By Amy Goldstein and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
The three most prosperous large counties in the United States are in the Washington suburbs, according to census figures released yesterday, which show that the region has the second-highest income and the least poverty of any major metropolitan area in the country.
Rapidly growing Loudoun County has emerged as the wealthiest jurisdiction in the nation, with its households last year having a median income of more than $98,000. It is followed by Fairfax and Howard counties, with Montgomery County not far behind.
That accumulation of suburban wealth, local economists said, is a side effect of the enormous flow of federal money into the region through contracts for defense and homeland security work in the five years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, coming after the local technology boom of the 1990s. "When you put that together . . . you have a recipe for heightened prosperity," said Anirban Basu, an economist at a Baltimore consulting firm.
The result is that the Washington area's households rank second in income only to those in San Jose, eclipsing such well-heeled places as San Francisco and the bedroom suburbs of New York.
The new portrait of Washington's affluence came into view at the same time that the U.S. Census Bureau released separate data providing a far more nuanced depiction of Americans' financial well-being. The new figures showed that a record number of Americans lack access to health insurance.
According to the national figures from the bureau's Current Population Survey, the median household income edged up -- by 1.1 percent in 2005 -- for the first time since President Bush took office in 2001. And the poverty rate stopped climbing, with 12.6 percent of the people in the United States living in poverty last year -- approximately the same proportion as in 2004. About 37 million people were poor last year, including nearly one child in six and nearly one of every four blacks and Hispanics of all ages.
The data make it clear that, four years into a recovery from the country's last economic recession, improved finances are reaching different groups of people selectively. The rich continued to get richer. Between 2004 and last year, earnings increased by an average of nearly $1,200 for people with incomes in the top 10 percent, compared with $17 for those in the bottom 10 percent.
With congressional elections approaching in November, yesterday's numbers were immediately seized on by Republican and Democratic politicians and their allies, seeking to use the statistics as a referendum on the economic policies of the Bush White House and the Republican-led Congress.
White House budget director Rob Portman said the census report "tells us that in 2005, 90,000 fewer people were living in poverty and real average income rose for families in every income quintile." Portman said those improvements, despite the 2001 attacks and recession, are "a testament to the strong work ethic of the American people, the resiliency of our economy, and pro-growth economic policies, including tax relief."
But Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said: "I know what they say about putting lipstick on a pig, but I don't see how the Bush administration can spin these numbers in their favor. The underlying truth is, Republican economic policies have left most Americans behind."
Republicans were silent about the health insurance figures, which show that the number of Americans without coverage rose to an all-time high of 46.6 million. The proportion of the population that is uninsured increased from 15.6 percent in 2004 to 15.9 percent last year. That erosion stemmed partly from a continuing decline in the number of people who get insurance through their jobs. And for the first time in recent years, government health programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare, stopped growing.
Diane Rowland, executive director of the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, said "the most disturbing thing" is that the number of children without health coverage increased for the first time in years.
For both health coverage and income, the national data reflect persistent gaps by race, ethnicity and geography. The median income for non-Hispanic whites last year was nearly $51,000, compared with about $36,000 for Latinos and nearly $31,000 for African Americans. Incomes were higher in the Northeast and the West than in the South and the Midwest.
The poverty rate in the Washington region was 7 percent last year -- the lowest among the nation's major metropolitan areas, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, a separate set of census figures released yesterday. That survey shows that the District remains an area of relative poverty among its more affluent suburbs, although its poverty rate is not particularly extreme compared with other large U.S. cities.
The survey also suggests that the region's large, recent influx of immigrants has not particularly harmed its economic well-being. Area immigrants have a higher median income than immigrants in any other major metropolitan area -- including, as they do, an uncommon share of well-educated newcomers in government, technical and diplomatic jobs.
Basu, chairman of Sage Policy Group, an economic consulting firm in Baltimore, said the region's affluence was "decades in the making." During the 1990s, he said, suburban Maryland and Virginia emerged as hubs of information technology, biotechnology, and defense and aerospace work. And the high levels of spending since 2001 on defense and homeland security "have generated revenues for existing businesses and prompted business formation, job growth, income growth and investment."
Stephen S. Fuller, an economist at George Mason University, said the Washington area has ranked first in the nation in new jobs during the past five years.
The suburban prosperity has been brought about by people such as Tony Dawood, 46, of Leesburg, who moved to Loudoun County from Pennsylvania to take a job as a civil engineer. He is paid about $130,000 a year and augments his income with business investments.
"The affluence is overwhelming," Dawood said. His 17-year-old son has developed an interest in golf, an expensive hobby given the cost of $50 to $100 to play on a public course, and drives a new Mitsubishi Montero. It would be considered a nice car for a teenager, except that one of his friends has a brand-new Hummer and another drives a new Cadillac.
"They pull up in my driveway and my jaw drops," Dawood said.
Staff writers Susan Levine, Michael Alison Chandler and D'Vera Cohn contributed to this report.