The latest census figures show that the poverty rate in Howard, the state's wealthiest county, is on the decline.
But people who work helping Howard County's poor - including the homeless and the unemployed - say they are seeing more requests for help in recent years, partly because of higher housing costs, job losses and government cuts to services such as child care.
"I think the biggest difference is the disparity is growing - the disparity between people who are growing in wealth and those in need," said Susan Rosenbaum, director of the county's Department of Citizen Services, which funnels money and support to a variety of private and public social-service agencies.
Poverty in Howard County declined from 4.1 percent in 2002 to 3.4 percent last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's new American Community Survey, which also found that Howard had a median household income of $88,555, the highest in Maryland and second highest in the nation.
Census officials said this week that the change in poverty is statistically insignificant and within the margin of error for so small a sampling. The survey, which went to 800,000 homes nationwide, went to 518 homes in Howard, where 407 people were interviewed.
"Just because there's a numerical change doesn't mean there's a true change," said Ed Welniak, chief of the income surveys branch of the Census Bureau. By federal standards, a family of four with an annual income under $18,810 is in poverty.
Laurie Roberts, 54, a resident of the county's Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center's homeless shelter since June, knows the problems.
She lost her 24-year manufacturing job for an area defense contractor two years ago because of her own and her late mother's illness, she said, and then exhausted unemployment, lost her apartment and could not live with relatives any longer. She gets some welfare money , but is homeless and jobless.
"It was one thing after another. It just hurt so bad. I am still trying to find work because I worked all my life," she said.
She said she hoped her experience working with delicate electronic parts might help her get training in a biotechnical field.
For people like Roberts, the path to financial independence is strewn with obstacles, including transportation. Roberts doesn't have a car.
Local agencies helping the poor report other indicators that demand for their services is increasing.
"We see working parents not being able to work" because of the loss of state-provided or subsidized child care, said Anne Towne, executive director of the county's Association of Community Services, an umbrella organization for 125 groups.
The soaring cost of housing has also increased pressure on the working poor, and the county froze its Section 8 waiting list in October. The number of available vouchers has not expanded in four years, while the demand has grown.
"We have enough people on the list to go another three years," said Sam Tucker, Section 8 coordinator in the county's housing office.
"Our requests for shelter continue to be high. That's why we started a cold-weather shelter last winter," said Andrea Ingram, Grassroots director. Requests for shelter totaled 2,747 in the year ending June 30, 2002, and increased to 3,266 by June 30 this year.
When people living in the shelter are ready for a new start, they can't afford housing in the county, Ingram said.
Doris Mason, interim director of social services in Howard, said the average monthly caseload for people receiving money rose to 279 in fiscal 2003 compared with a monthly average of 183 the previous year, even though unemployment declined slightly in Howard County.
She said the department also saw an increase in food stamps and medical assistance.
Howard County had a median household income of $88,555 last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's new American Community Survey. Below are the number of county house- holds in each income category.
Under $10,000 .........................3,184
$10,000 to $15,000 .................1,188
$15,000 to $25,000 .................3,923
$25,000 to $35,000.................. 5,043
$35,000 to $50,000.................. 10,813
$50,000 to $75,000...................12,523
$75,000 to $100,000 ................17,030
$100,000 to $150,000 ..............24,988
$150,000 to $200,000................ 9,636
Over $200,000............................. 5,750