fell behind on their rent, were evicted from their apartment and are living in a hotel. They’re considering moving to a cheaper neighborhood in Stafford County..

She’ll miss Fairfax, with its good schools, safe neighborhoods and close-in commute. Where, despite her reduced circumstances, she had felt like the fortunate.

“You have so many benefits, but here you have to pay to play,” she said.

Ted Mellnik contributed to this article.

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
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