March 1, 2013

Six teenage students have been killed in six months in Prince George’s. The county’s response can hardly be said to have risen to the occasion.

County officials appear eager to get everyone back to thinking about the suburban hustle of an affluent African American community struggling to keep up with the Joneses.

Faced with a moment that calls for urgency and new thinking, county politicians have opted for that timeless punt: the “task force.” History offers countless examples of such attempts to use a roundtable photo op to stall for time and create an impression of government action.

Well, a task force is fine, so long as it’s just one element of a larger blueprint for change. Apparently, however, in this case it’s the main strategy. I feel pretty confident in predicting that what this task force comes up with is going to miss the bigger point.

Our county is on the cusp of something either truly revolutionary or terribly frightening — and the choice is ours. The killings, senseless as they seem, speak to greater challenges for a suburb that is at a crossroads few seem to appreciate. Prince George’s has long sought to shake off an image of being a less desirable place to live and do business than neighboring Montgomery or across the river in Fairfax. If it hopes to succeed in that, it can no longer afford to dismiss gargantuan demographic shifts overtaking its borders.

A few months ago, county officials announced a historic drop in crime, but suddenly that celebration appears premature. Overlooked is the role of hyper-gentrification in the District.

It turns out that D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier can’t take all the credit for decreased violence in the urban core; the large-scale displacement of low-income minorities has played a big role in that. Skyrocketing property values, high taxes and higher-priced living are forcing many out of the District and into pockets of Prince George’s, and county officials need to come to grips with the fact that they are falling victim to a rising national trend: suburban poverty. This migration is already straining ill-equipped public safety services, schools and social safety nets. The strain can be expected to worsen.

“This ongoing shift in the geography of American poverty increasingly requires regional scale collaboration by policymakers and social service providers in order to effectively address the needs of a poor population that is increasingly suburban,” wrote Brookings Institution fellows Emily Garr and Elizabeth Kneebone in their 2010 paper, “The Suburbanization of Poverty.” Kneebone reported the trend to the county council in 2011, and officials were reportedly stunned by it. As suburban poverty increased by nearly 40 percent during the first decade of the 21st century, Kneebone showed, poor people in D.C. suburbs such as Prince George’s have come to outnumber the poor people in the city.

According to the latest Census Bureau figures, the District still has a larger percentage of individuals living below the poverty level, 18.2 percent, compared with 8.2 percent in Prince George’s. But as D.C. property values rise — the median price is now $440,000 for owner-occupied housing units — the county’s poverty rate has increased from 7 percent just since 2009 while the District’s has stayed flat. According to real estate sales data collected by Onboard Informatics, about 2.5 percent of D.C. residents, with an average income of $35,000, relocated to Prince George’s from 2005 through 2006.

With foreclosures, the aftertaste of recession and lingering high unemployment, poverty in Prince George’s shows no signs of slowing. Does the recent violence signal something ugly on the horizon?

I don’t believe it has to, but much depends on the county’s response. Lately, the county has trumpeted the promise of big-box retail and casino grandeur. But more is needed than task-force gavels and groundbreaking ceremonies. Addressing poverty and crime will require a radical level of creativity that we have yet to see from county leaders.

There is untapped potential in Prince George’s, and it begins with young people, too many of whom have been dying in recent months. The county could be a place where its kids are intellectually engaged at levels comparable to — and why not above? — the children we hear so much about in Northern Virginia, Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Howard counties. It could be a place where the school board makes headlines for ambitious financial literacy, martial arts or chess programs, not some effort to claim copyright over the work of students and teachers. A place whose commitment to the arts, literacy, science and technology is the envy of the nation. A place that identifies and truly cherishes the promise of its young people — and does more than any place else to keep them on track.

Prince George’s County doesn’t need a task force. It needs a change in mind-set.

The writer is Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and a politics contributor to Uptown Magazine.