In Howard, a wealth of diversity

Census shows minorities' median income surpasses whites' in parts of county

August 14, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The richest people in Howard County's richest corner are minorities.

Median household income for blacks and Asians in the census tract that includes most of Clarksville outstripped what whites in that area earned in 1999, according to 2000 census data released yesterday.

In a surprising show of economic power, African-American and Asian households each out-earned whites in 30 percent of the census tracts in the county - the 10th wealthiest in the nation. Hispanic households earned more than whites in about 45 percent of Howard's tracts.

"This debunks the whole theory of `there goes the neighborhood,'" said Charles M. Christian, a University of Maryland professor of social and population geography. "The cost of diversity has been an absolute plus."

Census workers compiled income data from the "long-form" questionnaires sent to one in six homes.

The results also suggest that very wealthy minorities remain a small minority. In census tracts where African-American, Asian or Hispanic households are the top earners, they're almost always underrepresented - especially African-Americans, who make up 14 percent of the county overall but less than 6 percent in most of the tracts in which they out-earn whites.

Countywide, household income for minorities falls below that of whites, according to census figures. Howard's median household income - meaning half earn more and half earn less - was $78,976 for whites, $67,450 for Asians, $62,821 for Hispanics and $57,476 for African-Americans.

Though better than in most places in Maryland, the income gap between blacks and whites in Howard - 73 cents for every dollar - is still far worse than in Prince George's, Baltimore and Charles counties.

But in many of the most expensive Howard County communities, whites aren't the top earners.

In the Clarksville census tract, an area that also includes Dayton, Asian households claimed the highest median income: $178,683. The median African-American household earned $123,114, while white households' median income was $117,359.

Just southeast in the Fulton area, median household incomes were $152,673 for blacks, $120,123 for Hispanics and $111,446 for whites.

In only a third of Howard's 41 census tracts did white households have the highest median income.

"That is fascinating," exclaimed Anirban Basu, director of applied economics at Towson University's RESI institute and a man who is rarely surprised by census data. "It would appear the truly affluent minority population is disproportionately locating to Howard County. ... Obviously, it's a trend in the making."

He attributes it to the same sorts of things attracting wealthy whites: a central location, well-thought-of public schools and new "prestige homes" for sale on large lots.

In the Glenwood area, one of the rural, large-lot census tracts, median African-American household income was $200,000 - two times more than that of whites there.

But the Glenwood statistics come with a caveat. Census workers counted only five black households in the 5,800-person tract, which means sampling error could skew the results. Most census tracts have more than 100 African-American families.

Christian, the University of Maryland professor, thinks that community is still instructive.

"You're looking at a vanguard population," he said. "African-Americans who have relatively high incomes have few residential neighborhoods that are available to them that are predominantly black - so consequently, these families are ... wedging into all-white areas."

Minority households hold the highest median income in tracts across the county. But African-Americans as a group out-earn whites entirely outside of Columbia, which was revolutionary in the 1960s for its formation as a community welcoming of all races.

Sherman Howell, 58, thinks that's actually a testament to Columbia's good influence on the county as a whole. A longtime resident of Columbia, Howell, who is black, has found that African-American families now feel comfortable buying anywhere in Howard - and they have to look outside the planned community if they want a big yard.

But he has mixed feelings about such economic strength. He worries that wealthy blacks might forget the poor as they move into upscale environs. Howell, a computer software specialist whose two-income household brings in more than $200,000 a year, said he tries to help by serving as a vice president for the African American Coalition of Howard County.

"Now that a few blacks are becoming among the fittest of the species, they are contributing to the great divide between the rich and the poor," he said. "In such a situation, they must not allow themselves to sink into a level of insensitivity toward less-well-off blacks. ... The history of the progress of African-Americans has been those who are ahead giving back to those who are behind."

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