Poverty in Paradise HOWARD COUNTY

February 03, 1993

If any subdivision fits the description of a suburban paradise, it is Howard County. One of the most affluent counties in Maryland, and the nation, Howard boasts a clean environment, excellent public schools, amenities galore and a median household income of nearly $64,000.

But all that glitter can blind us sometimes to the bleaker side of county life. As the Maryland Food Committee reports, hunger has worsened markedly in Baltimore's suburbs over the past few years. The increases in the demand for social services have been more dramatic in Baltimore City, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. But the recession has by no means bypassed Howard County.

Consider: The estimated number of unemployed civilian workers in the county jumped 70 percent, from 2,595 in 1990 to 4,434 in 1992. The number of recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children went up 40 percent, from 1,565 in 1990 to 2,168 last year. In 1991, 2,680 county residents were on food stamps; last year, 3,351 -- 25 percent more. The number of people on General Public Assistance, the number of homeless people turned away from shelters, the number of children eligible for free or reduced-price meals at Howard County public schools -- all are up in recent years.

"In places like Howard, poverty can be hidden because people live more spread out. You don't see folk on the streets, standing in line at soup kitchens, like they do in the city," says Philathea Calhoun, a food committee official who monitors Howard County. "One danger of this is that high officials and the rest of the public won't see the evidence of the problem. . . It's like, out of sight, out of mind."

While conditions have deteriorated for the "old poor," a class of "new poor" has emerged in Howard, as in other areas. These are people who have lost their jobs for the first time in their lives. Yet when they turn to the social services department, they're often told they still own too many assets to qualify for benefits. Embittered, they rail at a system that they had supported with their taxes but that won't offer help when they need it.

Food committee officials plan to publicize the existence of such problems in Howard and other subdivisions when they lobby legislators in Annapolis tomorrow. Their keynote? There's no escaping hunger and poverty, not even in paradise.

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