Loudoun County has maintained the title of most affluent county in the nation for a few years. But as the county continues to remain wealthy, recent Census Bureau reports show that the poverty level also continues to rise.
As director of family services for the county, Ellen Grunewald oversees programs that provide assistance with food, housing, finances and other needs to people who are living in poverty. Grunewald, 64, has headed the department since 2010. A native of Boone, N.C., with degrees from Appalachian State University and the University of Oklahoma, Grunewald has managed social services programs in Loudoun since 1989, when she was hired as assistant director of social services.
Grunewald recently met with The Washington Post to discuss poverty in Loudoun and how the department is trying to help people in need.
What kinds of assistance do people come to your office to receive?
We have all of the federal programs — SNAP, the supplemental nutrition program, which used to be called food stamps — and the benefits programs, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and lots of emergency needs, for emergency prescriptions and emergency medical [assistance].
We all think we know what it is to be poor. No, we don’t. We have no idea how avenues get closed off to you because you don’t have the cultural means to bridge those things in order to take advantage of the education, the references and different things that are out there for everybody else.
When you think about the services that are provided in this department, [there is a] myth that the people that receive services are not employed. Almost everybody that receives a service from us is employed, except children, disabled adults or elderly [people]. We have low unemployment, and we have a lot of people out there who are employed at levels where they can’t really sustain their families.
Despite the fact that Loudoun ranks as one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, there are reports that poverty is growing. What are you seeing?
Poverty is about 3 percent of our population. Our population is about 329,000, so we’re looking at around 10,000 people. If you look at our industry sectors, the fastest-growing industry is retail, [which] accounts for about 21 percent of all new jobs. Many of these jobs are part time.
If you look at retail in general, in Loudoun County, the average income is about $29,000 a year. Many of those people in the retail sector would not even qualify for the Affordable Dwelling Unit program, for example, where you have to have an income between 30 percent to 70 percent of the area median income, which is about $107,500.
Also, several of the growth occupations in Loudoun are home health aides, carpenter helpers, personal care aides, plumber’s helpers, dental assistants, physical therapy aides and so on, and the average incomes for these populations range from $22,800 to $43,785 a year. That level of income really cannot sustain a family in Loudoun County to meet all their basic subsistence needs for housing, food, medical and clothing.
Is the number of people seeking help going up?
For the last couple of years, our numbers have been fairly flatlined, although they are flatlined at a high level. I think what happened is that people who were not eligible for programs quit trying to get into those programs. Where we did see a significant increase last year was in our Workforce Resource Center, where people are trying to get employed. That really is the only public employment service in Loudoun County.
Are you seeing different types of people who are coming in and seeking assistance?
Most of the people that come in have at least a high school education, and many of those people have some college. But these are people who cannot find that meaningful job to support their families with their basic needs. They can find jobs . . . in minimum wage retail. When you think of it, Wal-Mart, Target, many of the grocery stores, these are businesses that are in the top 35 [employers] in Loudoun County. But many of these jobs will not pay at levels that people can live here on.
Has your department’s staff been able to keep up with the demands?
The demands, especially in the benefits programs, emergency services and child protective services . . . we struggle with staffing in those areas. We had a 29 percent increase last year just in calls to be screened for these programs. So our workers in the benefits unit are carrying upwards of 800 cases each. . . .
When you’re a worker with about 800 cases, you’re getting new applications every day, you’re trying to monitor the cases you already have, and it’s very difficult to keep up with that workload.
How much of your budget comes from local taxes?
Out of a budget of about $33 million to $34 million, we have only about $15 million in local funding. And in the overall county budget, all of human services is only about two cents on the dollar. I’m talking about all of mental health, family services and the Health Department. So we really don’t take many local dollars.
The other thing people do not realize is that we bring all these federal dollars — like $14 million — into the local economy through SNAP and Medicaid benefits and so on. So these are dollars that get spent right here in Loudoun County. If a person’s approved for Medicaid or if they’re approved for SNAP, they go out and spend those dollars in your local grocery stores, in your medical facilities, and so on. The amount that we bring in from these federal dollars to be spent in the community is about equal to what we receive in local tax funding.
Do you have a problem with employee turnover?
We do. Unfortunately, last year we turned over 38 positions in a department of 200. That’s 19 percent. That’s way too high. And interestingly, because we do talk to people when they leave, many of the staff, especially in benefits, went to surrounding localities doing the same job at a higher pay.
One young man that left here, he was super — great with his clients, worked in the benefits unit — he went to Prince William County and improved his salary by $10,000 and had a smaller caseload. But other people left just because the job was too demanding. They went to other kinds of fields.
What other trends are you seeing?
One thing we are doing that is different — this started as a state initiative — is called the Family Engagement Process. We’re working very closely with the Department of Mental Health to focus our response to families with . . . [a] model where we can engage families as partners in the success of their kids. For most places in the country, this has not been the approach. We were one of the pilot [programs], and we have been very successful. We diverted 62 children from placement in foster care.
We have found that if we can put in very strong supportive measures, get families to engage in what they need to do in order to remedy situations in their own families, children are able to stay safely in their own homes. We’ve had very little recidivism as a result.
These models have been nationally researched. They’re proven models, so we know that if we can keep a child out of foster care, where they can live safely in their own homes and parents can make changes, that’s better for everybody. The child fares better, the family fares better, and it’s much, much less expensive.