State saw income gap narrow

August 28, 1992|By Carol Emert | Carol Emert,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- The income of an average middle-class family in Maryland rose a whopping 9 percent, or $4,171, during the 1980s, according to a report released yesterday.

That compares with an average gain of only $140 per middle-class family in the country as a whole, said the report by a liberal Washington think-tank, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Maryland was one of only four states that narrowed the income gap between the middle and upper-income classes during the last decade, according to the report, "Where Have All the Dollars Gone: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Disparities Over the 1980s."

In fact, Maryland had the smallest income disparity between those two groups of any state in the nation.

Upper-class Marylanders experienced a 3 percent rise in income, which comes $3,603 for the average family, the study found. That was only about half the $7,200 income jump experienced by the country's average wealthy family.

The incomes of the poorest Marylanders declined 1 percent, or an average of $139 per family. That figure, although a step in the wrong direction, compares favorably with the country's larger average drop of $350 per low-income family.

The report examined income differences between each "fifth" of society -- the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans, the next wealthiest 20 percent, the middle 20 percent, and so on. All figures were taken from the March Current Population Surveys of the Census Bureau.

Data from the 1979 survey was compared with aggregate figures from 1987, 1988 and 1989.

It is not difficult to find the facts behind the figures for Maryland. Mary Lou Baker of Maryland's Department of Economic and Employment Planning said the state has the highest concentration of engineers and scientists of any state.

High-tech firms popping up along the Baltimore-Washington corridor, particularly in the fields of biotechnology and software development, recruited many professional scientists during the eighties, said Patricia Fernandez Kelly, an associate professor of sociology at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

Many of the staffers at the National Institutes of Health and other agencies also are scientists and engineers, Ms. Kelly said, as are many of the employees of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore's largest employer.

In addition, there are the "Beltway Bandits," the research and consulting firms that live off of government contracts, Ms. Kelly said. Most of these professionals have two-career families, which gives them an even higher per-family income, she added.

Although the income disparity between Maryland's well-to-do and middle class narrowed during the 1980s, the gap between rich and poor widened, as was the case in 43 of the 50 states, the report found. In fact, 27 states, including Maryland, experienced a double whammy of the rich getting richer and the poor losing real income, it said.

The release of the report just a few weeks before national elections raised questions for some about the motives of the think-tank. Although the report never mentions former President Ronald Reagan or President Bush, a Republican congressional staffer accused the group of orchestrating a "critique of the Reagan-Bush years."

"It's an intellectual sham to include the last year of Jimmy Carter's presidency" in the study, he said, especially because 1980 was the "worst single year for family income in the postwar period. It took the remainder of the Eighties to dig us out of that hole."

But Bob Greenstein, director of the think-tank, said in a press conference yesterday that the study was intended as an analysis of the last decade, not of Republican leadership.

Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michigan sociologist who helped author the report, said the study was meant as a snapshot of income distribution and not as a time-series analysis.

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