The Great Divide
Montgomery County is famously a place for the well-heeled, and for the wealthy. But it's also a place now where some line up for free food and sleep four to a room.
These are the two sides of Montgomery County. Though it’s still ranked as one of the most affluent areas in the nation, the county is experiencing a growing demographic divide: On the one hand, there are the über-wealthy, like Leonsis and Snyder, along with a vast populace of the merely well-to-do; on the other, there are those like Aleman who are struggling simply to survive.
It’s a divide reflected in the geography, as well, with Interstate 270 serving as the line of demarcation outside the Beltway between the eastern and western sides of the county. The poor—including the growing Hispanic immigrant population—mainly reside east of the line; the more affluent, predominantly white residents to the west.
For the first time in the county’s history, minorities comprise more than half of its population: 50.7 percent, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. These include large numbers of Hispanic and African immigrants, along with African-Americans and Asian-Americans.
The needy are not all immigrants like Aleman. Many are American born, raised and educated, people with degrees and pedigrees. People like Deirdre Hernandez, whose married surname belies a blue-blooded background. Divorced, she has three children, lives in a modest rental town house in Rockville, and is barely getting by.
“It’s embarrassing,” she says as she lines up for free food at Manna, a nonprofit agency whose main food pantry is a warehouse in Gaithersburg. “I just try to be as grateful as possible.”
Jacki Coyle, executive director of Shepherd’s Table in Silver Spring, doesn’t think anyone is starving in Montgomery County. But a number of indicators suggest that a growing number of people are in distress.
The Rockville-based Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless reports a 6 percent increase in the number of homeless, from 1,064 in January 2010 to 1,132 in January 2011.
Those numbers only reflect individuals who seek help at shelters, not those who go to live with family and friends.
The geographic division is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the county’s schools. Former Superintendent Jerry Weast described those largely to the east and southeast as the Red Zone schools. Those to the west are in the Green Zone. Red Zone schools have high minority and immigrant populations, low test scores and high percentages of students on federally subsidized free and reduced meals (FARM). Green Zone schools are their mirror opposite.
At Potomac Elementary, less than 3 percent of the students were on FARM last year, according to Montgomery County Public Schools. At New Hampshire Estates Elementary, which both Aleman kids attended in Takoma Park, nearly 86 percent qualified for the meals. Broad Acres in Silver Spring—with a 70 percent Hispanic student population—had an even higher FARM’s rate, nearly 91 percent.
The divide continues through middle and high school. Potomac’s Winston Churchill High had less than 4 percent on subsidized meals, and Bethesda’s Walt Whitman less than 2 percent, compared with more than 34 percent at Silver Spring’s Montgomery Blair High School, which Aleman’s daughter attends.