D.C. Area Poverty Data Grim but Basically Unchanged in 2008

By Carol Morello and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More than one in four District children were living in poverty last year, even as the region was weathering the recession's onset better than most metropolitan areas, according to census data released Tuesday.

The poverty rates for District children diverged widely by race and ethnicity. The rate was 36 percent for black children; 17 percent for Hispanic children; and 3 percent for non-Hispanic white children. Virginia and Maryland also had large racial and ethnic gaps in childhood poverty, but none as great as in the District. The data was virtually unchanged from 2007.

Washington and Baltimore were the only jurisdictions in the region whose share of the total population living in poverty -- 17 percent in the District and 19 percent in Baltimore -- was greater last year than the national average of 13 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

In Maryland, 8 percent of residents were poor, as were 10 percent of all Virginians, the data showed.

The poverty statistics were collected throughout 2008, and do not reflect the full brunt of the recession that began in December 2007. Charities and other nonprofit groups that work with the poor throughout the region began reporting an uptick in people looking for help last year, and workers have watched the numbers snowball since then.

The data derived from the sample survey showed no significant year-to-year change.

At the Calvert County Family Center, a program run by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, new families began to show up in June of 2008, said program manager Nicole Quinn. The pace has picked up since then, she said. Many qualify for food stamps for the first time because their incomes have dropped so precipitously.

"If you were to take a snapshot that was a picture of today's reality, you'd see things have gotten worse," said George Jones, executive director of Bread for the City in the District, which has seen private donations and government contributions plummet or dry up this year.

Despite the grim news, prosperity held up better last year in the Washington area than in virtually every other metropolitan region in the country. Its poverty rate of 7 percent was the lowest of 101 metropolitan areas with more than 500,000 residents.

William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, said the sharpest increases in poverty nationwide occurred in Florida and California. Bridgeport, Conn., also took a hit from the corporate financial crisis and mortgage meltdown, he said.

"For 2008, the recession was a bit slower to impact our region than the rest of the country," said Peter Tatian of the Urban Institute. "But within the metro area, you're going to see a lot more hardship than you would looking at the average."

The region's lowest poverty rates were in Loudoun County, 3 percent; Anne Arundel County, 4 percent; and Fairfax County, 5 percent. Apart from the District and Baltimore, the highest poverty rates were in Frederick County, 8 percent; Alexandria, 7 percent; Arlington County, 7 percent; and Prince George's County, 7 percent.

Poverty has been offset somewhat by increases in food stamps and other government food programs. The Census Bureau said 8.6 percent of all Americans received government food stamps in 2008, up from 7.7 percent in 2007.

The number of people receiving food stamps increased by more than 37,000 in the District, Maryland and Virginia last year, compared with the previous year. Almost 11 percent of District residents received food stamps in 2008, as did 6 percent of Maryland residents and 7 percent of Virginians.

The District's food stamp caseload is at its highest level in two decades, said Ed Lazare, head of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

Kinaya Sokoya, executive director of the D.C. Children's Trust Fund, said the poverty figures, which were based on a sample, probably underestimate the problem.

"The people who are willing to answer the questions would not be among the ones who are most impoverished," she said. "They tend to be a little suspicious, out of concern the person coming to their door is a bill collector."

Lazare said the most recent numbers underscore a growing inequality that has been building over several years. "It's been a familiar but depressing story of the only people benefiting in the city's economy are those with the most education, generally white residents who live west of Rock Creek Park," he said.

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