Back then, he couldn’t have imagined that he and his friends would eventually be traveling across state lines to hang out there. That they’d draw looks and “can I help you?”s and sometimes calls to the cops. That most of them would be living in Prince George’s County, where neighbors didn’t talk and apartments were hidden behind big thoroughfares and it just didn’t feel like the kind of place where you’d meet your friends. That their former houses would be selling for seven figures — and that their new neighborhoods would be the emerging epicenters of poverty in the Washington region.
Nobody imagined it, really. Certainly not the original suburbanites, the mostly white pilgrims who fled cities nationwide for peace, safety, space — and sometimes to get away from people who didn’t look like them. Not the federal government, which declared war on poverty in the 1960s but got stuck on an old version of the fight, still targeting low-income clusters in urban centers today rather than the diffusion of people who can no longer afford to live near their work. Not the nonprofit organizations that help low-income populations, which began in the so-called inner city and are largely still there, spending far more money per urban poor person than per suburbanite in need — 10 times as much in the D.C. region.
Nevertheless, nationwide, there are millions of people like Wilkins and thousands of towns like Capitol Heights. Low-income residents are disappearing from downtowns and becoming increasingly hidden from public view, scattered around the periphery of major metropolitan areas. And they’re growing ever more isolated from the government offices, social services, and networks of friends and relatives on which they once relied.
The trend has been as swift and sweeping as it has been overlooked. In 1990, Americans in poverty were 14 percent likelier to live in a city than in a suburb. By 2012, they were 22 percent likelier to live in a suburb. In D.C.’s suburbs, over the first 15 years of the millennium, the number of people in poverty grew by 66 percent. Elsewhere, the explosion was even bigger. Sun Belt cities led the way. The increase was 126 percent in Atlanta’s suburbs; 129 percent in Austin’s; 139 percent in Las Vegas’s. The Midwest wasn’t far behind: 62 percent in Cleveland’s suburbs; 84 percent in Chicago’s; 87 percent in Detroit’s. The suburban poor are likelier than their urban counterparts to be white and to own their homes, but otherwise they’re demographically similar, according to a study from the Brookings Institution. Two-thirds of both groups work, about 15 percent have a disability and nearly half are in deep poverty, below 50 percent of the federal poverty line.
Fifty years ago, after race riots decimated cities across the country, the Kerner Commission, convened by President Lyndon Johnson, concluded that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” Ten years later, a team of University of Michigan academics published a paper titled “Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs.” D.C., 71 percent black in the previous census, was the Chocolate City, a name popularized by musician George Clinton that would endure for decades.
Today, cities such as Washington are still, in many ways, occupied by two different societies, separate and unequal. The only thing that has changed is which society lives where.
The shift still hasn’t fully sunk in for Wilkins, 27. So one day, when no one was ordering pizzas, he went by his old block. The radio played ’90s hip-hop as he turned from First Street NW onto U Street and scanned the sidewalks and stoops for familiar faces. His black Domino’s visor cast a shadow over his fading smile. “Ain’t nobody out here right now,” he said.
He slowed in front of a handsome blue-gray Victorian with white trim. It still looked about the same as when he lived there. The whole block did, plus a few paint jobs and minus a few bars on the windows. But the people had changed, and the $930,000 the house’s current owners paid for it in 2015 was twice what Wilkins’s aunt got when she sold it in 2009. Back then, Wilkins’s mother, Yolanda, who’d grown up there, was already living with her two sons in a subsidized apartment nearby. In 2011, fed up with poor maintenance and bed bugs, they looked for other housing. The only affordable places Yolanda could find in the city were in outlying neighborhoods she considered unsafe. So the family decamped to Capitol Heights.
Wilkins was 21 then. He was certified as an electronic systems technician, but the available jobs involved making service calls, and his driver’s license had been suspended because, he said, “police used to always harass me, and I got a lot of tickets.” (He also had been arrested several times in connection with drug possession, pleading guilty twice.) He was unemployed, living in an unfamiliar place where virtually everything was a drive away.
That’s when things began to unravel. When he stopped sleeping. When his girlfriend got pregnant. When he had a mental breakdown a few blocks from his old home and, convinced that his friend was trying to kill him, pushed a woman and took her car. When he got arrested and sent to prison for three years. When his mother lost her customer service job at Comcast. When his daughter was born while he was locked up, and she and her mother ended up living at the D.C. General homeless shelter. When he got out and had few prospects, far from his daughter, far from his friends, far from the life he knew.
There was a time when moving to the suburbs would have been considered a sign of success for Wilkins: The legend of the American Dream was thoroughly intertwined with the crabgrass frontier in the decades after World War II. Making it meant escaping urban noise, pollution and crime for spacious yards and good schools. The federal government invested heavily in highways, mortgage subsidies and loans to make the dream come true. But the dream was realized almost exclusively by white America. Discriminatory practices by lenders, real estate agents and policymakers kept most black Americans from enjoying the fruits of those investments that their tax money helped make.
In the decades after the Kerner Commission’s report, the District was riddled with problems, from the destruction of the 1968 riots to the crack epidemic to out-of-control crime to fiscal insolvency. Housing affordability wasn’t generally one of them. These days, it’s different: Rent in the capital region has risen faster than anywhere else in the country since 1980. That year, according to the Brookings Institution, D.C. and the relatively urban satellites of Arlington and Alexandria accounted for about half of the region’s poor population. By 2000, the remaining suburbs housed 61 percent of this population. In 2013, it was 70 percent.
That trend played out across the country: Between 2000 and 2013, 92 of America’s 97 largest metro areas experienced an increase in suburban poverty. In metro areas as diverse as Boise, Idaho; Minneapolis; and Cape Coral, Fla., the number of poor people in the suburbs more than doubled.
In Prince George’s County, home to Capitol Heights, the black population grew from a small minority in 1970 to a majority by 1990. Partly because of middle-class black flight from D.C., it became the wealthiest majority-black county in the nation and a bastion of black homeownership. Then came the crash. Prince George’s was hit particularly hard by the foreclosure crisis. Residents saw their assets shrivel, and they were soon joined by the exodus of low-income Washingtonians seeking cheaper rent to escape the glossy new city’s rising prices.
Elsewhere in the D.C. area, suburban poverty has been driven mostly by other racial and ethnic groups. Across the region, 81 percent of Hispanics in poverty lived in the suburbs as of 2013, compared with 70 percent of whites and 53 percent of African Americans.
Wealthier, whiter areas also have experienced rising suburban poverty. Montgomery County, among the wealthiest counties in the country, had the region’s largest increase in poverty between 2007 and 2010, when the census showed for the first time that it was no longer majority-white. In Charles County, Md., which has a median family income of $98,560, the poverty rate more than doubled between 2007 and 2015. And according to Elizabeth Kneebone, a researcher at Brookings and the University of California and co-author of “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” the jurisdictions that experienced the region’s biggest increases in poverty last decade were farther-flung parts of Virginia, such as Prince William County and Loudoun County — the wealthiest county in America.
The shifting geography of poverty has left the nonprofit organizations that work to alleviate it scrambling to keep up. Another Brookings report showed that nonprofit spending per poor resident was significantly higher in D.C. and the counties that are home to Chicago and Los Angeles than in surrounding suburbs. In all three metropolitan areas, there were fewer organizations helping low-income suburbanites, and they had to stretch their services over much larger geographical areas than nonprofit groups in cities. In 2011, Kneebone and her colleagues found that nonprofit organizations in the District, Arlington and Alexandria had a combined budget of $9,996 per poor resident. In the other D.C. suburbs, that figure was just $945.
Poor people who leave the city face new disadvantages. Where they grew up, they tended to be familiar with housing, job-training and food-assistance programs. If they weren’t, they could turn to neighbors for guidance. “When people are in new neighborhoods, new counties, that sort of community knowledge that’s been built up is lost,” said Benjamin Orr, executive director of the nonprofit Maryland Center on Economic Policy. “And you have to start from scratch again.”
When Wilkins’s life spun into crisis, his old Bloomingdale neighbors were his lifeline. When he went to prison, inmates from the neighborhood took care of him and helped him avoid the trouble and violence other new arrivals faced. He can’t imagine his new neighbors doing the same — mostly because he doesn’t know them. “It’s everyone for themselves out there,” he said, sitting in his car in the Domino’s parking lot, waiting for orders during the slow hours before the evening crush. “It’s more like a lower-middle-class reality out there. I think everybody out there is just, go home, whatever, take care of my kids, and nobody wants to be bothered.”
Wilkins and his brother and mother spend much of their spare time together, in their apartment, bothering nobody, sometimes taking care of Wilkins’s 5-year-old daughter, Taylor. She’s at the center of Wilkins’s thoughts and of his apartment, which is cluttered with her toys. Yolanda has made her peace with her new surroundings. “It’s comfortable,” she said as Taylor watched cartoons nearby. “I’ve made it home.”
But being away from D.C. was making it harder to advance her career. She wanted to start a moving and maid service — she’d chosen a name: Moving Maid Just Right — but she was having trouble securing a loan and didn’t know where to turn for help. D.C., she believed, had more programs to aid startup businesses. “I don’t know nothing about Prince George’s, so I’ve got to do my homework on that,” she said. “You know where to go for everything in D.C.”
Wilkins was fed up with his job, but Capitol Heights didn’t have the same kinds of job training resources as D.C. — or at least he didn’t know about them. “There’s definitely a lot more programs in D.C. that you miss out on out here,” he said. The small nuisances of suburban life were also building. To combat his stress and insomnia, Wilkins was eating mostly vegan, but there were no good places to buy healthy food around him, so he usually ended up driving to D.C. for it.
Over the months, though, Wilkins’s prospects improved. He landed a part-time job with the nonprofit community organizing group ONE DC, and he settled eagerly into its offices in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, where posters of civil rights leader Ella Baker and Che Guevara hung above his desk. He helped open a Black Workers Center in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood to offer job training and assistance to underemployed African Americans. The promise of full-time work with ONE DC allowed him to quit his Domino’s gig. And the Black Workers Center gave him and his friends a new spot to convene. They felt increasingly out of place on the streets of Bloomingdale, where they continued to gather, but less frequently, and always under the suspicious gaze of neighbors. “They don’t like us hanging out,” he said. “ ’Cause we hang outside. We might chill in the carryout. They don’t like that at all.”
Wilkins’s old friends were scattered to the winds. None of them lived in Bloomingdale anymore. Some, he said, were in the Northeast and Southeast quadrants of D.C., but most were spread around Prince George’s and other suburbs. There was no obvious place to gather. So Bloomingdale, impractical as it had become, remained their home base, years after they moved away.
“I’m back there all the time,” Wilkins said.
Yolanda nodded. “That’s home.”
Read more from Outlook: