Census data give contradictory views on state of child poverty in Maryland

March 07, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland's child poverty rate is 6.7 percent, the lowest in the nation - or it's twice that, according to a new census report.

It's either gone down since 1990 - or it's gone up, depending on whether you listen to state officials or to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which releases a national report on the subject this morning.

Even the U.S. Census Bureau, which produced the different surveys that each entity is relying on, can't say who is right.

"In terms of who's more correct, I would say ... I'm not sure you can answer that question," said Chuck Nelson, a census economist and expert on its poverty statistics.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend trumpeted two weeks ago the state's success, quoting a census survey of 50,000 households nationwide showing that about 6.7 percent of Maryland's 1.3 million children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty line.

But the Baltimore-based Casey Foundation report, which examines "risk factors" for children in each state over the last 10 years, ranks Maryland 14th from the top among states. Using a different, more recent census survey of 700,000 U.S. households, the report says 13 percent of Maryland's children lived in poverty in 2000.

The smaller sample quoted by Townsend has been relied on for years as the best yardstick of poverty among states in the years between decennial census counts.

The larger survey used by the foundation was developed as a trial run for an even broader annual sampling of 3 million households, to begin later this year.

The two census surveys disagree not only on the scale of childhood poverty in Maryland, but also on its direction. The one favored by state officials shows the ratio of poor kids has shrunk by about half, from 14.2 percent in 1990. The larger one indicates an increase, from 11 percent to 13 percent.

William O'Hare, director of the foundation's "Kids Count" data collection project, said the foundation switched from the old census survey to the new one because of its larger size, which seemed more reliable.

State officials say they welcome the new numbers and are interested in lowering child poverty, whatever the actual rate. "It's always our goal to get the number down to zero," said Cleo Manuel Stamatos, spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Children, Youth and Families.

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