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  Child Poverty Surges in Area

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 10 1997; Page A01

The number of school-age children living in poverty in the Washington suburbs rose by 85 percent from 1990 to 1994, growing three times as fast as for the nation as a whole, according to new U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Demographers said the figures underscore a new reality in suburban Washington: that affluent counties such as Fairfax and Montgomery have growing numbers of economically struggling families in need of additional school and social services.

In the 12 suburban jurisdictions closest to the District, the number of children ages 5 to 17 who were living in households with incomes below the federal poverty line increased from 31,038 in 1990 to 57,349 in 1994, the Census Bureau figures show.

Demographers said the surge in Washington suburban poverty reflects the influx of immigrant families seeking jobs and low-cost housing in the suburbs, the continuing rise in the number of single-parent households and a recession that cost the region 90,000 retail and construction jobs from 1990 to 1992.

Fairfax had the largest increase, a jump of 134 percent, followed by Prince William, Arlington and Alexandria, where the number of poor children more than doubled. In Montgomery, Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Charles counties, the number increased by more than 50 percent.

The District also had more poor children in 1994 than in 1990, although its overall population is declining. The increase was 28 percent, the smallest jump of any Washington area jurisdiction. But the District had a higher percentage of poor children, 31 percent, than any of its neighbors. The child poverty rates in the suburbs ranged from 4.3 percent in Howard County to 20.3 percent in Alexandria.

Nationwide, the number of school-age children below the poverty line increased by 28 percent during the four-year period. The federal poverty line for a family of four is an annual income of about $16,000.

Although the economy has improved since 1994, researchers believe that the number of poor children in the Washington suburbs remains much higher today than it was in 1990.

"There's no question there are more people susceptible to poverty than ever before," said Philip M. Dearborn, president of the Greater Washington Research Center. "They are likely to be the first casualties if the economy turns down."

They are people such as the Riveras, who share an apartment in the Maryland suburbs with two other immigrant families, one family to each bedroom. Maria Rivera, 32, emigrated from El Salvador to escape that country's civil war in the 1980s. She settled in Silver Spring in 1991 and lives with her 9-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter.

She said she moved to the Washington area because she was looking for work and because she knew people who already lived here.

"It's very hard for me in the United States, but there is no other way," said Rivera, who said she makes $6,000 a year as a babysitter and pays $300 a month in rent. That leaves $200 a month to feed and clothe the family.

In Fairfax, which has the highest median family income in the nation, growing numbers of poor families can be found in communities such as Mount Vernon, Baileys Crossroads, Fairfax City, Centreville and Reston.

For government leaders, such changes mean balancing affluent residents' demands for better roads, parks and schools against the pressure to provide social services for poor families. For educators, it means spending more money to shrink class sizes, improve reading and math instruction and offer English as a Second Language programs in schools with high numbers of poor and immigrant students.

Fairfax School Superintendent Robert R. Spillane said such efforts are only beginning. "This is permanent," Spillane said. "We can't do education in the traditional ways of the past. That means more ESL. It means adjusting programs to bring other types of health programs and learning programs in. It never can be business as usual."

This is the first time the Census Bureau has provided such numbers in the middle of a decade. Its 1994 estimates are based on annual population surveys, food stamp caseloads and a sampling of income tax returns. Census Bureau statisticians said the estimates, although not as reliable as those used in the 1990 Census, are a fair representation of child poverty growth in the nation and region.

This summer, the U.S. Department of Education will use the figures to adjust local school districts' share of federal Title I money. The annual grants, which will total more than $7 billion nationally in the next fiscal year, are provided to school systems to offset the cost of educating poor children.

Education Department officials used the Census Bureau estimates conservatively. To decide how much each school system should receive, they halved the bureau's estimated rate of increase in child poverty. Even so, local suburban school districts will receive millions of dollars more.

For the first time, Fairfax and Montgomery qualified for special "concentration grants" given to systems with high numbers of poor students.

Fairfax will receive about $6.1 million in Title I funds, a 74 percent increase from this year, and Montgomery will receive about $7.5 million, a 36 percent increase.

"It confirms things we've known for years and what we've been saying -- that poverty has been growing," said Lawrence Kugler, coordinator of the Title I program in Fairfax. "Finally, it is going to be recognized. This is a lot of change, and it's a challenge."

Staff writer Peter Finn contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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