Unemployment in Montgomery County and similar nearby jurisdictions hovers around the zilch mark; businesses all over the area seem to have permanent "help wanted" signs in their windows. Newspapers run page after page of employment ads. In the past year the labor force in Montgomery County has grown 11 percent, despite declining government hiring, and 70 percent of the new jobs are being filled by women, who traditionally collect most of the welfare checks.
And yet, we still have very substantial numbers of poor people in our midst. Who and where are they, and what can be done to make them self-supporting?
The federal government says a family of four making less than $11,000 a year in today's America is poor. In Montgomery County, the Community Action Board says such a family living really needs $15,574 a year for adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care, or a gross income of $19,467. That's because Montgomery County has one of the highest median family incomes in the United States and is one of the most expensive places to live. Housing prices are out of sight, and according to one recent study, food costs are the highest in the nation.
Many communities hold that a family of four making twice the poverty level, or $22,000 a year, should be considered poor. Using that standard, there are 73,000 poor people in Montgomery County, of which 28,000 fall below the $11,000-a-year poverty line for a family of four. The taxpayers support them.
What the numbers boil down to is that one of every 23 residents of affluent Montgomery County is very poor -- making less than the federal $11,000-a-year poverty level.
There are many reasons for this poverty in the midst of plenty -- among them the increasing number of fragmented families, deinstitutionalization of the mentally and emotionally ill, and a skewing of income growth toward the high end of the scale, so that averages rise as people at the low end get left behind.
Scores of county programs and voluntary nonprofit organizations try to help these often invisible people, some of whom are never going to make it on their own. But this huge effort by social workers, ministers, teachers, nurses, mental health specialists and their volunteer allies appears to be unable to do more than tread water.
At a recent Montgomery County conference on poverty, Rev. Lon Dring, who runs the county's Community Ministries, pointed out that the problem is growing within the community. In 1980, he said, there were 10,000 cases of emergency aid, while last year the number had risen to 65,000. Twelve years ago, Community Ministries spent $2,000 a year on emergency aid. Now the cost is running around $8,000 a month. "It's like emptying a quarry with a teaspoon," he said.
Most of the poor are working, but for the uneducated, untrained and ill-motivated, it's a hard life. A head of a family working full time in a fast-food joint at the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour will fall $4,000 a year below the federal poverty line. That's hard on the head of the family -- women, for the most part -- but it's even harder on the kids.
Bonnie Birker, head of the experimental Family Independence Project, described how her agency is providing a menu of personalized services to 100 families with the object of getting them off welfare and into the work place. She is having some success; she has 65 people working on their high school equivalency diplomas, while 40 are in job training. After about one year, 30 people have "graduated" and are working in jobs paying from $8,400 to $18,000 a year.
Other suggestions emerged from the conference -- in the areas of mental health, housing (creating People Bonds to finance low-cost housing, for example), stronger laws on child support and better coordination between welfare agencies. But the thought behind all of them was the same and was expressed 20-some years ago by Hubert Humphrey: "A child born in poverty is likely to become a slow learner, possibly illiterate, a school dropout, a delinquent, perhaps a criminal. He is likely to live miserably and die young, leaving no legacy but offspring destined for the same fate."
This poverty is with us no matter where we live -- even in affluent Bethesda-Chevy Chase, where, in these boom times, 10 percent of the county's poor live.
-- Bob Horowitz was editor of the The Montgomery County Journal until 1986. This article was adapted from one that appeared in the Journal Nov. 16.