Md. child poverty rate drops to become lowest in nation, census says

Townsend to unveil report on conditions for children today

January 06, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland's child poverty rate dropped dramatically in 1998, giving the state the lowest rate in the nation, according to U.S. Census estimates.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend will announce that figure today as she unveils the first state report to measure conditions for Maryland's children -- a report with statistics that will be used to determine which counties are using effective strategies to improve education, lower crime and combat teen-age pregnancy.

The report tracks statistics gleaned from a variety of sources in eight categories, from the health of babies to the success of children in school.

The poverty statistic provided the most dramatic number. Maryland's rate dropped from 13.4 percent of children living in poverty in 1997 census estimates to between 7 percent and 7.5 percent in 1998.

"I think what it says is that we've made progress, but we still have a way to go," Townsend said yesterday.

The booming economy has contributed to lower rates of child poverty nationwide. The national rate dipped to between 18.3 percent and 18.9 percent in 1998, its lowest point since 1980.

Virginia followed Maryland in the estimates, with a rate of 9 percent for 1998.

The yearly census data were derived from a sample of 50,000 households nationwide, prompting advocates to urge caution about interpretation of the numbers. The sample has a margin of error of about 4 percentage points.

Advocates say they see evidence that poverty is still a problem. A recent survey by the Center for Poverty Solutions found a sharp increase in the use of the state's food pantries and homeless shelters.

While many former welfare clients have moved into jobs, those jobs rarely pay much above the minimum wage, putting workers above the poverty line but below the standard of living in a wealthy state.

For example, a family of three would have to earn twice the federal poverty level of $13,133 to afford the average two-bedroom apartment in Maryland, said Deborah Povich, director of public policy for the Maryland Center for Community Development, a nonprofit group that works on affordable housing.

Advocates also worry that the poverty number will hurt the chances that Gov. Parris N. Glendening will use part of the state's $1 billion surplus to improve conditions for the poor.

But Townsend said that would not happen.

"We're spending money on education -- that's critical; drug treatment -- that's critical; and health care -- critical," she said. "All those resources should help put these numbers in the right direction."

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