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The number of residents living in poverty in the nation’s capital remained unchanged in the course of the first decade of the 2000s. However, the combination of a deep economic downturn, slow economic recovery, demographic changes, and shifting housing market dynamics led to a 61 percent increase in Washington, D.C.’s suburban poor population between 2000 and 2012. Prince George’s County, MD, and Montgomery County, MD, experienced some of the steepest increases in the number of residents living below the federal poverty line in the region. In 2012, the two counties’ combined poor population outstripped that in D.C. proper by more than 43,000.
Both counties have also become home to an increasingly diverse population. By 2012, less than one-half of Montgomery County’s population (48 percent) and only 15 percent of Prince George’s County’s population was non-Hispanic white. In the same year, immigrants constituted one-third of Montgomery County’s residents and 21 percent of Prince George’s County’s population.
As poverty climbed in both counties in the first decade of the 2000s, and as new immigrants increasingly settled in the D.C. suburbs, the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC)—a D.C.−based nonprofit organization that provides academic, workforce, and social services for low-income youth—witnessed these changes firsthand. LAYC saw a number of their clients and staff move away from D.C. amid widespread redevelopment of urban neighborhoods during the first decade of the 2000s, and a growing number of them settled in the Maryland suburbs. At the same time, an increasing number of low-income residents who had never lived in the city found their way to LAYC to access culturally competent services that were not readily available in their suburban communities.
Initially founded in Washington, D.C., in 1968, LAYC serves youth of all backgrounds through a comprehensive portfolio of services—from education and job training initiatives to the coordination of housing for homeless and runaway youth. In 2005, LAYC responded to the shifting geography of poverty in the region and expanded into Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties to reach additional high need clients. To do so strategically and successfully, LAYC had to first:
- Invest in internal capacity building and infrastructure. LAYC secured funding from Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP), an organization that identifies high-performing nonprofit organizations serving youth from low-income families and then injects large amounts of capital into these organizations to support operational capacity growth. VPP invested $1.8 million in LAYC from 2003 to 2008, most of which allowed LAYC to expand into Maryland quickly and sustainably.
- Recognize that approaches to service delivery may need to be different in suburbs. Initially, LAYC planned to replicate its Washington, D.C., model by opening one Maryland center that would serve as the anchor for its operations in Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties. However, relying on one site to serve two counties proved impractical, both in terms of logistics (how would students travel long distances to access the center?) and politics (county officials and funders preferred that LAYC establish a presence in each county). Therefore, LAYC transitioned to a satellite-center model, with smaller outposts located throughout the counties in communities with high levels of poverty, gaps in social service provision, and low-performing schools.
- Forge community relationships and understand the unique needs of the suburbs LAYC wanted to serve. Before opening its doors in Maryland, LAYC paved the way for expansion by building relationships with local providers and county officials who were unsure that an urban service provider would understand the needs of their communities. In Prince George’s County, there was a vacuum of social service programs and providers, particularly in parts of the county close to the D.C. border. In response, LAYC implemented its full portfolio of programming in the county to help fill those gaps. In comparison, in Montgomery County, nonprofit organizations were already serving elementary and middle school youth. Therefore, LAYC focused on out-of-school programming for 16- to 24-year-olds in Montgomery County, an area where fewer resources had previously been available.
- Build in metrics to track progress and shifting needs. With the help of the investment from VPP, LAYC established a Learning and Evaluation office that works for all of its sites. LAYC trained all staff members to use the “Efforts to Outcome” (ETO) tracking software, which has allowed LAYC to better align best practices in Washington, D.C., with those in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.
In fewer than 10 years after initiating its geographic expansion, LAYC now operates four sites in the Maryland suburbs—two in Montgomery County (in Germantown and Silver Spring) and two in Prince George’s County (in Langley Park and Riverdale). LAYC serves approximately 1,200 people in the D.C. suburbs, accounting for more than 30 percent of the organization’s client base. As demand for services in its original D.C. center has not decreased, the growing share of the portfolio represented by Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties underscores the rapid rate at which LAYC has been able to reach suburban youths in their own communities.
Although LAYC has become a strong regional service provider, it continues to face challenges in the D.C. suburbs:
- The fragmentation of funding and governance across Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties meant that expanding into one state required double the effort. The counties are different culturally and operationally, requiring regular LAYC executive presence in both counties to be accessible to funders and regulators.
- Generally, philanthropic funding—particularly from large state and national foundations—has lagged behind the shifting needs, leaving suburban communities with few philanthropic dollars to build capacity. Therefore, most of LAYC’s financial support in Maryland comes from the two county governments, supplemented by small amounts of funding from local donors.
- The lack of public transportation constrains programming in the suburbs with regard to scheduling and location. LAYC has selected sites near transport hubs to help overcome the transportation challenge, but real estate near transit is expensive, and it is difficult to find space large enough for youth programming.
Implications for Policy
To help organizations meet the challenge of providing services to the suburban poor across multiple jurisdictions, policymakers, funders, and practitioners should take steps to:
- Better align government funding streams to overcome the administrative burden and costs caused by a fragmented funding framework, and to increase flexibility in how funding can be used by organizations operating at a more effective regional scale;
- Adapt philanthropic funding flows to build capacity in high-need suburbs and prioritize strategies and models that work across urban and suburban boundaries; and
- Support transit-oriented development strategies that incorporate nonprofit and community spaces in addition to affordable housing.