Panel brings poverty study to Howard

Residents discuss issues faced in an affluent area

August 28, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

People charged with studying poverty in Maryland came to the state's richest county last night to hear about the plight of the poor in a place overwhelmingly geared toward the affluent.

They got an earful - on issues ranging from all the expensive recreational activities in which poor children can't participate to women remaining in violent relationships because they can't afford the high cost of housing on their own.

"This is a paying town," said Jean Lewis, family and community outreach liaison for the public school system, noting with frustration that even neighborhood soccer in Columbia costs more than $125. "There is a systematic exclusion."

The Governor's Commission to Study Poverty in Maryland, which will produce a report by December, has heard from the public in Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore.

Other meetings are planned in Allegany and Prince George's counties.

Different perspective

Last night, commission members met at Kahler Hall in Columbia for a different perspective.

"The greatest concentration of poverty in Maryland is in Baltimore City," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, a commission member and a former county executive. "But the commission members were very interested in being able to compare and contrast what it's like to live as a poor person in the midst of one of the wealthiest places in the country."

In Howard County - where the median household income in 1999 was $74,167 - nearly 4 percent of the population was in poverty, according to the 2000 Census.

But federal definitions of poverty-line income are well below what people need to get by in Howard, people told the commission.

The Census Bureau defines poverty by family size. A single person with an income of about $8,500 or less in 1999 was below the poverty line, as was a family of nine that made less than $34,500.

An adult with two small children needs $52,286 a year to pay for basic living expenses in the area, according to the Association of Community Services of Howard County.

`A huge endeavor'

Judy Clancy, executive director of the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County, said "it is a huge endeavor" for a person with $30,000 and two or three children to break free of an abusive relationship because housing and child-care costs are staggering.

"These conditions are keeping people in violent situations," she said.

Columbia resident Joanne Piersall, 58, said she slipped into poverty when her consulting business dried up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Piersall said she can't hold a traditional full-time job because severe osteoarthritis and other health problems make sitting and standing for long periods impossible, but she was denied disability assistance.

She wanted the commission to know how easily the bottom can fall out for single women her age.

"I've had to declare bankruptcy," said Piersall, who left her apartment and moved in with friends. "I have no retirement funds; I have nothing."

Edward D. Kiely, executive director of the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network in Columbia, said the immigrant population is growing quickly in Howard, and much of it is low-income.

They come for the good schools and low crime but must make sacrifices, he said. Many families share apartments. Some parents work two jobs. They often don't have time to learn English.

"There are hungry foreign- born children in Howard County," Kiely added.

Food banks - and social services offices - need to expand into evening hours so working families can get help, he said.

The Rev. Jorge L. Fonseca, pastor of the Iglesia Cristiana de Columbia congregation, said the biggest problem for Howard County's many undocumented immigrants is fear.

They won't call the police when they're assaulted, won't complain when landlords fail to do maintenance and won't speak out against employers taking advantage of them because they believe they'll be kicked out of the country.

"They live in isolation," he said.

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