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Woodruff: The Income Gap, Right Under Our Noses

Knowing the PBS NewsHour was planning a series of reports on income inequality in America, launched with economics correspondent Paul Solman’s excellent report on Tuesday (if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a must), my ears have been attuned lately to news about the growing gap in the United States between rich and poor.

If anyone’s tempted to think this is an abstract phenomenon — somewhere else, not in our own communities — I urge you to take another look.

It’s a conclusion I draw from my own hometown, Washington, D.C., known for its gaping contrast between the poor neighborhoods east and north of the Capitol building, and the stunning residences in neighborhoods like Georgetown and Kalorama. But what’s become clear in the past few years is that the prosperity that the nation’s capital has long showered on much of the surrounding area, in Maryland and Virginia, has some pretty big cracks.

I woke Tuesday to see on the front page of The Washington Post a picture of a couple of dramatically lit mansion-style homes, and a man standing inside his mega-garage full of expensive vintage cars. They accompanied a story about the “enclave” of Great Falls, Va., home to a large number of successful business people, some of whom have received millions of dollars in government contracts.

The piece began describing one resident, a woman from India who, with her husband, profited handsomely from years of hard work through their business providing tech support to the federal government. To quote from the story by reporter Annie Gowen, the woman’s “success — and that of hundreds of other contractors like her — is a key factor driving the explosion of the region’s wealth over the last two decades. It also has exacerbated the gap between high- and low-wage workers, which is wider in the D.C. area than almost anywhere else in the United States.”

The article describes Washington as a “global business hub with thriving technology, biotech and communications industries.” But it points out that not everyone in the region has benefited from the success engine, fueled in large part by federal contracts. Also pictured is a 43-year-old laid-off graphic designer — who now tends bar while her husband works as a handyman to bring in enough money to support their family — renting a cottage in Great Falls, which is located in Fairfax County, just across the Potomac River from Washington.

Meanwhile, next-door in Loudoun County, Va., long known for its beautiful rolling farm land, has recently shared the distinction of trading back and forth with Fairfax for the ranking of highest income county in the United States. As of 2007, the median household income for both was more than $105,000 a year.

But as I learned in a report that morning on WAMU public radio, otherwise wealthy Loudoun is grappling with at least 650 children enrolled in their public schools who are either homeless or on the verge of homelessness. The Director of Mobile Health Services for Inova Loudoun Hospital told the WAMU reporter she was “shocked” at the number, and even more surprised to learn that between 500 and 700 additional children in the county “are believed to be not enrolled in school and precariously housed.”

What was heartwarming is that this hospital administrator, who takes food, clothing and hygiene items to the children “where we can find them,” is trying especially to reach the 40 percent of that group who don’t have a parent or legal guardian. She added that Loudoun County has no program specifically geared toward children 18 and younger in that situation. This in the county with the highest median household income of any county in the United States.

Something is wrong in a country with disparity this stark. It’s a vivid example of what Paul Solman finds in his reporting: that in the United States, the richest fifth own 84 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom two-fifths — 40 percent of the population — owns an almost invisible 0.3 percent of the nation’s property.

Follow Judy Woodruff on Twitter.

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