Wealth gap in county widens

Median household income up about 15% in richest area, about 5% in poorest

1990, 2000 figures compared

Help not reaching those in need, advocate fears

Howard County

August 25, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The chasm between Howard County's richest and poorest neighborhoods is widening.

At the top in the state's wealthiest county is a census tract that includes most of Clarksville, where the median household earned $117,101 in 1999, according to new Census 2000 data.

At the bottom are Ellicott City's neighborhoods bounded by U.S. 29, U.S. 40, Interstate 70 and the county line, where the median household earned $41,237.

Those two census tracts held the same ranks 10 years earlier. But while both gained financially during the 1990s, Clarksville gained more - 15.5 percent compared with 5.5 percent in the Ellicott City tract, when adjusted for inflation.

A median household income of about $41,200 - which means half earn more and half earn less - would look good to the 40 percent of Baltimore-area census tracts where families earn less money. But it is a far cry from the county's median of $74,167.

"Big gap," said Dorothy L. Moore, executive director of the poverty-fighting Community Action Council, who fears that low-income families are not getting the help they need. "In Howard County, we take great pride in having services for families, but ... I don't think we do a very good job informing the public about our services."

Her organization met several weeks ago with representatives from 21 churches to improve outreach to people in poverty.

Moore plans to testify before the Governors Commission to Study Poverty in Maryland at a hearing scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Kahler Hall in Columbia, an effort by commission members to learn about people struggling to get by amid wealth. Nearly 10,000 Howard residents were living below the poverty line in 1999, according to the census.

The income figures, released this month, were compiled from responses to "long-form" census questionnaires sent to one in six homes.

They suggest that the richest areas in the county in 1999 were in western Howard, Columbia's River Hill and central Ellicott City - all with median household incomes above $100,000 - while the poorest areas were near the county seat in Ellicott City, south of Whisky Bottom Road in North Laurel, and in Columbia's Town Center and Wilde Lake villages, all with median household incomes below $60,000.

Town Center, at least, seems poised for an income boost. Newly built luxury townhouses in Columbia's core sell for more than $300,000. The cheapest apartments at Archstone Columbia Town Center, a nearby complex finished in May, rent for $1,125 a month.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City believes that the income difference between the county's richest and poorest neighborhoods is not a call to arms but a laudable strength. Howard is struggling to maintain income diversity and should not be an enclave for only the wealthy, he said.

Unlike Clarksville, the Ellicott City area at the bottom of the income list has apartments and townhouses in addition to single-family homes, Merdon pointed out.

"That's where I live, so I happen to think it's a very nice area," he said. "It may have a lower median income, but it still has a great neighborhood."

Only half of Howard's 2000 census tracts can be directly compared with 1990 census tracts because rapid population growth forced splits.

The unchanged census tract with the biggest financial gain in Howard County is the southern area between U.S. 29 and Interstate 95 that includes Scaggsville. Median household income there jumped 22 percent, to $98,852, when adjusted for inflation.

The Scaggsville area was among the county's 10 wealthiest in the 1990 census.

More surprising is the census tract that took the biggest drop in inflation-adjusted income: Thunder Hill in Columbia, an area in which comfortably well-off professionals are concentrated. Median household income dipped more than 9 percent to $82,064, according to the latest census, which knocked the neighborhood from third-richest to 16th of 41.

Erin Peacock, village manager for Oakland Mills, of which Thunder Hill is a part, suspects this is a case of turnover because housing prices remain strong. She is seeing young families moving into homes that had been owned by empty-nesters: "They were in their peak earning years and the young families are not. This is a good thing. The community's staying vital."

Sun electronic news editor Michael Himowitz contributed to this article.

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