Millions of dollars worth of federal contracts transformed Anita Talwar from a government accounting clerk into a wealthy woman — one who can afford a $2.8 million home in the Washington suburbs with its own elevator, wine cellar and Swarovski crystal chandeliers.
Talwar, a 59-year-old immigrant from India, had no idea that she and her husband would amass a small fortune when she launched a company providing tech support to the federal government in 1987. But she shrewdly took advantage of programs for minority-owned small businesses and rode a boom in federal contracting.
By the time Talwar sold Advanced Management Technology in 2004, it had grown from a one-woman shop to a company with more than 350 employees and $100 million in annual revenue — all of it from government contracts.
Talwar’s success — and that of hundreds of other contractors like her — is a key factor driving the explosion of the region’s wealth over the last two decades. It also has exacerbated the gap between high- and low-wage workers, which is wider in the D.C. area than almost anywhere else in the United States.
Washingtonians now enjoy the highest median household income of any metropolitan area in the country, and five of the top 10 jurisdictions in America — Loudoun, Howard and Fairfax counties, and Falls Church and Fairfax City — are here, census data shows.
The signs of that wealth are on display all over, from the string of luxury boutiques such as Gucci and Tory Burch opening at Tysons Galleria to the $15 cocktails served over artisanal ice at the W Hotel in the District to the ever-larger houses rising off River Road in Potomac.
But nowhere is the region’s wealth more concentrated than the place where Talwar purchased her 15,000-square-foot white-brick estate home: Great Falls, a once-rural enclave of about 15,000 residents 17 miles west of the White House.
Sixteen percent of Great Falls households earn $500,000 or above a year, and more than half make at least $250,000, according to Nielsen Claritas. By comparison, 11 percent of households in Potomac earn $500,000 or more, and McLean and Bethesda each boast 10 percent at that level.
Talwar’s neighbors are entrepreneurs, lobbyists, CEOs, tech moguls, financiers and defense contractors for whom two wars have been very, very good business. Their portfolios take hits when the stock market plummets, as it did this month, but the setbacks are usually temporary.
While others have struggled to recover from the recession, many of the residents of Great Falls have continued to launch new business ventures, enjoy easy access to venture capital and reap the benefits of bonuses and deferred compensation plans. Median household income there has increased 32 percent in the last 10 years, helping to widen the divide between those at the top and bottom of the economic ladder to a record high in Virginia.
Like their counterparts in California’s Silicon Valley or Seattle, Great Falls residents tend to be low-key about their wealth, more partial to sweatshirts than designer duds. In their jobs they wield enormous power, but it isn’t always obvious at first glance.
Look closely, however, and the patina of affluence is everywhere.
A white Mercedes sits next to a black Jaguar in the student parking lot at the local public high school, Langley High. At the community Easter egg roll, children grab eggs filled with chocolate and tiny gemstones like blue topaz and citrine.
The guest speaker for the new Rotary Club’s first meeting in June? Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
A surge in contracting
Forty years ago, few people thought of Washington as a place to get rich. It was a staid town where a third of the residents earned modest but steady paychecks working for the federal government.
The new Washington is a global business hub with thriving technology, biotech and communications industries. Only 12 percent of workers are federal employees. But the federal government remains an engine of job creation, outsourcing its tech support and other services to contracting firms ringing the Capital Beltway, a phenomenon that exploded in the years after 9/11.
More than $80 billion in federal contracting dollars will flow to the region this year, up from $4.2 billion in 1980, according to Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a seven-fold increase. A third of the region’s gross regional product now comes from federal spending.
But that tide is likely to slow because of a $1 trillion debt-reduction package approved earlier this month by Congress and President Obama. In the coming months, a bipartisan“supercommittee” will be searching for another $1.5 trillion in savings. Defense contractors are already bracing themselves for deep cuts in military spending.