Greater Greater Washington

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Watch poverty suburbanize in Montgomery County

As Montgomery County has become more diverse, it also faces new challenges with poverty. A new mapping tool shows just how much the county's changed over the past 30 years.


Where poverty is in Montgomery County. Each dot represents 20 low-income people. Blue dots are whites, yellow dots are blacks, green dots are Hispanics, and red dots are Asians. Original image from the Urban Institute.

The Urban Institute, a DC-based think tank that looks at social and economic issues, made this awesome mapping tool that shows where very low-income people lived between 1980 to 2010. The Atlantic Cities notes that the maps show dramatic demographic shifts across the country, notably the suburbanization of poverty.

That's especially evident here in Montgomery County. 30 years ago, the county's only significant concentration of poverty was around close-in Langley Park and Long Branch, which had established themselves as immigrant gateways by the late 1970s.

But today, you can also find clusters of poverty throughout East County and the Upcounty, in Wheaton and Aspen Hill, in White Oak and Briggs Chaney, and even along I-270 in Gaithersburg and Germantown. Many of them have only emerged within the past decade.

Meanwhile, communities that have historically been affluent, like Bethesda or Olney, appear to have stayed the same. The area along Rockville Pike between Rockville Town Center and White Flint, where a considerable amount of new, high-end development is happening, seems to have actually become less poor.

We know that people increasingly desire urban neighborhoods, whether that's places like Columbia Heights in DC or downtown Silver Spring. But the flip side of that revitalization is that the poor often move or are pushed out into suburban areas. While these communities offer more space or better public services, they aren't always well-equipped to help low-income people.

Groups like IMPACT Silver Spring, which helps low-income people and immigrants connect with community groups and social services, began working in and around downtown Silver Spring in the 1990s. Today, IMPACT does outreach at garden apartment complexes in Gaithersburg and Briggs Chaney. Unlike close-in Silver Spring or Long Branch, these areas don't have easy access to shopping, jobs, public services or transit.

Here, fears of crime mean parents won't let their kids play outside. Even walking to the bus stop can be dangerous due to roads designed for speeding cars.


A family tries to cross busy Columbia Pike in White Oak. Photo by the author.

Instead of working to combat the problem, more affluent neighbors fight any attempts at change or build fences in a lame attempt at keeping "undesirables" out. Meanwhile, kids growing up in these neighborhoods are often blocked from the high-quality public schools Montgomery County is known for.

The challenges that suburban poor face aren't necessarily different than those of their inner-city counterparts. But they're compounded by the built form of suburbia, which was designed under the assumption that everyone would have money and a car and does little to accommodate those who lack both.

Initiatives like the county's BRT plan or the White Oak Science Gateway will help bring transit, jobs and other amenities to these neighborhoods and improve residents' quality of life. But it'll be important to ensure that they aren't pushed out again into even more remote areas.

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 

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I saw this mapping tool a few days ago, and I think I'm seeing different trends than everyone else.

Poverty isn't moving to the suburbs. It's growing everywhere. Rapidly. The urban poor neither appear to be relocating or getting any better off. If anything, urban poverty is still growing, amid the secondary (and still noteworthy) explosion of poverty in the 'burbs.

What's going on here? The data's clearly telling a story, but I really don't feel like I have a good grasp on the big picture. (Who are the suburban poor? Why did they appear so suddenly? Are they unemployed? Underemployed? Do they have kids? Are they veterans?)

by andrew on Jul 9, 2013 1:24 pm • linkreport

Poverty isn't moving to the suburbs.

Actually, it looks quite a bit like poverty is falling overall in DC. There appears to be a slight densification in Ward 8, but a decrease in density everywhere else in DC. Particularly in the downtown area.

http://urbn.is/150D3xF

by oboe on Jul 9, 2013 1:30 pm • linkreport

andrew

click through to the actuall tool. zoom in and compare 1980 to 2010 for central DC. You will see significant drops in poverty - look at Capital Hill and just north of it, at near SE, at SW, and Adams Morgan, etc.

Also the northern part of Old Town.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 9, 2013 1:33 pm • linkreport

Wouldn't that map tool be more useful for the DC area if it showed poverty growth per capita given the growth in population of the DC area?

by Fitz on Jul 9, 2013 2:11 pm • linkreport

Who are the suburban poor? Why did they appear so suddenly? Are they unemployed? Underemployed? Do they have kids? Are they veterans?

For the answers to these and other questions, I'd recommend the research of Elizabeth Kneebone at Brookings. Largely though, the answer is, the suburban poor are the same people who comprised the urban poor. It's just that 20 years ago, there just weren't any options to live in the suburbs if you were poor. Aging housing stock, the advent of housing vouchers, and the fact that suburban jurisdictions have (at long last) decided to actually implement housing policies for the poor have all contributed to a more equitable distribution of poverty across the region.

http://dc.streetsblog.org/2013/05/21/suburbanization-of-poverty-isolates-a-growing-number-of-americans/

by oboe on Jul 9, 2013 2:17 pm • linkreport

This reminds me of a story I heard on NPR recently about Montgomery County.

http://www.npr.org/2013/05/20/184771918/advocates-struggle-to-reach-growing-ranks-of-suburban-poor

by Liz on Jul 9, 2013 2:40 pm • linkreport

In fact, there is NO decline in poverty in Washington, DC and only modest increases in places such as Montgomery County. For example, beteween 2005 and 2011 the poverty rate in DC proper stayed absolutely even at 19%. The poverty rate in Montgomery County remained a small fraction of the rate in DC proper. It did rise -- from a very very low 5.3% to 7.6%. But that is lower than the poverty rate of the U.S. as a whole.

by Tom M on Jul 9, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

Tom M

So it increased in MoCo by about 40%, while staying even in DC. Sure sounds like the suburbanization of poverty to me. And the 19% for DC masks decline in the L'Enfant City, offset by increase in the periphery (not just EOTR, but glancing at the map, all the more peripheral areas of the District)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 9, 2013 3:15 pm • linkreport

In 1980 there virtually no poor white people east of 16th street. It 2010 there is a lot more. It looks like the white poor are starting to infiltrate the eastern portion of DC.

In 1980 many of the far out suburbs had very few people, rich or poor. It's not surprising that some dots show up in 2010 with explosive growth caused by sprawl.

by Tom on Jul 9, 2013 3:20 pm • linkreport

In 1980 there virtually no poor white people east of 16th street. It 2010 there is a lot more. It looks like the white poor are starting to infiltrate the eastern portion of DC.

Interesting anomaly in the data. Perhaps retired folks who live off of savings? Or are you seriously proposing that there's a massive influx of poor whites into NE DC? Also, I'm not sure where "east of 16th" is. Do you mean 1th street NE?

by oboe on Jul 9, 2013 3:30 pm • linkreport

@AWITC:

So it increased in MoCo by about 40%, while staying even in DC.

And probably considerably higher in other parts of Maryland. Suburban poverty is dispersed. While there is a different set of challenges in helping the suburban poor, that's because you don't have thousands and thousands of people living in grinding poverty in a few dozen blocks of a city. That's overall a good thing.

by oboe on Jul 9, 2013 3:33 pm • linkreport

"Interesting anomaly in the data. Perhaps retired folks who live off of savings? Or are you seriously proposing that there's a massive influx of poor whites into NE DC?"

I'm betting its young people who had recently lost their jobs. Or young folks who hadn't yet landed jobs and were either couch surfing with friends, or using $ from mom and dad to pay for a share while they job hunted.

There are little dots of poverty in lots of places not known for cheap housing or traditionally poor folks - both in greater DC and other areas. Thats America in 2010.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 9, 2013 3:39 pm • linkreport

I'm betting its young people who had recently lost their jobs. Or young folks who hadn't yet landed jobs and were either couch surfing with friends, or using $ from mom and dad to pay for a share while they job hunted.

Good point. If we measured wealth by spending rather than income I'd imagine that most of that "white poverty" would disappear. Either that or every regional media outlet is missing the demographic scoop of the century.

by oboe on Jul 9, 2013 3:42 pm • linkreport

There are little dots of poverty in lots of places not known for cheap housing or traditionally poor folks - both in greater DC and other areas. Thats America in 2010.

I think you're right about the student/dependent population skewing the graph. Look at the high concentration of "poor" Asians in the West End and Georgetown. Got to be students. Either that or poor immigrants squatting in the basement of the Watergate.

by oboe on Jul 9, 2013 3:47 pm • linkreport

One thing is the clear increase in hispanic poverty which I'm guessing is linked to immigratation. A lot of the locals are from El Salvador which was rocked by violence from the 80s on. I suspect many of those simply weren't in the US prior to 1980/1990.

by Alan B. on Jul 9, 2013 3:48 pm • linkreport

Up Georgia Avenue, left on Viers Mill, then right on 270 out to Gaithersburg. Interesting pattern. Chasing the folks who try fleeing it, it seems.

by Frank IBC on Jul 9, 2013 3:49 pm • linkreport

Seems to be a cluster of poor Asians in downtown Bethesda. Oboe's explanation makes sense.

by Frank IBC on Jul 9, 2013 3:51 pm • linkreport

"I think you're right about the student/dependent population skewing the graph. Look at the high concentration of "poor" Asians in the West End and Georgetown. Got to be students. "

Look at the maps for multiple metro areas. Yes, some inner city gentrifying areas saw poverty decline. But almost everywhere else saw it increase - including not only declining suburbs, but generally stable suburbs, and I think even some stable affluent central city areas.

If someone loses their job and is unemployed - they are often poor - while living on savings (easier to do with a paid off house) etc. They don't all move away right away.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 9, 2013 3:58 pm • linkreport

there are poor asians all over the USA. All across sotuhwest brooklyn, in large parts of NoVa - contrary to certain stereotypes.

The ones in Foggy Bottom may mostly be students, but I wouldn't assume all are.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 9, 2013 4:00 pm • linkreport

@AWITC -- Poverty increased by only 2.3% in MC and poverty was more than 250% higher in DC. That's not a real relative change.

by Tom M on Jul 9, 2013 4:05 pm • linkreport

"Poverty increased by only 2.3% in MC and poverty was more than 250% higher in DC. That's not a real relative change. "

Huh? It depends what you want to focus on. Clearly DC has a much higher rate of poverty than MoCo, still. And clearly the growth in poverty in MoCo was from a base that was lower than the national rate. But poverty did NOT increase in MoCo by 2.3 per cent. It increased by 2.3 percentage points - the growth was about 40%. Its like if unemployment were to go from 5% to 10% - the headline is not that it went up 5 points, but that it double. The increase of 2.3% is not relative to the number of poor people. Thats almost one in 40 MoCo residents who were NOT poor before, and now are (assuming they were already MoCo residents and not inmigrants). Thats big - but to be fair, its happening across the country, and has more to do with the great recession than with changes in urban geography.

During a severe economic downturn naturally poverty will be more dispersed. During boom times poverty will be a problem of the long term, structural poor. A different beast. So to that extend Oboe is wrong - or at least misleading.

But the way he is not, is noting that during this national downturn, poverty remained stable in DC. And what he did not say, but what the map shows - is that it decreased in most of central DC. Zoom in, and you can see the disappearance of Capper/Carrolsburg for example, changes in Shaw/LoganCircle, changes in SouthWest DC, etc.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 9, 2013 4:16 pm • linkreport

IOW the story here is 10% Jane Jacobs, Ryan Avent, Karl Beidenfield, etc - its 90% Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong.

http://www.amazon.com/End-This-Depression-Now-ebook/dp/B007AJFSJW

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 9, 2013 4:18 pm • linkreport

The highest concentrations of poverty seem to cluster around the 'garden' apartments built in the 1960's and 1970's in places like Lockwood Dr in White Oak, Castle Blvd in the Fairland area, The Connecticut/Bel Pre area of Aspen HIll, Quence Orchard Blvd near Clopper and Quince Orchard Rd, and the apartments opposite side of 270 from NIST, and just north of "old town" Gaithersburg and east of Lake Forest Mall. In Germantown the concentrations lineup with townhome development of the 1970's and 1980's. Similar trends show up in Prince Georges County and all over NOVA. Find Garden Apartments from the 1960's and 70's, and tons of townhouses circa early 1980's and they almost all were hit hard with increases in poverty. I wonder if some of the proliferation of suburban poverty is because of the implementation of the MPDU program. 12.5% of all new housing catering to those units, and the minimum is only $35,000 a year regardless of household size, with household size only impacting the maximum income. So, in a way, we're getting what we wanted with the MPDU program, poverty and lower incomes spread out across the County, with clusters forming in areas where the existing housing stock is cheaper by design.

by Gull on Jul 9, 2013 4:19 pm • linkreport

Note though, UE has been particularly high in the construction industry (esp in 2010) and thus in this region particularly impacts hispanics who disproportionately live in those older low rise complexes (which are the most affordable housing in suburbia quite apart from any programs - note the concentrations in NoVa - though in a few cases there are concentration in hirises - note the Southern Towers pocket in Alexandria)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 9, 2013 4:28 pm • linkreport

Good point Gull. I noticed this in the Route 1 corridor of Fairfax county as well.

by spookiness on Jul 9, 2013 4:28 pm • linkreport

@AWITC:

The ones in Foggy Bottom may mostly be students, but I wouldn't assume all are.

No, of course not. But in a city with ridiculous rents outside of the projects or group houses, it's hard to think of another plausible explanation for a concentration of poor Asians.

During a severe economic downturn naturally poverty will be more dispersed. During boom times poverty will be a problem of the long term, structural poor. A different beast. So to that extend Oboe is wrong - or at least misleading.

I'd rather be wrong than misleading--but seriously, read the Brookings reports. While there's clearly a boom-bust component to suburban poverty numbers (and urban poverty numbers for that matter) the national trends are pretty clear. And given that there's a whole Hell of a lot more suburbs than there is city, clearly the percentage growth in poverty in a given suburban area is going to be somewhat lower.

Imagine a model where only two jurisdictions exist: DC and the combined states of MD and VA. If every poor person in DC left, the reduction in poverty in DC would (obviously) be 100%. But since the population of the DC area (DC aside) is about 6.2M the increase in poverty in "not-DC" would be about 2%.

by oboe on Jul 9, 2013 4:47 pm • linkreport

DC and the combined states of MD and VA.

Should be "DC vs the rest of the Washington MSA".

by oboe on Jul 9, 2013 4:49 pm • linkreport

"every poor person in DC left, the reduction in poverty in DC would (obviously) be 100%. But since the population of the DC area (DC aside) is about 6.2M the increase in poverty in "not-DC" would be about 2%."

Im not saying that the suburbanization of poverty due to changes in urban form is not occuring - just that I think (prior to reading brookings) that its swamped (especially for 2010 data) by the impact of the Great Recession.

Look at the distribution of dots in NoVa - big concentrations in the declining low rise apts - esp lots of green dots - the confluence of aging suburban housing, new immigration, and also the crisis of the constructin industry - but also quite a scattering of dots of all colors elsewhere. Thats just recession created UE.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 9, 2013 4:55 pm • linkreport

for example look at Mantua in Fairfax (the are due west of the beltway between Rte 235 and rte 50)

Almost no dots in 1980, plenty in 2010. Thats NOT an area that has seen lowered property values. Those houses are still quite expensive. But some of the folks in them in 2010 did not have jobs.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 9, 2013 4:57 pm • linkreport

In addition to the garden apartments that Gull cites, there are the rabbit-hutch houses in the Wheaton-Glenmont area. I think there are similar developments in northwestern PG County and inner Fairfax County.

by Frank IBC on Jul 9, 2013 8:44 pm • linkreport

But the current Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plan, which you support, further divides communities. It is biased toward affluent neighborhoods in Montgomery County because the station stops are located in greater number per mile on those routes that go through Rockville and Bethesda. The BRT barrels through minority neighborhoods on Route 29, making it less safe for pedestrians and not offering sufficient stops for them to access this transportation. BRT is developer driven in Montgomery County. The building of new expensive condos that displace minority poor families and minority-owned businesses is the unfortunate result of the BRT plan concocted by the County Planning Department. Don't be naive about the money behind the advocacy for BRT in Montgomery County.

by DevelopmentImpactsSchools on Jul 10, 2013 6:35 am • linkreport

This is the new trend across America and a natural byproduct of gentrification. Maryland suburbs of DC and even parts of VA, southern suburbs of Chicago, northern suburbs of St. Louis, etc. .

by Umar on Jul 10, 2013 12:12 pm • linkreport

Looks like contrary to popular belief, Montgomery County is doing a great service to Fairfax County.

I hope Asian and White flight will not suddenly start in Montgomery.

by NoVa1 on Jul 10, 2013 2:08 pm • linkreport

I thought that higher density is supposed to help cure crime and poverty, not spread them around.

by Chris S. on Jul 10, 2013 3:37 pm • linkreport

chris

Im not sure how higher density is supposed to cure poverty. It can provide higher tax revenues to be used for social programs and education, but a couple of years of higher funded DC social programs is a drop in the ocean of poverty related problems - which have many other sources. As for crime, where do you see crime on that map? Many DC residents have moved to PG and MoCo, and DC crime has dropped, but there has not been an accompanying increase in crime in Md. Though the net decline in crime across the region likely has sources other than higher density in DC.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 10, 2013 3:42 pm • linkreport

@Walmart,

And you're telling me $12.50/hr at 6 stores in one city will cut their profit margin from 3.2% to what, 3.199%? We're taking 6 stores out of how many in the world?

by adelphi_sky on Jul 11, 2013 10:52 am • linkreport

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