By Carol Morello and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2010; B01
Kris Marsh's household doesn't have two incomes. But in Prince George's County, she is increasingly becoming the face of the black middle class.
Marsh, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, moved to Bowie last year from Los Angeles, determined to live in a place she had always heard was the promised land for educated, successful African Americans. She bought a large, single-family house in a development where many of her neighbors are also single women.
"I found a community I'm in love with," said Marsh, who has done research on the role that single women are playing in fueling the expansion of the black middle class. "Just because I didn't have a partner or a husband, it wasn't going to prevent me from living in the area."
Prince George's residents personify many demographic and socioeconomic trends playing out among African Americans on a national level. In 2008, about half of the black households in the county made more than $75,000 a year, more than a quarter had four-year college degrees and unmarried women far outnumbered their married counterparts.
New census statistics from data collected in 2007 and 2008 show that an increasing number of African Americans across the country are becoming more like those in Prince George's, as well as closer to the national demographic norm. Many blacks made strides during the past decade, with education levels and incomes rising faster than those of the U.S. population as a whole.
In 2008, 20 percent of African Americans had a bachelor's or advanced degree, a 19 percent jump from 2000. The percentage of black households making more than $75,000 has gone up 42 percent since 1999, from about 13 percent to 18 percent.
The statistics do not reflect the effects of the recession, which has caused high unemployment among black men in particular, but demographers say it is unlikely to alter the long-term trend.
Despite the significant gains made by African Americans, there are still large and persistent disparities between blacks and whites in income, education and poverty rates, the national census numbers show. Whites are twice as likely as blacks to be in the upper-income brackets, and African Americans are three times more likely to be living in poverty.
"There have been improvements, . . . but I know we can do better," said June White Dillard, president of the Prince George's chapter of the NAACP.
Dillard, who was an adjunct professor at Howard University Law School, said the black community has to "reemphasize education."
"You are not going to get a higher income level without a higher education," she said.
Another factor in why household income levels are not higher is that black adults are more likely to be single.
The 2008 census statistics show that 46 percent of blacks in the United States have never married, and barely a third are married. In part that's because blacks tend to be about six years younger than the general population, with a median age of 30.
In Prince George's, 42 percent of black adults have never married. In a reversal from early in the decade, there are more African American women who have never married than there are married black women.
Michael Dawson, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, said black women are more likely to be single because of the high number of jailed African American men and because black women tend to obtain higher levels of education than black men, narrowing their options for a mate who is available and similarly educated.
Marsh said her research has shown that African American women are marrying later in life, if at all, and postponing having children.
That has contributed to their rising incomes, said Jacklynn Topping, a Cleveland-based business consultant who recently did a study on the demographics of black Americans for BET.
"Black women, especially millennials, are moving to a better life," she said.
According to the Prince George's planning department, more African American women made more than $75,000 than any other group, and their ranks are growing the fastest.
Although previous census data have shown an exodus of wealthier black residents from Prince George's to neighboring Charles County, there are still indications that people are moving into the nation's most affluent majority-black county.
Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said his neighborhood in Cheverly has seen an influx of new residents, many from Capitol Hill, in recent years.
"There was a time when middle-class African Americans moved out of D.C. because of schools and crime, but now people aren't leaving because it's undesirable, it's because it's unaffordable," said Ivey, noting that his new neighbors often make well more than $75,000.
Like many of her contemporaries, Aisha Braveboy, a 36-year-old lawyer and Maryland delegate, has chosen to live in Prince George's. Braveboy, who is single, bought her home in Mitchellville at age 28.
"Here, you can find quality, affordable housing as a single person on one income," she said.
The prevalence of professional, educated black women in the county is one reason novelist Connie Briscoe is considering moving with her husband from Howard County to Prince George's, where she has family and friends. Briscoe said she wants to be surrounded by and inspired by the types of women who have formed the characters in her novels, including "P.G. County" and its sequel, "Can't Get Enough."
Briscoe recalled that when she moved with her parents in the 1960s to Montgomery County, an African American family like hers was a rarity in the suburbs.
"Most black people were not on our socioeconomic level," she recalled. "Now there are a lot of African Americans in Prince George's and Howard counties who are very well off."
The median income in Prince George's has risen steadily, from about $58,000 in 2002 to $72,000 in 2008, the last year for which figures are available. Despite the toll taken by Prince George's having the highest number of foreclosures in the state and the recession, many residents say they remain optimistic about the future.
"My parents could never envision what I have now," said Elaine Zammett, 59, who owns a home and works as a legislative director for a state delegate. "I just think that this generation and the one prior to mine has had better access to education and more opportunity to get better jobs. Even though the glass ceiling is there, we're going higher."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.