Poverty growing in counties with nation's highest incomes

The Washington area's wealthy suburbs have seen a sharp rise in the portion of children receiving free, government-funded lunches over the last several years, an indication of rising poverty levels.

In Fairfax County, the second-wealthiest county in the country, nearly 27 percent -- 47,874 -- of the public school system's 179,253 students receive free or subsidized school lunches this year, up from 21 percent -- 33,479 -- of 162,986 just five years ago, data show. Across the Potomac, Montgomery County, the 10th-wealthiest county in the country, has a similar story, with one-third of its 149,051 students receiving free or reduced-price school lunches, up from 26 percent of 137,745 five years ago.

"[The trend] puts strain on these districts and on these schools that may not have the infrastructure or services in place to meet the needs of a growing low-income population," said Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow in the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.

Students who receive Free and Reduced Price Meals -- or FARMS -- are more likely to be behind academically, according to a recent study by Montgomery County's Office of Legislative Oversight, requiring districts to provide more remediation in math and reading.

Low-income children may be developmentally behind in their language skills and behavior, which can lead to them being incorrectly placed in special education, said Al Passarella, research coordinator for the Maryland-based Advocates for Children and Youth.

Outside the school system, low-income families may need help with food, clothing and medical care.

The recession has accelerated the growth in poverty, as families have moved to the area for newly available affordable housing or jobs, and longtime residents have fallen on hard times, Kneebone said. "The schools are really on the front lines of these trends."

The trend has coincided with a significant growth in Hispanic immigrants in both counties. Half the students receiving FARMS in both counties are Hispanic, according to the school systems. In Montgomery, Gaithersburg High School has the most students in the program, with 848 of its 2,035 students receiving FARMS, up 48 percent from five years ago. In Fairfax County, Annandale High School leads FARMS participation, with 1,080 of 2,949 students, up 20 percent from five years ago.

Wealthier neighborhoods have also seen participation grow. The program at Walt Whitman High School in Potomac grew to 49 from 35 students five years ago, while at Langley High School near Great Falls, participation climbed from 13 five years ago to 34 this year.

The federal government reimburses both counties most of the costs of the program.

Students whose families are at 185 percent of the poverty level qualify for reduced-price lunch, while students at 130 percent of the poverty level qualify for free lunch, said Marla Caplon, director of the Division of Food and Nutrition Services at Montgomery County Public Schools. Maryland pays for the free breakfast program at the 40 Montgomery schools that have it. Virginia paid $900,000 toward the meal program in Fairfax, according to Fairfax County Public Schools spokesman John Torre.

The poverty level for a family of four is $23,550, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The rise in the program is unlikely to be reversed soon, Passarella said, though it may slow down.

"We know that there are now many thousands of kids, literally, in Fairfax who are going to experience prolonged poverty," said John Morgan, executive director of the advocacy organization Voices for Virginia's Children. "The recession and the financial stresses on families have put many more kids at risk for what we call food insecurity, which means they are hungry some of the time or don't know where their next meal is coming from."