Breaking

Poverty's Grip

Education: It can start people on the road out of poverty, but a new report says far too many Marylanders just don't have the opportunities.

January 27, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

More than 20 years ago Vacountess Drummond dropped out of high school to give birth to her first child. In the years that followed, she dreamed of getting the education she needed for a rewarding job.

Today, she's living her dream. She passed the high school equivalency test in 1998, learned to use computers and later received certification to care for children. Now she works at the House of Mercy day care center on Hollins Street, a position she likes and that pays the bills.

Drummond, 48, a West Baltimore resident, feels fortunate: "Some people don't get a second chance."

More than 100,000 low-income working families in Maryland are in desperate need of the kind of chance that Drummond grabbed. But the state falls far short in helping to provide them, according to a report released yesterday by the Job Opportunities Task Force.

The study says these workers don't have adequate access to basic education and affordable job training, and urges increased funding of programs that help set them on a career path to financial stability.

"Almost 614,000 adults over 18 do not have a high school degree," said Deborah Povich, executive director of the task force, a Baltimore nonprofit advocacy group for low-wage earners. "Without that fundamental tool - a high school diploma - workers will have a very hard time."

Nearly 118,000 working families - nearly one out of five in Maryland - are living on the edge with incomes less than twice the federal poverty threshold, according to the report, "Connecting Low-Income Families to Good Jobs: A Policy Road Map for Maryland."

In 1999 a family of four had to make $34,000 to hit twice the poverty threshold - a common measure for the minimum needed to raise a family because the official poverty level is so low. The median family income in Maryland was nearly $62,000 that year, according to Census 2000 data.

It's particularly tough to be among the working poor in Maryland.

This is the fifth most expensive state in which to rent a home, and rental costs rose faster here last year than in any other state, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

A renter needs to make nearly $19 an hour - or about $40,000 a year - to avoid spending more than 30 percent of his or her income on a two-bedroom unit in Maryland, the coalition found.

It's also difficult for low-income workers to get the training needed to propel themselves to better pay. Tuition for Maryland's community colleges was the 11th-highest in the nation in the 2001-2002 school year, according to the task force's report.

Meanwhile, the state's adult education system - including literacy and English as a second language classes - served only 4 percent of people in need of the instruction, the task force said.

It asserts that state leaders can improve the well-being of low-income workers by:

Changing state scholarship requirements so more money is distributed with financial need in mind. In 2002, nearly half the scholarships weren't based on need.

Offering incentives for employers to establish their own basic education programs, rather than subsidizing employers' higher-level training.

Directing more of the federal Workforce Investment Act funding toward job training. Much of it is used for job placement now. More training money could supplement programs such as the Skills-Based Training for Employment Promotion initiative, which has increased participants' incomes by an average of $5,800 in Baltimore alone but saw its funding reduced this fiscal year, the report noted.

Setting a higher wage requirement for new jobs created by businesses that receive state economic development assistance. The minimum of $7.73 an hour - $16,000 a year - is not enough, the task force believes.

Offering more adult education classes. About 5,000 people are on waiting lists for such classes around the state.

"They just need to pump more money into the adult education programs because they really are the best vehicles for getting people with limited resources and limited educational experiences the support that they need," said Meintje Westerbeek, associate director of English as a Second Language and special programs at Baltimore City Community College.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore-area Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said he's worried that generations of people on welfare will give way to generations of workers never able to reach the middle class.

"No one who works a 40-hour week should have to live in poverty," Cardin said yesterday in a telephone interview.

Cardin was to have given the keynote address at a Job Opportunities Task Force forum yesterday that was canceled because of the snow. Cardin said he's hopeful more federal money will be added this year to programs that help people get and keep good jobs.

"We know how we can achieve these results," he added.

Job training worked for Drummond, who studied at an adult literacy center in West Baltimore in 1998, when the youngest of her five children was a senior in high school.

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