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.
As the demographic divide moves up-county with a migration largely of Hispanic immigrants, so do the FARM kids: Gaithersburg High School had more than 36 percent and Clarksburg nearly 26 percent of their students getting free and reduced meals.
It is entirely possible to live in the Green Zone and be totally oblivious to the other side of the county. This isn’t necessarily due to class snobbery. It’s just that the other reality doesn’t directly affect places like Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac.
“I’m not sure people are getting the whole picture of how dire and widespread this is,” says Sally Rudney, executive director of The Community Foundation for Montgomery County, which seeks to facilitate giving from the well-to-do for those in need. “It’s not just in [geographic] pockets anymore.”
Nearly 12 years ago, New York Times columnist and television pundit David Brooks, who lives in Bethesda, wrote about one side of the county’s demographic in a best-selling book, Bobos in Paradise (Simon & Schuster, 2000).
Its title refers to the term he coined for its populace: “bourgeois bohemians.” The book grew out of a piece Brooks wrote for The Washington Post in 1998 about “the Republic of the Red Line,” referring to the western section of the U-shaped Metro line that Green Zone commuters ride between downtown and home.
“From Chevy Chase to Potomac, these are some of the most affluent places in the country,” Brooks says recently. “I would say the disparity within Montgomery County—I don’t think it’s as great [as elsewhere]. We’re still an incredibly affluent county. When you get to the mid-county, up-county, you’ve got some obviously immigrant areas and some more middle-class areas, but it’s still a pretty fortunate place. I’ve always assumed there is great wealth but relatively few poor people.”
Told that nearly a third of the county’s 144,000 public school kids qualify for the FARM program—twice the number of those eligible in the ’90s—Brooks evinces surprise. “Do we have schools where there are huge percentages with free lunch?” he asks. “I could have outdated stereotypes of Montgomery County…”
The high FARM rate tells only part of the story. Foreclosures, budget cuts and layoffs have brought formerly middle-class families to bankruptcy, as well as to food pantries and free medical clinics in the county.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 121,000 people here now lack health insurance. And nearly 75,000 residents of Montgomery—which Forbes last year called the country’s 10th wealthiest county—were living in poverty, up from 45,000 in 2000. Even that figure is incomplete. The poverty level is defined by the federal government as an income of $22,350 for a family of four. But in Montgomery County, a family of four actually would need an annual income of $73,026 in order to pay for basic housing, transportation, food and other essentials, according to a 2008 county report.
Even as the poor appear to be getting poorer, the rich seem to be getting richer. In 2009, nearly 7,000 households in the county reported adjusted gross incomes of $500,000 or more—the most in Maryland. And last year, some 53,000 households had taxable incomes of $200,000 or more, a more than 44 percent increase over the previous year.