Affluent state impoverished at urban core

Survey: New figures from the Census Bureau underscore the wealth of Maryland and the poverty of Baltimore.

August 27, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

On average, Maryland is home to some of the nation's most affluent, well-educated residents. But within those figures lie the stark realities of Baltimore, which ranked as the 18th-poorest city in 2003, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures released yesterday.

Baltimore's poverty rate was 20.6 in 2003, a figure that remained virtually unchanged from 2002 - meaning 20.6 percent of the population lives in poverty.

Nationwide, Maryland ranked behind New Jersey in median household income, becoming the second-most affluent state, rising from fifth in 2002.

The figures come from the American Community Survey, which was conducted in jurisdictions of at least 250,000 people.

Howard County, for years a magnet for wealthy families, ranked as the second-most affluent county on a list of 233.

Although the figures strengthen the state's image as home to a highly educated, well-paid work force, advocates for low-wage earners said the numbers underscore the widening gap between the richest Marylanders and those at the middle and bottom of the pay scale.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Aug. 27 misstated the number of jobs requiring vocational and secondary-school training that the Job Opportunities Task Force predicts will be created in the Baltimore area through 2006. The correct number is fewer than 1,800. The Sun regrets the error.

"The data is affirming that there is a class of citizens enjoying the promise of opportunity, while there is a group of people, through no fault of their own, who are falling further behind," said Deborah Povich, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force in Baltimore.

They are people like Arthur Green, who once dreamed of being a chef in his own tony restaurant but works as a cook at the Franciscan Center in Baltimore's Charles Village, which offers an array of services to the poor, including hot meals.

Green, 51, quit his $8-an-hour job as a cook at a buffet restaurant in Glen Bernie after an illness. It took him six months to find another job.

"My sister would bring me food every day, and she paid my gas and electric and telephone bill," he said. "I didn't know what I was going to do."

One day at the Franciscan Center, he noticed a help-wanted sign near the kitchen. He applied and was hired the next day.

Earning $8.50 an hour, he still needs to pay monthly rent of $675 for his efficiency apartment in South Baltimore, along with other expenses.

Low-wage jobs keep many like Green underemployed, said Povich, whose organization released a study last year that predicted job growth through 2006 would add 30,000 low-skilled jobs to the Baltimore region but only 18,000 jobs that require vocational and secondary-school training.

"We are going to continue with those poverty numbers without increasing opportunities in those middle-tier jobs," she said.

The other side of the statistics show a different picture of Maryland. The state's median household income of $57,218 remains among the nation's wealthiest, despite a struggling national economy.

The figures continue Maryland's trend of consistently ranking in the upper echelon of affluent states for the past three years, despite the entrenched poverty that continues in Baltimore.

Economists said that Maryland's demographics - including a highly educated work force and well-paying jobs in industries such as defense - shielded it from the recession and keep the overall economic engine churning while other states struggle to recover.

The state is home to research agencies, from top universities to think tanks with jobs that require a high level of education and pay a high wage, said John Hopkins, associate director for applied economics at RESI, the research and consulting arm of Towson University.

For Howard County, with a median household income of $88,555, according to the American Community Survey, it's more good news for an area sitting in the Baltimore-Washington job market that attracts wealthy families with its top-rated school district.

The nationwide statistics provide a sharp contrast with those of affluent Howard County. Census figures show that many people find themselves struggling from paycheck to paycheck.

Often they work jobs that don't offer health insurance or pay too little for people to afford it.

In 2003, the number of people in poverty rose to 35.9 million - an increase of 1.3 million over 2002.

Last year, the number of people without health insurance reached 45 million, an increase of 1.4 million over 2002. The increase was caused by lost jobs and cutbacks by companies that pay for coverage for fewer of their employees, according to the Census Current Population Survey.

Those national statistics, released yesterday in a separate report, point to an economy still in recovery. The figures could prove significant in the presidential race, in which the nation's economic health is a top issue.

In Maryland, universal health care advocates were discouraged to see the ranks of the uninsured increase from 12.8 percent to 13.6 percent.

Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, which backed a failed bill in the General Assembly that would have covered about 70,000 Marylanders, said the growing figures provide further reason to try persuading lawmakers to adopt the measure.

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