With 23 shopping centers crammed along six miles of road, Rockville Pike embodies the economic growth that has transformed the suburbs north and west of Washington, D.C. Driven by biotechnology, satellite communications, telecommunications, and Internet services, this boom in the 'burbs has produced a population of unusually well-educated, highly compensated, two-income households. But there is another side to this development. The high-tech economy has proved a powerful magnet for immigration, and the combination of economic and demographic change is transforming that quintessentially American landscape that lies beyond the city limits.
On a side street off Rockville Pike in Montgomery County, Maryland, just around the corner from the upscale White Flint Mall, there is gridlock every Saturday in the parking lot at Lotte's Supermarket, where the specialties are things like squid and giant radishes. The customers range in occupation from electrical engineers to house painters, but they are all Koreans in search of the indispensable ingredients of their native cuisine. The clerks are also Korean, of course, but the stock boys at the back of the store are young Latinos, hauling crates of small silver fish packed in ice. Next door there is a Korean pharmacy, an auto repair shop, and an acupuncture parlor forming a miniature immigrant enclave in the heart of this affluent, predominately white suburb. Once a rural county seat, then a bedroom community, Rockville has become a job-generating boom town. It is just beginning to grapple with the demographic implications of its economic success.
The D.C. economy was once so dominated by the presence of the federal government that it was unlike any other, but that has changed with the development of robust, high-tech sectors in Montgomery County and across the Potomac in Fairfax County, Virginia. Some quarter of a million workers are employed by more than 3,300 high-technology firms in the metropolitan area. This profound economic change has been accompanied by an equally drastic demographic change, marked by the arrival of 400,000 to 500,000 legal immigrants to the area since 1980, and perhaps half again as many illegal immigrants. Both the new jobs and the new residents are concentrated outside, often far outside, the urban center-a pattern being replicated in the suburbs around many major U.S. cities. Montgomery County, for example, was once homogeneously white and native born. Now nearly a fifth of the residents are immigrants-already twice as a high a proportion of immigrants as the nation overall, and the figure has risen steadily with every year of the boom.
The nation's capital is less the exception than the rule. The region now exemplifies one of the formulas for economic expansion that has marked the 1990s: rapid population growth scattered across multiple suburban jurisdictions far from the urban center, and economic development spurred by new technologies and a highly mobile workforce. Outside many of the nation's most prosperous cities-Charlotte, Boston, and San Francisco, for example-clusters of high-tech businesses have sprouted along the interstates, and the cul-de-sacs beyond are heavily populated by new arrivals, both domestic migrants and immigrants from abroad. Curiously, the foreign born not only mirror the affluence and high-level of education typical of the native population, but also include large numbers of relatively low-skilled, low-wage workers new to the suburban scene. To an extent that scholars did not anticipate and that policy makers are just beginning to absorb, knowledge-based economic growth in the suburbs has created a tremendous demand for people who will work with their hands for little pay, a demand almost exclusively filled by immigrants.
As a result of this low-end influx, school districts find themselves stretched to satisfy the needs of both privileged whiz kids with MBA parents and poor students who speak only Spanish. Transportation planners are struggling to link the older, close-in suburbs where many low-income immigrants now live, and the far-flung, high-price real estate developments where they work. Suburban retailers, once the happy provisioners of the middle class, are discovering that there is plenty of demand at the luxury and the discount ends of the price spectrum, but less and less in between. And longtime suburbanites must adjust to a greater degree of ethnic diversity than ever before.
transformation In the final decades of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution fueled the growth of America's big cities, drawing immigrants across the Atlantic to fill the demand for manual labor. As a result, a once-rural nation took on a new urban identity, reflecting the cosmopolitan character of its population. Today, another transformation of potentially equal magnitude is taking place. The high-tech revolution is fueling the growth of America's suburbs, drawing immigrants from Latin America and Asia to fill the demand for highly qualified technicians as well as low-skilled servants. Where exactly this transformation is taking the United States is still difficult to foretell, as the process is just getting under way. Whereas America's cities proved to be extraordinary venues for upward mobility and assimilation, it is not clear that high-tech suburbs will serve the same function. In the industrial economy, workers with strong backs but little education could aspire to middle class prosperity. But in the new information economy, lack of education can be an insuperable barrier to advancement.
The construction of campus-style office parks on the highways radiating out from the nation's cities signals a fundamental demographic change just as surely as it is a sign of economic advancement. Immigration used to be thought of as an urban phenomenon, much like economic prowess was once symbolized by smoke stacks. But as Robert D. Manning, a sociologist at Georgetown University, notes, "The ongoing shift of economic dynamism from the urban core to the satellite cities of suburbia has been matched with a change in immigrant settlement patterns, as the newcomers, not surprisingly, have followed the jobs out beyond the city limits."
Consider Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the fastest growing and most affluent counties in the United States. Fairfax hosts so many high-tech companies, from America Online to dozens of tiny Web site design firms, that it has become a key node in the nation's digital infrastructure. Since 1980, the population has nearly doubled and is projected to reach 1 million within the next three or four years. During that time, the non-white population increased at nearly five times the rate as the population overall, with Latino and Asian immigrants comprising the bulk of the newcomers. An extensive household survey conducted by the county government in 1996 found that nearly 28 percent ofall residents had moved into the county from somewhere else since 1991, and nearly one in five of those newcomers had come from overseas.
In Montgomery County, the same pattern holds: The population grew by some 10.3 percent in the 1990s, to about 850,000 today. Non-white immigrants by far have comprised the largest category of new arrivals. High birth rates and growing intermarriage with the native born both multiplies and defuses the demographic impact. A 1994 county survey found that in nearly a quarter of all households, the head of the household or spouse was born abroad.
Extraordinary prosperity accompanied this foreign influx. In 1997, the median household income in Montgomery County was $66,800, while Fairfax boasted a median of $72,000; nationally the figure was $37,000. In both suburban counties, about 28 percent of the households had incomes of more than $100,000.
As with immigration nationwide, the foreign born arriving in Washington's suburbs are sharply polarized according to educational attainment. At one end, a higher percentage of the immigrants have post-graduate degrees than the overall population: In Montgomery County, 9 percent of the foreign-born adults have a Ph.D., compared to 6 percent of the total population. Many come from India, Pakistan, or elsewhere in Asia, drawn by the demand for mathematicians, biologists, and engineers. Often these newcomers take a drop in status, leaving behind a university research job to supervise a testing laboratory, for example-but they also experience a substantial boost in income. And high-tech suburbs are increasingly taking the best and the brightest, who find well-paid jobs in the developing industries far more easily than in academia or in government, where language and immigrant status can be impediments.
But immigrants to the new suburbs also account for the largest group of adults with less than a high school education. In 1996, nearly 17 percent of those who had come to Fairfax from overseas in the preceding five years lacked a high school diploma, more than double the county average; most were from Latin America, primarily El Salvador, but Mexico as well. Lack of educational attainment stands out much more in these high-tech suburbs than in the urban centers or working-class suburbs where immigrants typically settled in the past. In Fairfax, for example, at least 56 percent of the adults have a bachelor's degree.
Not surprisingly, this same polarization is evident in the workplace. According to a new analysis of data from the Census Bureau's 1996 to 1998 Current Population Surveys, conducted by demographer George Grier, recent immigrants to the Washington area have unusually high rates of employment both in high-end technical jobs and in low-end service work. For example, immigrants who have lived in the United States for a decade or less-i.e., foreigners still adjusting to a new language and a new labor market-are more than twice as likely to be employed as engineers or as computer specialists as the native born. Still, the disadvantages of being a newcomer show up in relatively low levels of employment as executives, business administrators, and attorneys-professions that require greater knowledge of local matters.
But an even more noticeable characteristic of immigrants in the high-tech workforce is their overrepresentation in service industries. Recent arrivals from overseas are three to four times more likely to be working as cooks or cleaners than the overall population. In the Washington area, food service workers, janitors, and construction workers altogether make up just 13 percent of the total workforce. However, nearly 41 percent of new arrivals hold jobs in those categories. Put another way, recent immigrants-again, defined here as those in the United States for ten years or less-make up about 8 percent of the employed adults in the D.C. region, according to the 1998 CPS, but they account for 25 percent of the food-service workers and 20 percent of the janitorial employees. An even greater overrepresentation can be found among the ranks of construction laborers, where recent immigrants account for more than half of all workers.
"This is the pattern now and for the foreseeable future because in our post-industrial economy, the highest demand is for two kinds of employees: the professionals or technicians with specialized skills and the low-wage service workers," says Saskia Sassen, a sociologist at the University of Chicago and author of Globalization and Its Discontents (The New Press). And so long as an expanding economy creates tight labor markets, immigrants will continue to fill a large part of that demand.
Two factors reinforce this pattern, according to Sassen: one involves the organization of work by firms and the other organization of work by households. Throughout the growth years of the 1990s, firms of all sorts have been producing and buying more specialized services. The banker and the manufacturer alike have relied on outsourcing to cut costs, a trend even more pronounced in the high-tech industry. "There is growing reliance on contractors for specialized inputs such as Web site design, data inputting, financial and legal services, all things which might have been handled in-house a short time ago," Sassen says.
The outsourcing trend has created huge opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs. By focusing on a single function and performing it well, skilled immigrants can create small businesses without the need for large amounts of capital. The suburban print shops, biological testing labs, and computer maintenance firms they launch become ready sources of employment for immigrants of the same nationality.
But high-tech economic development also generates a powerful demand for immigrant labor at the low end of the education and income scales. "No matter how virtual the output of these firms may be, they need a physical space, and electricians and construction workers to build out that space, and janitors to clean it up every night," Sassen says.
Moreover, a preponderance of highly rewarded, two-income families also stimulates demand for service help. In Fairfax County, which has a very high number of workers and a very low number of dependents per household, labor force participation rates for both men (85 percent) and women (73 percent) are ten points or more above the national averages. The resulting lifestyle has major implications for the labor force. "Like the firms that employ them, many couples have adopted intense outsourcing," Sassen says. A good deal of cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing previously handled in-house is now outsourced, primarily to low-wage immigrants. "People who work a lot of hours for a lot of money expect a lot of personal services, and they earn the money to pay for them,' Sassen adds. "That in turn creates demand for people who will work a lot of hours for not much money."
transience The immigrants' arrival is obliging suburbs to contend with social issues that seemed exclusively urban concerns not long ago. First, there is the simple question of ethnic and economic homogeneity. The desire to live among others of the same race and class has always been and remains an important motivation to move to the suburbs. But today, working-class suburbs and older, declining 'burbs have increasingly diverse populations, and some parts of the Washington area are witnessing second-stage flight: Communities populated by mostly white, former city dwellers who made the break in the 1960s and 1970s are being abandoned in favor of brand new exurbs on the distant fringes of the metropolitan area.
Meanwhile, many other suburbanites are not only accepting but delighting in the experience of living in newly cosmopolitan communities where pho and pupusas have become standard fare in strip-mall restaurants that once offered nothing more exotic than eggplant parmigiana.
Another fundamental change may be more difficult to absorb in the long run: A sense of upward mobility is central to the suburban ethos. The high-tech economy has produced abundant opportunities for the accumulation of wealth; even the immigrant who comes to take a low-wage job as janitor often feels far richer than he did in his homeland. But the split between the highly skilled and the poorly paid has acquired an unusually hard permanence in the suburban workforce, in part because there is not much of a middle to bridge the extremes. "Manufacturing produces a better balance between high- and low-end workers, but in the Washington area and in other places where you have suburban high-tech development, you don't get that," says Stephen Fuller, an economist at George Mason University. In fact, manufacturing accounts for only 3 percent of the jobs in the Washington regional economy and is not expected to grow. Even in the service sector, which accounts for half of the jobs in the suburban economy and is expanding, the middle range of work has shrunk. Automation has substantially eliminated the clerical and secretarial support jobs that once provided those middle jobs in finance, business services, and other non-manufacturing sectors.
The prospect, already becoming visible around the country, is for a suburban population split into two communities starkly divided by income. Unlike the experience of the cities, however, rich and poor will not be living near each other, nor will they be governed by the same local jurisdictions. Instead, the sprawling suburban landscape is segregating itself into entire communities characterized by the economic status of their residents. For example, median annual household incomes in Prince William County, Virginia, lag more than $20,000 behind Fairfax, its upscale neighbor. Increasingly, Prince William is becoming a bedroom community for the middle- and low-wage workers employed elsewhere. The result of this stratification is an imbalance in resources similar to the old city/suburban split in which those with the greatest needs are concentrated in one jurisdiction and the tax-generating businesses and homes are in another.
Still, this remains a vibrant economic landscape for those who are able to take advantage of the opportunities. An immigrant who arrives with a higher education or marketable technical skills finds an extremely receptive environment in the high-tech suburbs. But those who start at the bottom tend to get stuck there, even during a period of booming economic growth. Cooking and cleaning are the quintessential dead-end jobs, and the knowledge-based economy does not offer many openings for the immigrant who works with his hands.
"High-tech industries generate a range of what you might call 'entry-plus' jobs-jobs that may not require a college degree but that do require some specialized training or on-the-job experience," says Roger Stough, NOVA professor of public policy at George Mason. Whether the work involves fielding customer service calls for a wireless telephone company or installing computer hardware in office networks, such jobs pay more than entry-level work in the service sector.
Immigrants arriving with a working knowledge of English-in particular, subcontinental Asians, many from the Middle East and the Philippines-have moved into the entry-plus jobs. But, says Stough, "language remains a significant barrier." When poor language skills are combined with a lack of education, the barriers to entering the high-tech economy can be insurmountable. That's the case for many Latino immigrants, who are the largest immigrant group in the Washington area, as well as the nation overall. The least educated among them are in danger of becoming part of a new suburban underclass, permanently poor in the midst of plenty.
Surveys conducted by Fairfax County have found that labor-force participation rates for newcomers from overseas are not much different than those of long-term residents, about 74 percent. However, nearly 20 percent of the recent arrivals lived in households with incomes under $25,000, compared to less than 6 percent of long-term residents, and they experienced a poverty rate (11.7 percent) more than three times that of long-term residents. Moreover, this poverty is clearly linked to language. Approximately half of all households with incomes under $25,000-the break point for social services-and more than a third of households with incomes below the poverty level, $12,600-reported that poor English skills were a significant problem. Poverty in high-tech suburbs is not the poverty of the idle or the addicted. Rather, it is the poverty of people who work hard for low wages but who are linguistically isolated from greater economic opportunity.
transcendence The isolation is growing more profound as poor immigrant families increasingly cluster according to economic status. Traditionally immigrants have settled along national or linguistic lines. But suburban towns like Wheaton, Maryland, and Arlington, Virginia, have developed into polyglot enclaves where Vietnamese, Salvadorans, Koreans, and those of other nationalities have found homes. They are bound together only by their status as the new suburban proletariat, and have forever changed the regional landscape. For the first time, suburbs are serving as ports of entry, the first stop for immigrants just arriving in the United States.
Still, immigrants in the suburbs are more scattered than in traditional big-city settings, says Gerald Gordon, president of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. And residential integration, he adds, is a "function of integration into jobs." To the extent that economic success is an important factor in assimilation, "there is no question that education and training not only provide access to the economy but are a crucial factor in helping people from other countries become part of the larger community," Gordon says.
Nowhere has the impact been clearer than in the public schools. In Arlington, spending on English as a Second Language (ESL) programs has nearly doubled in the past ten years. In Montgomery County, the ESL program serves 8,000 students and is growing by as many as 500 students a year. Schools that once acted as magnets for whites leaving the cities now face the challenge of ensuring economic opportunity for the newest residents. Even as they find their way in a new land, these youth must prepare to make the leap into a new economy, where the skills and knowledge that ensure prosperity are in a constant state of reinvention.
Employers are taking the initiative, sponsoring programs not only to train workers in job-related skills but also to teach them English and a basic knowledge of business practices. "With a 1.7 percent unemployment rate, this is somewhat self-serving," says Gordon. "Employers who once sat back and waited for skilled applicants to compete for jobs are now looking in every nook and cranny for people with no skills who can be retrained, and that includes the handicapped and the retired and people from other countries, who are a very big pool of potentially skilled workers."
So far, the suburban economy has proved a rising tide, lifting all boats, even though some are going higher than others. The recession in the early 1990s was too brief and too shallow to offer much of a guide as to how the interrelationship between low-wage immigrants and a high-tech economy will fare in a future downturn. But the expansion of the past decade has lasted long enough to ensure that an entire generation of newcomers has established a permanent place in America's prosperous suburbs. Just where they fit in still remains to be seen.