There is a "tremendous, unbelievable gap" in understanding between the affluent citizens of Montgomery County and its residents who exist in poverty, said Alan Dean, executive secretary of the county's Human Relations Commission.
Dean, a speaker at a Gaitherburg conference last week on "Poverty Amidst Affluence" said in an interview that the barriers between upper and middle income citizens on one hand and the poor on the other cause "reinforcement of the stereotypes" about the poor and an insensitivity to their needs and problems.
"The affluent people in this county are so tied up in their own life styles that they have little or no contact with people who exist at the poverty level," said Dean. "My feeling is that they rarely think about" the plight of the county's poor, he said.
"Sometimes poverty is even worse if you're surrounded by affluence. The contrasts make poverty in Montgomery even worse than in some other communities," said another speaker, Jack Hiland, associate director of programs for the Department of Social Services.
An estimated 24.000 of Montgomery County's half a million citizens live in poverty, as it is measured by the federally established income level of $5,500 or below for a family of four, according to the social services department. Abour 3,000 of them live in public housing, and the rest live mainly in poor areas in Silver Spring, Rockville, Gaithersburg and Takoma Park, a department spokeswoman said. About 35 per cent of all families on the county's poverty rolls are headed by women, she said.
Just under 20 per cent of the poor are black, disproving what Dean called a stereotype that the majority of Montgomery County's poor are descendants of ex-slaves who settled there after the civil war. "A lot of people associate black with poverty . . . You should cleanse your minds and stop stereotyping people," he told his audience.
Montgomery County, with a median family income of $21,400 a year, is one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. In contrast, the District of Columbia, which has 54 per cent of the metropolitan area's poor within its borders, has a median family income of only $10,800. A Washington Council of Governments study shows that the District spent $181 per capita on health services in 1974 compared with $40 spent by the Maryland suburban jursidictions and $221 per capita on social services compared with $12 in Maryland. The median income figures are for 1974 and were compiled by the Washington Center for Metropolitan Studies.
Dean's speech centered on a major theme of the conference: lowering the barriers between the affluent and the poor with "sensitivity and communication." The meeting was sponsored by the Tenant Opportunities Program, a county agency that ptovides a variety of social services for low-income residents of public housing.
"So many people regard disadvantaged persons as non-persons," he told his listeners. "Don't look at them (the poor) like you're smelling something. There's nothing wrong with being poor."
The poor are "less favored people," living in poverty because "it's something they were born into in most cases." Dean said. "They have created their own special form of communication. In many instances we have to reach out" to establish understanding, he added.
Most of the nearly 100 per son attending the conference were staff members of Montgomery County social services agencies. A few were residents of poor areas and public housing.
Dean, who said the conference was well advertised in the county, said he was "very disappointed that there were not 10 times as many people here. I thoought it would draw people who wanted to know more about communicating with a segment of our society."
Dean, a former Navy officer and foreign service officer with the State Department, said he was "a product of the 30s" and grew up in a town where "the only people who weren't on welfare were politicians." His speech evoked an hour and a half of comment from his audience.
A woman who said that she was of Norwegian descent said "there's no sense to people being poor in the United States.Take Norway. It has no natural resources, but there is no poverty in Norway. Their standard of living may not be as high as ours, but it's plenty, high. It depends on your value system. In the U.S. the dollar is important; in Norway, the person is primary."
In reply to another question, Dean said that "this country is totally controlled by economics . . . The economic philosophy is that your worth is based on your accumulation of wealth. When you accumulate wealth you need people to do what you don't want to do. So it makes sense to keep those people down there.
"Something we have to face and what few people will say," he added, "is that the white male club determines what the economy will be, what the pattern will be."
"If you've never been poor or close to it, I don't think you should call anybody else poor. It creates crutches for people," said Granville Hall, who is buying a home in Bel Pre Square in Silver Spring, under what he said is the county's first home ownership program for low-income citizens. He spoke heatedly of volunteer women who came to the Bel Pre public housing units to "tell us how to clean our houses, how to cook food. This was something we didn't need. Black people have been cleaning people's houses for years. It was insulting. It was an insult of r them to come and tell me how to budget my money. I don't make enough to budget." Hall was applauded loudly when he said "I'm a trash man and believe me I'm one of the best. I'm not ashamed of anything I've done."