Maryland Family Feels the pinch

JOHN W. FRECE

September 13, 1992|By JOHN W. FRECE

Annapolis -- Mr. and Mrs. Maryland were the envy of thei peers: wealthy, generous, progressive.

They had a big income that seemed to get bigger every year.

The money gave them freedom to care for their less fortunate relatives and to help those in their large family who suffered from serious illnesses but had no way pay their medical bills. Their wealth helped them support libraries and the arts, to improve their children's schools, to help state colleges attract crackerjack teachers.

Whenever they felt the need to spend more, banks from across the country -- enamored by their good credit history -- lent them money at the lowest interest rate available.

But those were kinder, gentler days. In recent years, Mr. and Mrs. Maryland have fallen on hard times.

Their income just isn't what it used to be. And while they are bringing in less, more and more of their family are struggling to get by and demanding charity. As often happens when times get bad, more also have gotten in trouble with the law, and the high cost associated with that has drained enormous amounts from Mr. and Mrs. Maryland's pocketbook.

Everyone hoped the problems were only temporary. Surely, the economy would recover, the income would come back, and the growing number of family members in trouble would subside.

Until that happens, Mr. and Mrs. Maryland have tried to make ends meet without changing their basic lifestyle. They have acted as if this is only an unfortunate dip and that their fortunes will surely recover soon.

In the meantime, they have taken money they had set aside for college, and money they had planned to use to buy land, and spent it instead to help the poor or ill or those who have been thrown into prison.

For the time being, they have let the paint on buildings peel. Cars they once replaced as soon as they began to show their age now are being kept until odometer readings approach six figures. Janitors who once came daily now come only a couple times a week. The purchase of supplies, or appliances or other goods have been put on indefinite hold.

Mr. and Mrs. Maryland have squeezed where they could because the family has always been guided by a single, inflexible rule: They would never spend more money than they brought in.

But in each of the last three years, Mr. and Mrs. Maryland realized their income alone was not enough. Reluctantly, they asked those in their family who could afford it to chip in, first a little, then a lot.

Increasingly, family members balked. Some just didn't want to pay any more. But many believed it was time Mr. and Mrs. Maryland recognized they had no choice but to abandon their old lifestyle as no longer affordable.

L This time, however, it was Mr. and Mrs. Maryland who balked.

They had accountants to assess their income and investment prospects, and the accountants came running back to say the future looked better. If not downright rosy, things at least appeared to be on the upswing.

The news was too good to dispute.

Mr. and Mrs. Maryland wanted to believe their income was headed back to "normal." They wanted to believe there was no need to ask their family for more money, or to stop doing any of the things they had done for so long.

Now, it turns out the accountants were wrong -- wrong to the tune of another $500 million.

That's a lot of money, and Mr. and Mrs. Maryland have little else to fall back on.

This time, family members are saying, Mr. and Mrs. Maryland must do something drastic, something permanent. This time, they say, the lifestyle must be changed.

Yet it is hard to imagine what that might mean: Will those who are sick no longer get medical care? Or those who are in prison be let loose? Or will the poor simply have to find a way to make it on their own?

There will be risks, political and otherwise, associated with any such changes.

A year ago, when Mr. and Mrs. Maryland's financial problems appeared about as serious as they could get, lots of people were saying the same thing, calling for drastic change. Somehow, it never happened.

All that is different now is that some members of the family now grudgingly believe the long-awaited economic recovery is here, and this is it: It isn't going to get any better than this.

Such a grim outlook, many believe, is about the only thing that could force Mr. and Mrs. Maryland into changing the way they live.

John Frece is chief of the State House bureau of The Baltimore Sun.

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