Shattering Myths About Prince George's
Relatively affordable housing costs and a strong regional economy are luring a steady stream of new residents to Prince George's County--even if the county's busiest hospital is on the verge of shutting down. But many of the county's new residents are low earners, dragging down the county's average family income. A new study portrays Prince George's as a suburb in flux, with consistently large movements of moderate-income people, both black and white, out of the county, while people with lower incomes are moving in.
Using Census and IRS data, Brookings scholars Brooke DeRenzis and Alice Rivlin tried to see whether there really is cause for concern that Prince George's is becoming the refuge for Washington area residents priced out by soaring real estate costs throughout the rest of the region.
What they found is a county with large, almost equal flows of people moving both in and out. In fact, the number of people moving out so closely tracks the number of people moving in that nearly all of Prince George's population growth--from 729,000 in 1990 to 840,000 in 2005--stems from natural factors (more births than deaths) rather than from migration.
And while we've known for many years that Prince George's is growing fast -- and that the majority of those moving in are black and the majority of those moving out are white -- the facts on the ground are actually more complex than that.
For some years, Prince George's officials have complained that the District was in essence dumping poor people over the border into the county. When the city tore down low-income housing projects, and developers built more high-end housing, poor people moved into the county, the theory went. The Brookings study finds, however, that "thousands of lower-income and mostly minority workers are moving in both directions" across the D.C.-Prince George's border. And counter to the stereotype, those who have moved from Prince George's into the District "consistently had lower incomes than the larger number of migrants moving into Prince George's County from D.C."
So what you have is poor people searching for better (or more affordable) housing and decent schools wherever they can find them, in the city or the suburbs. Meanwhile, higher up the economic ladder, the movement is primarily out of Prince George's and into Anne Arundel, Charles and Howard counties--among both whites and blacks.
One concern voiced by Prince George's officials--that those moving into the county are too often families at the low end of the income spectrum--is borne out by the study, which found that as the Prince George's population has become more heavily foreign-born and black, income levels of newcomers have been getting lower.
Between 1990 and 2005, the county has gone from 50 percent black to 65 percent black, and the white portion of the population has declined from 42 percent to 19 percent--a vastly more dramatic change than anything experienced in the District, where the white population went up only marginally, from 27 percent to 31 percent, while blacks accounted for 65 percent of the city in 1990 and 56 percent in 2005. During that same time, the Latino population in Prince George's has nearly tripled, from four percent to 11 percent--again, a vastly higher rate of growth than in Washington.
The authors conclude that Latino, foreign-born and black families are increasingly moving from Montgomery County to Prince George's "in search of affordable housing, better schools or safer neighborhoods."
Interestingly, much of the movement between the District and Prince George's involves very short distances. Seven in 10 of the D.C. residents who moved to Prince George's over the past decade found new homes right near the county-city boundary, and almost half of them chose housing in the neighborhoods that border Southeast D.C.
Despite the influx of poorer residents, Prince George's has managed to keep its poverty rate below the national average. Perhaps more important, Prince George's has no neighborhoods that meet the official definition of concentrated poverty (census tracts where 30 percent or more of the residents fall below the poverty line.)
The study provides new evidence for one of the truisms of this region: Political borderlines may make a huge difference in what kind of services you receive, but the demographic character of communities remains fairly blind to the lines on official maps. Just as the people who live in the far reaches of upper Northwest are demographically remarkably similar to residents of neighboring Arlington and Chevy Chase, and neighborhoods along the Montgomery-Prince George's border are generally indistinguishable from their counterparts on the other side of the county line, so too are the distinctions between Southeast Washington and inner Prince George's minimal at best.
The Brookings study calls on Prince George's to identify ways to make higher income residents happier and halt the flow of more affluent families from the county out to Charles, Howard and Anne Arundel.
By Marc Fisher |
April 11, 2007; 7:35 AM ET
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