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.