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Montgomery County, Maryland emerges as place where Black people can live their best lives

The Black Progress Index reveals foreign-born individuals fare better and the presence of fathers counts

Will Jawando, a councilman at large in the Montgomery County Council, photographed at his Ashton, Maryland home.Essdras M. Suarez

Will Jawando’s identity as the son of a Nigerian immigrant father and a White mother from Kansas offered him early exposure to diversity and the varied experiences that life in America can bring. His childhood was no crystal stair, but he was determined to ascend using education as his driver.

“I want to do a lot of good,” says Jawando, who is married to fellow lawyer Michele Jawando; the millennial couple is raising four children. “I’m working hard to ensure that a quality education, civil rights, and opportunities for prosperity are available to everyone.”

Today, Jawando, an attorney, community leader, and former Obama administration appointee, is councilman at large in Montgomery County, Maryland, an office he’s held since 2018. This summer, he handily won the Democratic primary for re-election and will face several Republican challengers in November.

The Jawando family’s achievements are emblematic of a larger phenomenon among successful Black people in the United States. Montgomery County is cited in groundbreaking new data about places nationwide where Black residents are prospering. Dubbed the Black Progress Index, this historic collaboration between the Brookings Institution and the NAACP examines the social factors that influence Black well-being.

Findings include:

  • A high percent of foreign-born Black people was one of the strongest predictors of longevity in a community.
  • Regions with larger shares of Black children not living with their father, as well as firearm fatalities, showed substantive harms. In county-level census data sampled in the report, 57% percent of Black children were not living with their father.

“In 1899, W.E.B. Du Bois published ‘The Philadelphia Negro,’ a first-of-its-kind sociological case study of a Black community, combining urban ethnography, social history, and descriptive statistics,” says Andre Perry, Ph.D., a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, who led the effort. “In the spirit of Du Bois and others who have pursued truth and justice, we have partnered to develop tools and resources that will empower communities with data and information.”

Black Progress Index metrics for Montgomery County, Maryland.THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION/NAACP

The Black Progress Index is an interactive, public research tool culled from U.S. Census Bureau data and a wide array of other sources: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the IRS, real estate brokerage Redfin, and Facebook, among others.

Researchers analyzed assets and opportunities tied to quality of life based on 13 index components in key areas: family health, wealth, safety, environmental quality, and human/social capital. The latter encompasses factors such as Black college attainment rates and friendships.

Jonathan Rothwell, Ph.D., a principal economist with Gallup Inc. and nonresident fellow at Brookings, who worked closely with Perry, says they sought to “highlight strengths rather than deficits” that so often define Black communities.

The Black Progress Index finds Black people living in Montgomery County, a community of 1 million people near the nation’s capital, are doing well according to health and well-being measures. The index predicts a Black life expectancy of 81.3 years in this affluent enclave, where median household incomes hover around $112,000.

The county is among the most diverse in the nation. U.S. Census figures show non-Hispanic White residents (42.2%) constitute the largest share of the county’s population, but its residents are also Black (20%), Hispanic or Latino (20.1%), Asian (16%), Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (less than 1%), two or more races (4%) and Native American (less than 1%). (This adds up to 104% because of non-White Hispanic/Latinos.)

Notably, about a third (32%) of the community is foreign-born, and about 40% of people speak a language other than English at home. This dovetails with data from the index; among its findings, a larger share of foreign-born share of Black adults has the largest positive effect on life expectancy.

That syncs with other research they cited, noting that “foreign-born Black Americans enjoy better health than the native Black population,” and predicted life-expectancy “gap is strikingly large: eight years for women and 10 years for men.”

In terms of educational attainment, about 59% of residents in the county have a bachelor’s degree. This, too, dovetails with information from the Black Progress Index. It shows that the percentage of Black adults 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree highly correlates with longer life.

The individual impact of education on health is well established, researchers say, and living near higher-income adults may boost health in other ways, such as improving government policy, safety, and resources.

Black entrepreneurship, measured in the index by the rate of business ownership, is a relatively small but still significant predictor of life expectancy. There are more than 6,000 minority-owned firms in Montgomery County, according to census data. Roughly 1% of Black adults ages 18 to 64 own businesses, researchers say, and this fact adds roughly 0.2 years onto one’s life.

“For far too long, Black economic participation has been limited primarily to consumer spending,” says Melinda Hightower, managing director at UBS Wealth Management Americas.

“Top-to-bottom participation across the economic ecosystem is critical for Black communities to thrive, and at the center of all of it is democratization of access.”

When considering primary pathways to economic mobility in the United States, outside of marriage and inheritance, she says we’re left with three main avenues: entrepreneurship, investing, and employment.

“To that end, overcoming the legacy effects of financial exclusion requires expanding access to capital for entrepreneurs, diversification in investing, and improvements in workforce development,” Hightower says.

Even in Black communities that are doing well, overall wealth inequality has widened over the past few decades. A 2021 report from the Federal Reserve notes that “the average Black and Hispanic or Latino households earn about half as much as the average White household and own only about 15% to 20% as much net wealth.”

“Collectively,” Hightower says, “it will take everyone from Black communities to financial and educational institutions, investors, community leaders and more to close the racial wealth gap. Black economic progress should be an American priority.”

Will Jawando at home.Essdras M. Suarez

Jawando agrees. While acknowledging the successes in his county, he’s worked to help alleviate disparities surfaced by the pandemic. And in his new book, “My Seven Black Fathers: A Young Activist’s Memoir of Race, Family, and the Mentors Who Made Him Whole,” he describes being raised by a divorced single mom in a vermin-infested apartment. He was moved from school to school, branded “disruptive,” and he lost a childhood friend to gun violence.

Yet a series of influential Black men — among them his stepfather; former President Barack Obama; and, later, his biological father — inspired him to reach his potential. Jawando says he won’t rest until everyone has similar opportunities to soar.

Might the data revealed in the Black Progress Index inspire a new generation of strivers? Brookings Interim President Amy Liu believes it could.

“There are two things that make this index powerful and unique,” Liu says. “The data literally brings the insights closer to home, in the communities in which Black residents live. Further, the index focuses on predictors of Black life success, not just chronicling more problems.” Liu says, “Together, these make the index energizing and actionable.”

Donna M. Owens is an award-winning, multiplatform journalist. The news veteran has covered U.S. Congress, the White House, elections, as well as race, gender, social justice, and culture.