For Montgomery County, the U.S. Census data released this week were a bit of an eye-opener.
Although we still like to still think of ourselves as one of the nation’s top five wealthiest counties — and used to rank second or third each year in the median family income rankings — we are now slipping lower and lower in this crucial measure, especially compared to the jurisdictions around us. We fell out of the top five a few years back, and now we’re no longer in the top 10.
So who's at the top this year? Once again, Loudoun County, Virginia, is the richest county in America. Following close behind are Fairfax County, in second, and Howard County in third. Several other counties in our area also make the top 10: Arlington County is fifth, Stafford County is seventh, Prince William is ninth. Montgomery has dropped all the way to 12th.
In terms of median family income, Maryland is still the richest state in the United States, and the Greater Washington Region is still No. 1 among U.S. metropolitan areas. So why should we worry about any of this?
Personally, I am not that concerned about how we stack up against other places. What I do worry about is the trend line in Montgomery County.
Nationally, we continue to see the lingering effects of the "Great Recession," with a decline in median family income this year of roughly 2 percent (from 2009 to 2010). The Washington region is bucking the trend and showed a slight increase this year over last.
So, one might expect Montgomery County's median family incomes to be rising slightly as well. They are not. In fact, average family incomes in Montgomery County dropped more than twice as much as the national average, and are down this year by more than 4 percent. That’s right. Our incomes are dropping, twice as fast as the rest of the nation, even while the rest of our region improves.
We can all speculate as to why: Government budget cuts, private sector jobs moving to Virginia, our stubborn unemployment rate. But why is it just us? Loudoun County, Fairfax County, Howard County, Arlington County, Stafford County and Prince William County ALL showed net increases in family income from 2009 to 2010. We are the only one near the top of the list that is in actual decline.
What does all this mean? We better start re-thinking some things.
If incomes continue to decline, even while our neighbors improve, what are we doing wrong? If we don’t start reversing this trend, how will we be able to afford the current level of county services we’ve come to expect, including our much vaunted school system, in the years ahead?
Let’s face it, we are no longer the county everyone looks up to. We have been surpassed.
Maybe it’s time to start looking around us for answers. They all put a lot more focus on business attraction and retention than we have been. Perhaps there’s a place to start …