The Washington area's most vexing problems--social distress in closer-in communities and overactive growth in outer suburbs--are closely linked and can only be solved by a regional attack on both at once, according to a Brookings Institution report being released today.

Data on poverty, racial segregation, employment patterns, housing prices and traffic congestion show a growing split between the region's "haves" and "have-nots" that harms both, the report says.

"The Washington region is divided by race, income, jobs and opportunity," the report concludes. "The problems of hyper growth on the one hand and social distress on the other are intertwined."

But the report also says the region's growth problems differ from the typical metropolitan pattern, and may be easier to repair. Unlike many cities, it says, the District "has traction in the new economy." Also, the region's poverty is less concentrated, and local governments are less fragmented.

Other areas are split between a struggling city and wealthier suburbs. But Washington is divided along east-west lines. Better-off communities generally lie west of Interstate 95 in the suburbs and 16th Street in the city, although there are exceptions such as outer-Beltway Prince George's County. (The report defines the region's eastern boundary as Prince George's County and the western one as Loudoun County.)

The report is an effort by Brookings, known for studying national problems, to become a broker in some of the region's most contentious issues. The report does not make specific recommendations but urges more regional coordination and cooperation in land-use and other decisions.

The think tank's report, "A Region Divided," will be released today at a forum that will include responses from government, business and religious leaders.

"The greater Washington area has robust growth in the western half and not enough growth in large portions of the eastern half," the report concludes.

"The result is an uneven set of opportunities for families and businesses in the region. But the fast-growing areas are not clear winners from this pattern of growth and development. . . . Explosive growth comes with a price."

The report cites:

* A growing number of poor children in inner suburbs, especially in Prince George's, but also in portions of Alexandria and Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery counties.

* The region's stark segregation, with 70 percent of African Americans living in the District and Prince George's.

* A loss of jobs per capita in eastern communities, where people are looking for work, compared with a gain in jobs per capita in western communities, where there is a labor shortage.

* The down side of growth--worsening traffic jams, thousands of children attending classes in trailers, stagnant prices for some existing homes because so many new ones are on the market.

One set of problems affects the other, Brookings concludes. Poor schools in one jurisdiction lead families to leave, causing crowded schools where they relocate. When the region's lack of affordable housing means people cannot live near work, that worsens traffic problems.

In their new communities, families swap social problems for "fiscal stress" because governments must spend millions to build roads and schools. Even older affluent neighborhoods, such as Bethesda and North Arlington, become crowded with pass-through traffic and face pressure to develop more land.

"A portion [of the region] feels there is too much pressure, and a portion feels it is left behind," said Bruce Katz, head of the Brookings Institution's Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy. "There is much common ground."

The report's message is that prosperous communities should care about poorer ones--not from a "love thy brother" point of view, but because of hard-headed self-interest. Environmental groups make a similar argument, trying to convince people that cutting air pollution from cars by using Metro is in their self-interest because it also will reduce traffic jams.

The Brookings report argues that Washington is better equipped than many places to solve its problems.

Social decline is less severe here, according to Brookings. Less than 4 percent of the population lives in severely poor neighborhoods--a lower number than in Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore and even Seattle. The District still is a strong employment center--unlike many big cities--and has desirable residential neighborhoods.

And the timing is right, Katz said. The city's new mayor, Anthony A. Williams, is trusted by suburban officials. Maryland state officials are pushing "smart growth" to channel development more efficiently into areas that can accommodate it. And some fast-growth Virginia suburbs are trying to limit sprawl development.

However, any attempt to write regional growth policies faces major obstacles. Although Brookings contends that local government is less fragmented here than elsewhere--for example, Chicago, where dozens of local agencies have land-use powers--it is often difficult to win agreement among District, Maryland and Virginia officials.

Proposals to channel growth face opposition from the building industry, whose leaders say most people want new homes on big lots in new communities.

But if nothing is done, the Brookings report claims, the split will only get worse. Poverty and crime will seep outward in the suburbs, and the region will be less economically competitive.

"I come away from this report feeling we can bridge the divide," Katz said in an interview. "The question is: Are we going to think regionally?"

UNEVEN REGIONAL GROWTH

A new Brookings Institution report concludes that the region is sharply divided, socially and economically, between its eastern and western halves. The report calls for better balance that will bring more growth to the east, where it is needed, and less to the west, where it is causing problems. Among the evidence of the regional divide, according to the report:

* Most nonwhite residents live in only two communities, the District and Prince George's County.

* More than half the region's low-income students live in the District and Prince George's County, but there also is a "widening pattern of distress" in other close-in suburbs.

* There is a mismatch between new jobs and residents, with a labor shortage in western communities and a job shortage in eastern communities.

* Western communities are drawing prosperous new residents but suffer from traffic jams, classroom trailers and stagnant prices for some existing housing.

SOURCE: Brookings Institution