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Arlington Connection: The Poor Are Getting Poorer Print

Need for public assistance programs expected to increase in coming year.


By Michael Lee Pope

© Created:  Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The recession may be over for those at the top. But for the tens of thousands of Arlington residents on public assistance, the future looks increasingly grim. County budget officials expect the need for food stamps to rise in the coming year, and the average monthly caseload for Medicaid patients is also expected to increase. The number of people on welfare is expected to go up, as is the number of applications for energy assistance.

"People without job skills are not going to participate in the recovery for several more years," said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. "For now, they’ll be left behind."

Part of the increase in demand is driven by county efforts to expand participation. Less than half of the households that qualify for food stamps apply to participate in the program, for example. So county officials have engaged in an ongoing effort to reach out to schoolchildren, homeless shelters and health clinics. The problem is that illegal immigrants who qualify for food stamps are worried that applying for the program might identify them to immigration officials, a scenerio that is vigorously denied by the Arlington Department of Human Services.

"These are misperceptions that are difficult to dispel," said Anita Friedman, division chief for the Economic Independence Division. "But we are aiming to increase the participation of people who are eligible for food stamps but have been reluctant to apply for whatever reason."'

One area of public assistance that is causing the greatest amount of concern is the rising number of people eligible for Medicaid. Next year, county budget officials estimate, 1,000 new patients will be added to the average monthly caseload. And when the Medicaid reforms of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are implemented, Arlington County will add 14,000 new patients to the program. State leaders say Virginia will have to make significant increases in funding to the program to make sure there are enough doctors to see all the new patients.

"I know that Bob McDonnell wants to be known as the transportation governor," said Del. Patrick Hope (D-47). "But I think when his term is over, we’ll look back and see him as a health-care governor."

THE DICOTOMY BETWEEN rich and poor has never been starker than it is now. Wealthy people have already started recovering from the global economic crisis, and real-estate assessments are up 6.3 percent this year. But the poor are getting poorer in Arlington, according to Department of Human Services. The county is perceived to be a well-to-do jurisdiction, yet 10 percent of Arlington residents are on some form of public assistance.

"Arlington is an expensive place to live," said Community Services Board Chairwoman Carol Skelly. "So by comparison, people at the bottom are struggling more here than they would be if they lived in another part of the state."

County leaders have been asked to pick up the slack where state and federal resources have been slashed. That’s why County Manager Barbara Donnellan included $1.3 million in new spending for the county’s social safety-net when she issued her proposed budget for fiscal year 2012. Donnellan’s proposal includes $630,000 for housing grants to provide stability through a monthly rental subsidy to low-income working families, permanently disabled persons and residents 62 years of age and older. Another $467,000 would go to a permanent supportive housing program for people with disabilities, which provides rental assistance and case-management services.

"We have seen an increase in demand," said Budget Director Richard Stephenson. "This money will go to the neediest."