Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Who are the Real MoCo Progressives? Part Two

Through the 1970s, there were relatively few non-white or Latino people in Montgomery County. That began to change in the 1980s. Nearly thirty years later, our political system is only now beginning to catch up.

As we related in Part One, the 1980s saw extraordinary growth in Montgomery County. In that decade, the population grew from 578,807 to 756,848. The number of housing units grew from 215,960 to 295,617. And 22.5 million square feet of office space were built, more than the cumulative total from the entire earlier history of the county. In the 1980s, the county experienced its second great boom since the post-war period, but for the first time, it began to draw large numbers of blacks, Latinos, Asians and immigrants.

The reasons for this are varied. The District had been losing its middle class for some time and many of its residents were moving to the inner suburbs. Steady gains in education and income among area non-white residents led to a greater ability to afford housing in Montgomery County. Immigration picked up nationwide and the Washington area, rich in jobs and opportunity, became an important settlement area. All of these factors caused Montgomery’s demographic mix to get a little younger, to get a little browner.

But this change did not touch all areas of the county equally. Certainly due to economics, possibly due to housing policy and perhaps even due to prejudice, the newer communities tended to concentrate in Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Wheaton, Aspen Hill and the neighborhoods east of US-29. The wealthier areas, such as Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac remained nearly all-white.

This concentration has consequences. In an earlier post, we studied income inequality in Montgomery County. We found that between 1989 and 1999, the five richest neighborhoods in Montgomery enjoyed a 15.4% gain in real per capita income. During that same period, the five poorest neighborhoods suffered a 12.1% loss. In the five richest neighborhoods, only 2.6% of the population was black and 3.3% was Hispanic in 2000. In the five poorest neighborhoods, 26.7% of the population was black and 34.9% was Hispanic. One can only imagine what is happening to income inequality between these neighborhoods and the demographic groups that inhabit them in today’s economy.

And as we have previously found, race tends to be correlated with income. In 1999, white non-Hispanic Montgomery County residents had an average per capita income of $55,533 in 2007 dollars. Black residents had an average per capita income of $29,717 (54% of whites) and Hispanic residents received $21,190 (38%).

The newer groups in the county are well aware of these disparities and they have a two-fold agenda for dealing with them. First, they have a strong desire to capitalize on the county’s excellent school system. This is driven by the fact that they tend to be younger than white residents and have more children. In 2005-2007, the county’s population was 55% white, 16% black, 14% Hispanic and 13% Asian. But the currently enrolled student body in the public schools is 40% white, 23% black, 22% Hispanic and 15% Asian – a harbinger of the county’s future. Because of their dependence on the schools, these groups have a strong incentive to lobby for them. They did exactly that in April 2007 when a rainbow nation of parents, children and school employees held a massive rally to support the school budget. They then marched into the County Council building to confront a nearly all-white, middle-aged council. Here is a key fact that many miss: school funding is not merely a budget issue. It is also a cultural and racial issue loaded with the hopes and ambitions of a growing part of the county’s population.

The second desire of the newer residents is for jobs. The older, whiter population is mostly settled into high-paying employment suited for people holding masters and doctorate degrees. Newer residents want additional employment in those categories but also more jobs in government, construction, real estate and, most importantly, opportunities to create their own businesses. Only through a combination of education and job creation can they move up to parity with the older population.

These sentiments are not merely shared by many blacks, Latinos, Asians and immigrants – they are also embraced by young people of all races. They do not remember the Montgomery County of the 1950s. They enjoy the county the way it is and want continued improvement. They like living in an urban environment. They are burdened by college debt and hungry for more high-paying jobs to help them buy the county’s expensive houses. And all of the above groups – these new progressives – are becoming more politically aware and are making their preferences increasingly known to the county’s leaders.

These people are pursuing the American dream. They are progressives and this is their creed.

And so Montgomery County is full of people calling themselves progressives, but defining the term in strikingly different ways. We will learn what happens when the two meet in Part Three.