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Washington region has nation’s lowest poverty rate

By and Luz Lazo,

The Washington region had the lowest poverty rate of any major metropolitan area in the country during the past two years, even though poverty is up significantly and continues to rise.

About 8.4 percent of the region’s residents lived in poverty in 2010, compared with 6.8 percent before the recession began in 2007. Although the rate represents a steep increase, it is far below the 15 percent national figure and that of urban areas in the West and the South, including Fresno, Calif., and El Paso, where more than 20 percent of people are poor.

The region’s poverty rates have been among the lowest in the nation for many years. But although its rate has risen since the recession, other places have struggled more. Even the District, where the poverty rate is a staggering 19 percent, falls midway among other urban centers.

The Washington region is almost a full percentage point ahead of the area around Honolulu, which had the next-lowest rate in the analysis of poverty levels released by the Census Bureau on Thursday.

Economists attributed the showing to the Washington area’s robust economy.

“We continue to have one of the strongest economies of any metro region in the country,” said Paul Desjardin, head of community planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “It builds on a foundation of the extremely well educated and talented workforce we have here.”

But people who work with the poor said the rate, linked to the federal poverty level of $22,350 for a family of four, does not adequately capture the number of people barely keeping their heads above water in an area with a high cost of living.

“In the suburbs, you see the fragile working poor,” said Mary Agee, president of the nonprofit Northern Virginia Family Service. “Families have a combined income of $32,000, and they can’t survive on that and raise their kids on that.”

Monsignor John Enzler, president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, said the number of poor seeking help and their needs are growing: “If they’re not at the poverty level, certainly they’re at the brink of poverty.”

The census analysis underscores the regional component of poverty. The highest poverty rates during 2009 and 2010 were in the West and the South. The area around McAllen, Tex., had the biggest share of poor people, with fully a third of its population living below the federal poverty level. It was followed by the Fresno, El Paso, and Bakersfield, Calif., areas, all of which had rates above 20 percent.

The census comparison offers a gauge of how parts of the country have weathered the recession, which began in late 2007 and officially ended in late 2009. Many urban areas in Florida, Cali­fornia and Nevada, which were hit hard by the mortgage crisis, saw their rankings plummet. Many areas linked with the financial industry and government, such as New York City, Boston and Virginia Beach, moved up the scale, even as their poverty rates rose.

Rates varied widely throughout the Washington region, which has some of the wealthiest communities and highest education levels in the country.

In the suburbs, Prince George’s County has the highest poverty level, more than 9 percent. The lowest is in Loudoun County, under 4 percent.

The region’s economy has become less reliant on the federal government over the past 30 years, said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. It also has an expanding base of managerial and professional workers.

“Washington is loaded with professionals, and they beget more professionals,” Carnevale said. “They have financial planners and doctors. D.C. is, and will continue to be, a magnet for professionals.”

The region also has been a magnet for ambitious immigrants who see more opportunities here than in many other places.

Nelson Cuellar and his wife, Graciela, opened a small sweets shop in Gaithersburg a year ago, almost two decades after he arrived from El Salvador to join relatives. He worked his way up from dishwasher to chef to restaurant manager. With his savings, he bought a home and sold it, using the proceeds to open the first of two bakeries.

Washington remains a place where he sees an opportunity for his family and business to grow.

“We have four children and need to work hard to give them a good start in life,” he said. “I came with just the clothes I had on, to clean dishes, share a room, and as the years went by, things got better. Maybe when I arrived I didn’t have many things, but I didn’t have anything back home. We come from poverty to try to improve our lives.”

Staff writers Derrick Haynes, Allison Klein and Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.

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