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Population Change and Local Government Reaction: Examples from the Washington, DC Region

This article is part of a Special
Section titled “CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS IN AMERICA” that ran
in the August/September 2011 print issue of PA TIMES. Contact Editor
Christine Jewett McCrehin ([email protected]) for more information on
the print issue. See the Related Articles box for links to more articles from the Special Section.

Joseph Adler

Population Growth and Transformation
Demographers have been consistent in forecasting that a major shift in the population of the United States is taking place, leading to a state where no single ethnic or racial group will comprise a majority of the residents. How local governments respond to demographic shifts will have a significant impact on the ability to effectively fulfill the needs and requirements of their residents. The recently completed 2010 Census verifies that the transition of the United States into a multi-hued ethnically diverse nation is well on its way. Of the nearly 310 million residents, Hispanic-Americans are the largest minority group at 16.3 percent, followed by African-Americans at 12.6 percent and Asian-Americans at 4.8 percent. Caucasians currently make up 72.4 percent of the populace, but by 2050 the Census Bureau projects that will decline to under 50 percent while the proportion of Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans is expected to nearly double.

Metropolitan Washington, DC, is already at the forefront of the predicted demographic shifts. Over one million immigrants reside in the region and projections call for another million to move to the area within the next 25 years. In Montgomery County, MD, the second largest jurisdiction in the region, white residents are now less than 50 percent of the population. The next largest group is Hispanic-Americans at 17 percent, followed by African-Americans at 16.6 percent and Asian-Americans at nearly 14 percent. The largest gain, both numerically and proportionally was made by Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans. One out of three Montgomery Country residents was born outside the U.S. An additional variable to the demographic transformation places further scrutiny on suburban jurisdictions. According to a study of immigration patterns conducted by Brookings Institution demographer Audrey Singer and colleagues and reported in “Twenty-First Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America,” cities and downtown areas are increasingly being bypassed by immigrants as entryways in favor of metropolitan suburban jurisdictions. This is especially reflective of choices made by Asians and Hispanics.

Local Government Response
If the demographic change in the region is a glimpse of the future, the strategies utilized by governments to deal with the change can also be a guide in terms of what to expect. In the Brookings study Price and Singer explored the reactions of jurisdictions within the Washington region and found a range of policies being employed. Some counties and municipalities pursue a strategy of indifference or hostility while others proactively welcome the influx of new Americans. The former is based on the local governments’ desire to rid the jurisdiction of undocumented immigrants and deflect the arrival of other new residents from this demographic. Sentiments against undocumented immigrants translate into official policy through aggressive enactment and enforcement of strict zoning requirements concerning residential occupancy, and regulation of day labor centers. Some local governments also require residents to prove their legal status before they can receive government services. As a result, the legal immigrant communities, especially the Latino community, believe that they are being unfairly targeted. Price and Singer found that as a short term strategy the effort to make immigrants feel unwelcome is successful in that it discourages them from living in the jurisdiction.

At the other end of the spectrum are local governments that deliberately welcome immigrants through a policy of accommodation and inclusion. These local jurisdictions respond to immigrants’ needs for affordable housing, access to health services, education, and transportation to jobs. Other methods of welcoming and assimilating immigrants into the political and social life of the community are also utilized. These include the translation of official forms and documents into different languages, offering citizenship and Basic English classes, not inquiring about legal status when interacting with the police, or when applying for governmental services. A number of Virginia jurisdictions including the City of Annandale, Fairfax County and Arlington County are welcoming governments that are implementing some or all of these initiatives.

Montgomery County, MD: Accommodation in Practice
Montgomery County, MD, is singled out as a model for the inclusive approach not only because it engages in all the activities described above, but also because it has taken a proactive approach to integrate various ethnic communities into the fabric of the county’s civic and community life. This philosophy is part of the culture of the County and goes back at least to the 1980s when large scale foreign migration began. In the mid 1990s the Office of Community Outreach (OCO) was created within the County Executive’s office to formalize its contacts with various ethnic communities including immigrant groups.

Three ethnic advisory committees were formed, each with a dedicated staff person, to give members of the African-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian-American communities a direct link to the County Executive and top policy making officials. The committees also enabled County government to engage in a two way conversation on matters of importance to each community. Establishing the OCO and locating it at the very top of the government power structure sent a strong symbolic message to the minority and ethnic communities that they are welcome. The advisory committees were also instrumental in launching ongoing service initiatives aimed at the specific needs of the immigrant and minority communities.

In 2001, a Center for Cultural Diversity was established to provide activities and services to the County’s diverse community with an emphasis on newly arrived Americans. Currently the programs include English as second language, citizenship classes, and a pro-bono legal clinic. Montgomery County also passed legislation in 2003 allowing the use of identification cards issued by foreign consulates as legal proof of identity for accessing government services and opening checking accounts with banks holding county government funds.

The election of Isiah Leggett as County Executive in 2006 served to further enhance the bond between local government and various ethnic and immigrant communities. Leggett’s philosophy is that bringing additional grass roots advocates to the policy making table is not a zero sum game and should not exclude or diminish those who are legitimately already there. Enlarging the table and adding more seats is the preferred policy alternative.

The three ethnic advisory committees were expanded to include Arab, Caribbean, Continental African and Middle Eastern immigrants residing within the County. The Office of Community Outreach became the Office of Community Partnerships (OCP) which spearheaded the move to further take government to traditionally underserved and underrepresented communities by convening various ethnic summits. Top government managers attend; describe the services offered by their departments and respond to the concerns articulated by the community. OCP monitors the requests and follow-up by senior managers.

Does Accommodation Generate Positive Results?
Montgomery County has enjoyed a reputation for many decades as a community with a highly successful public school system, a relatively low-crime rate, a highly educated professional resident base and a healthy local economy. In the space of 30 plus years Montgomery County has been transformed into a diverse multi-ethnic jurisdiction. Did the demographic transformation impact these variables?

The county’s public school system is the 16th largest in the United States It continues to have the highest graduation rate among the nation’s large school districts. The graduation rate for the 2010-2011 school year was 85.7 percent while the average for the nation was 71.7 percent. Almost two-thirds of high school students participate in Advanced Placement classes, and the average combined SAT score stood at 1653. Over $230 million in scholarships was awarded to its students.

Crime statistics are another indicator of a community’s well-being. From June 2009 to June 2010, violent crime decreased by 13.5 percent and overall crime fell by 7.5 percent. This compares favorably to the national trend for metropolitan counties which showed a 6 percent decline. From June 2007 through June 2010 the population increased by nearly 30,000 while overall crime decreased by 12 percent.

In terms of resident workforce characteristics, 80 percent of the working age population has some exposure to higher education, and 56 percent possess a BA degree. Of the foreign born population, 45 percent possess at least a BA degree, while 18 percent of foreign born adults did not finish high school. Price and Singer found that the presence of immigrants in the region aided growth and buttressed the economy. Montgomery County’s Planning Director Rollin Stanley credits immigration as a major factor in economic growth: “Those places in America that are attractive to new people are the places that will prosper. The increase in minority population is a solid foundation for our county. Most new businesses will be started by people in the minority community. This will add to the retailing, services and cultural diversity of the county, which benefits everyone.”

Montgomery County’s decision to embrace and support newly arrived Americans and consciously integrate them into the economic and political fabric of the community appears to be a more constructive policy choice to deal with demographic change and has enabled the county to maintain, if not surpass, its reputation for civic leadership and as a desirable place to live and work.

ASPA member Joseph Adler is director of the Office of Human Resources for Montgomery County, MD. The comments and views expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect any official position of Montgomery County, Maryland. Email: [email protected]

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