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Poverty in Prince George's County on the rise

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Published on: Wednesday, March 09, 2011

By Jessica Talson

Poverty is on the rise in Prince George’s County, and there may not be enough resources to help everyone in need, according to a Brookings Institution study.

Although suburban poverty has become an important issue, Brookings representatives Elizabeth Kneebone and Martha Ross said during their presentation to the Prince George’s County Council that many public officials are unaware of the new and relatively uncharted phenomenon. 

“I think this is still a surprise to a lot of people. We have a long running assumption that poverty is very urban,” said Kneebone, a senior research associate. “Dealing with suburban poverty will require a new way of thinking.”

Representatives from the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., said cities traditionally have a much higher concentration of poor people. Most services aimed at helping people in poverty — including affordable housing, job training and mass transportation — are focused in cities.

Brookings researchers examined studies released by the Census Bureau, including the American Community Survey, and noticed trends of increased suburban poverty over the last two decades.

In the early 2000s, Census data from the nation’s 100 largest cities — including Washington, D.C. — showed the number of poor people living in the suburbs surpassed those living in urban cities. Between 2000 and 2009, poverty in the suburbs had increased by 37 percent.

The national trends from the Census information held true for Prince George’s County. The number of poor people in the Washington, D.C. suburbs now exceeds the number of people living in poverty in the city. Unfortunately, it seems as if the support services have been left behind in the city. 

At the County Council meeting, Brookings representatives presented a chart that showed there were more than five times more social services providers within 1.5 miles of poor Washington, D.C. neighborhoods than in the suburbs, even though the D.C. suburbs have a higher number of poor people.

The researchers did note that even though the number of poor people is higher in the suburbs, poor people in the city are often further below the poverty line than their suburban counterparts. 

In 2009, 7.5 percent of Prince George’s County residents were living in poverty, the second highest poverty rate in the D.C. metro area. That rate has held steady since 2000, although county officials have recently seen a large increase in requests for food stamps.

“I want to know why there are so many more services available for people in D.C. when we need them here in Prince George’s County,” said Chairwoman Ingrid Turner, District 4.

Although council members said they had heard about suburban poverty, they were unaware of the specifics.

“It’s baffling to me why the poverty rate has stayed the same but the requests for food stamps are rising,” said council member Andrea Harris, District 5.

Although the poverty rate is high for the D.C. metro area, a poverty rate of 7.5 percent is actually considerably lower than the national poverty rate. In 2009, the national poverty rate was 14.3 percent.

Experts worry that the combination of increased suburban poverty, lack of resources and added pressure of a national recession could prove potentially disastrous nationwide.

The Brookings report included the findings of University of Chicago professor Scott Allard. Allard interviewed suburban service providers in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Suburban providers in these areas saw on average a demand increase of 30 percent, with one-fifth seeing an increase of 50 percent or more.

Nonprofits are also seeing more clients with no previous connection to the safety net of suburban services.

Although demand is up, revenue and funding are down. Almost half of suburban service providers surveyed reported a decrease in revenue, and more than half expect cuts in government spending and a decrease in philanthropic donations.

To effectively build and maintain services for people living in poverty, Ross and Kneebone recommend tying services to core American values. Core American values include family, children, opportunity, education and work activity. Services that would support work activity might include job training, tax credits, affordable childcare and transportation. 

Ross and Kneebone also stressed the need for collaboration between service providers.

“The ability to collaborate and provide a more robust safety net is critical,” Kneebone said. “Reducing duplication of services and identifying gaps in the safety net will make limited resources more efficient.”  

Council members and experts agreed that whatever the solution is, the community and the county will need to work together to supply the services in need. 

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