An Imbalance of Need and Aid

By Philip Rucker and William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 30, 2008

Prince George's County has more people living in poverty than any other Washington suburb, yet its charitable support system is far smaller than those in other large suburbs or the District, studies show.

This imbalance has consequences: Prince George's families sometimes travel long distances for health care, counseling and youth programs -- or never get help. Nonprofit groups in better-served areas, particularly Montgomery County, are overloaded with outside clients, which hinders their ability to help their communities.

The trend is evident to a lesser degree elsewhere as poverty has spread into the suburbs and services have failed to keep pace. Thriving hubs of nonprofit agencies have blossomed in such spots as Silver Spring and Arlington County. But in Prince George's and such outer-ring counties as Prince William, Loudoun and Charles, service groups are insufficient and undercapitalized, experts say.

The problems might be exacerbated by the worsening economy. "When people have needs, jurisdictional lines don't matter," said Chuck Bean of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington. "Some people might live in County X, but the best match for the needs are in County Y."

The divide is starkest in Maryland's two biggest suburbs: Montgomery has three times as many large nonprofit groups as Prince George's, and they bring in far more annual revenue, according to a 2007 report by the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations. The study also found that the Prince George's government awarded grants to nonprofit groups at a rate of about $2 per person. Most other suburban jurisdictions gave $9 to $10 per person, which in some cases reflects their relative affluence. Prince George's officials dispute that figure, but some acknowledge the need.

"We had known for some time that the capacity in Prince George's lagged behind other counties," said Heather Iliff, the report's author. "The real surprise is just how far an outlier the county is."

The findings are especially dramatic considering that the Chronicle of Philanthropy ranks Prince George's among the nation's five most generous counties in charitable giving by its residents. Most of those dollars, though, go to churches, which often offer services but not necessarily to the whole community.

"There's no doubt churches and faith groups play an enormous role," Iliff said. "But it's doubtful that churches alone are going to come even close to filling [the gap] between what nonprofits get in Montgomery and what they get in Prince George's."

Leaders of large churches in Prince George's decline to say how much they spend on community programs, and federal tax forms do not provide such information. But nonprofit leaders say the proof of the county's unmet need lies in the hundreds of residents who show up in neighboring jurisdictions. Government services are reserved for county residents, but some nonprofit agencies funded by Montgomery report that a third of their clients come from Prince George's.

"We don't officially work in Prince George's," said Frankie Blackburn, director of Impact Silver Spring, which serves low-income residents. "All of our funding and support comes from the Montgomery County side. But unofficially, we're definitely bleeding over into Prince George's. For real people, the border is just fiction."

The need in Prince George's is undeniable. About 8.2 percent of its 830,000 residents live below the federal poverty level -- set at about $21,000 for a family of four, according to 2007 Census data. That compares with 16.4 percent in the District and slightly less than 5 percent in Fairfax and Montgomery.

Nonprofit groups spent about $69 million on the 20,000 Prince George's children living in poverty, according to a 2004 study by the Urban Institute. By comparison, agencies in Montgomery spent $366 million on the county's 13,000 poor children.

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