Amid Montgomery's affluence, plight of suburban poor worsens in downturn

With suburban poverty on the rise, even in Maryland's affluent Montgomery County, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has never been wider.
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 10:31 PM

Their numbers are growing, but the suburban poor can be tough to spot amid the affluence that sometimes surrounds them. In few places is that more true than in Tobytown, a tiny enclave in Potomac still occupied by the descendants of former slaves who founded it in 1875.

The neighborhood off River Road, hidden from view on a woodsy stretch of Pennyfield Lock Road near the C&O Canal, is almost jarringly out of place. It nestles in the midst of great opulence - homes guarded by stone lions with lawns big enough for their own soccer fields.

Tobytown's 60 or so residents have struggled to break free of poverty for generations, and their circumstances have worsened in the recession.

People have lost jobs and face more difficulty finding transportation in and out of the neighborhood, which is so remote that it has no bus service. At the same time, Montgomery County has cut funds for a taxi voucher program and an after-school program for kids.

The economic downturn has affected people of all income levels, even in Potomac, where the median household income of $157,254 is three times that of the nation. On the very next street over from Tobytown, an eight-bedroom, $2.1 million home went into foreclosure this year.

Yet the recession has been far more brutal to those at the margins, the poor and those hovering just above the poverty line. Montgomery is still one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, but during the downturn its poverty rate rose to nearly 6 percent, according to census data. The figure was 5.4 percent in 2000, according to the Census Bureau.

"In Montgomery County, we think of ourselves as an affluent county, and it's easy for people to assume we don't have any poor people," said Tedi Osias, the director of legislative and public affairs for the county's housing authority, which oversees Tobytown. "They don't stand out. That's why they are invisible."

In Tobytown, the effects of hard times are clear.

"See the housing surrounding us?" Wesley Wilson, 53, an unemployed landscaper, asked as he sat playing dominoes in a courtyard one recent day. "If it's hurting them, you know how it's doing for us."

Securing stability

The recession has been hardest for Tobytown's younger generation, the 20-something grandchildren of those who were able to purchase the modest little houses over time.

They've stayed because they can live cheaply with family, scrounging rides to the nearest bus stop - five miles away - to get to jobs as store clerks and restaurant cooks. Like their forebears, they too dream of homeownership. But not here.

One recent afternoon, Shannon Braxton, 21, scooped up a free weekly from a stack of newspapers dropped at the community center and eagerly scanned the want ads for hotel or receptionist positions. She was disappointed.

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