D.C., suburbs show disturbing increases in childhood poverty

By Carol Morello and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 3:07 AM

Three out of 10 children in the nation's capital were living in poverty last year, with the number of poor African American children rising at a breathtaking rate, according to census statistics released Tuesday.

Among black children in the city, childhood poverty shot up to 43 percent, from 36 percent in 2008 and 31 percent in 2007. That was a much sharper increase than the two percentage-point jump, to 36 percent, among poor black children nationwide last year.

The number of poor minority children also rose in many parts of the Washington suburbs, including Montgomery County, Alexandria, Arlington County and the northern half of Fairfax County.

But the District, where unemployment has risen to nearly 30 percent in Ward 8, had the most sobering rise. Last year, there were more than 30,000 black children living in poverty in the city, almost 7,000 more than two years before, according to Census Bureau data.

In contrast, the poverty rate for Hispanic children increased only two percentage points in the same period, to 13 percent, and the rate for white children increased one percentage point, to 3 percent.

"These numbers don't surprise us," said Lindsey Buss, president of Martha's Table, a nonprofit group that feeds and clothes poor families in the District. "We saw the faces behind the numbers all through 2009," when the number of people seeking bags of groceries tripled.

The grim childhood poverty numbers released Tuesday were among an array of census statistics for 2009 that reflected a second year of national recession.

Nationwide, incomes went down for the second year in a row, as did the proportion of households earning more than $100,000. The ranks of people living in poverty and near-poverty grew, and more people went without health insurance.

The census data indicate that the recession took an uneven toll in the Washington region, inflicting particular pain on minority children in suburbs where poverty once was unusual. But poverty rates among white children rose by no more than a percentage point or two and remained in the single digits.

In Maryland, which has the nation's highest median household income, the number of poor children in Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties roughly doubled over two years.

One in three African American children in Anne Arundel was poor last year and almost one in four was in Frederick County, reflecting major increases over two years. But Prince George's County had about 4,500 fewer black children in poverty, a decline of about a quarter.

"People say Maryland is immune, but this shows you it isn't," said Matthew Joseph, executive director for Advocates for Children and Youth in Baltimore.

In Virginia, one in five African American children in Fairfax was living in poverty last year, matching the national rate. Childhood poverty also increased in Alexandria, Arlington and the northern half of Fairfax. But it declined along Fairfax's Route 1 corridor and for most of Prince William County.

The poverty rates in the District, where use of food stamps went up by about a third in two years, exceeded every other jurisdiction and even surpassed the rate in Mississippi.

"Child care is very expensive," said Jenny Reed, an analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which researches budget and tax issues in the District. "A lot of families in D.C. are in low-wage jobs, so even though they're working, they're not earning enough to live above poverty."

The childhood poverty numbers stood in stark contrast to the city's rising income level, which despite the recession grew steadily over four years, to more than $59,000 last year. But that growth has been uneven, too.

In Reed's analysis, the downtown area is the only place in the city where median incomes are rising. In the rest of the city, she said, incomes are down or unchanged.

Even as the poor and near-poor in the region were slipping to lower and lower rungs, many Washingtonians did not suffer during the downturn. The region's median household of $85,000 - a third higher than the national median - dipped almost $700 in 2008, but regained $200 last year. In most area jurisdictions, the share of wealthier households remained stable or even increased.

"We're not insulated, but we're relatively insulated," said John McClain, deputy director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. He said that the region is adding jobs, that unemployment is lower than the national average and that housing prices are starting to rise. "I think if we had the data for 2010, it would be even better," he said. "We've started going up."

Some parts of the region plowed through the economic downturn as if there hadn't been one. Loudoun County might qualify as the land that the recession forgot. Median household incomes in Loudoun rose 10 percent in four years, to $114,000. The census data indicated that almost six of 10 Loudoun households had incomes of $100,000 or more. At the same time, the percentage of households earning less than $25,000 dropped from 7 percent to less than 5 percent. The poverty rate of 3 percent remained essentially unchanged.

Prince William showed the biggest jump in lower-income families. Almost 10 percent made less than $25,000 last year, up from 6 percent in 2006. Simultaneously, however, the share of wealthier households increased, with four of 10 earning more than $100,000 a year. Median income also rose, perhaps suggesting that many residents moved away because of the large number of foreclosures in the county.

Nationally, the median income of $50,221 was down about 4 percent last year from the start of the recession in December 2007. In 2007, the median household income was $52,384. Last year alone was responsible for about $1,500 of that loss.

From 2008 to 2009, real median household income fell by 2.9 percent nationwide, decreasing in 34 states and increasing in one (North Dakota), the data showed.

Almost one in five households had an income of $100,000 or more last year, the census data showed. That was down almost a full percentage point from 2008. In contrast, almost one in four families earned less than $25,000, an increase of one percentage point.

The number and percentage of people in poverty rose in 31 states from 2008 to 2009, with no state showing a statistically significant decline.

One of the few bright spots nationally was the rising percentage of insured children, which increased from 90.3 percent in 2008 to 91 percent last year, when 1.1 million additional children were insured.

Over the same period, the uninsured rate for children increased in two states (Alaska and Minnesota) and was not statistically different in 32 states and Puerto Rico.

But the percentage of uninsured people in the general population rose from 14.6 percent in 2008 to 15.1 percent last year, representing an increase of 2.2 million people. The percentage of uninsured climbed in 26 states, fell in three (Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico) and did not change significantly in the rest, the Census Bureau reported.

morelloc@washpost.com keatingd@washpost.com Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.

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