Baltimore among poorest areas of comparable size, census shows

Maryland 3rd-wealthiest state, 2004 report shows

August 31, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

While Baltimore's housing boom transforms some city neighborhoods into high-end enclaves, many of the city's current residents are too poor to afford them.

Nearly one in four city residents live in poverty, according to 2004 estimates released yesterday from the U.S. Census Bureau - the sixth-highest poverty rate in the nation among 236 areas of similar size. Three Texas counties; Bronx, N.Y.; and Philadelphia had higher percentages of people living in poverty.

The figure sharply contrasts with Maryland's reputation as one of the nation's wealthiest states. It also stands apart from surrounding counties, such as Anne Arundel, with a median household income of $66,986, and Howard at $82,065, the fifth-richest county in the nation.

But for people who call Baltimore home, the statistics confirm what they have noticed all over town. The city is prospering, but only a few are reaping the benefits.

"The dynamics are clearly changing, and poor people are very nervous about being able to afford what is available to them," said Ralph E. Moore Jr., director of the Community Center of St. Frances Academy, which links low-income people with job resources and computer training.

"If you take away the housing and the schools continue to be in a state of confusion and jobs are not available, you have a significant problem," he said.

The findings show Baltimore's median income increased by nearly 5 percent from $32,452 in 2003 to $34,055 in 2004 - while poverty also rose from 20.9 percent of city residents in 2003 to 23.9 percent in 2004.

Census demographers stressed the year-to-year comparisons are estimates, based on a self-reported survey of about 14,000 households statewide, and should be viewed with caution.

Researchers plan to add more households to the survey each year to create a more comprehensive report, which includes a mountain of data, from median household income by race to the percentage of people who speak a language other than English at home. The study, known as the American Community Survey, began in 2000 and will eventually replace the decennial Census survey.

The Baltimore growth in poverty mirrors a trend statewide and nationally, painting a picture of a national economy still recovering from recession.

While Maryland was the third-wealthiest state in the nation in 2004 - behind New Jersey and Connecticut - its median household income dropped from $58,710 in 2003 to $57,424 in 2004. The percentage of people living in poverty also rose from 8.2 percent to 8.8 percent.

In a separate report, the Census released national and statewide data on income, poverty and rates of health insurance.

The national median household income remained unchanged at about $44,400, but the poverty rate rose slightly from 12.5 percent to 12.7 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of people without health insurance coverage remained unchanged at about 15.7 percent, about 45.8 million people.

In Maryland, about 810,000 residents lack health insurance. The percentage of the uninsured rose from 13.6 to 14.2, based on two-year averages.

"I think a perfect storm is brewing," said Glenn E. Schneider, executive director of Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, an advocate for universal health care. "Income is stagnant and poverty is up and employment-based health care coverage is down, all of which leads to an increase in the uninsured."

For Baltimore, the figures are no surprise, say demographers, who note the city has struggled with high concentrations of poverty for several decades.

But others say the city's population is leveling off somewhat after decades of decline and Baltimore is benefiting from well-off residents moving in.

Otis Rolley III, the city's planning director, said the majority of new residential construction developments include housing costing $200,000 or more. Meanwhile, the city estimates its mean annual income at about $40,000, he said.

"I think we are getting a lot of empty nesters, who tend to be wealthier," he said.

But Rolley said the housing boom isn't taking place only along the city's fringes.

"The comfort is while we're seeing the new construction, we are also seeing an increase in permits being pulled in more established neighborhoods," he said. "That's a good sign for neighborhoods because people moving there are seeing their property values go up."

But some people living in the shadows of the tony high-rise condos along the Inner Harbor say their reality is more bleak.

"My mother lives in the Perkins Homes, and it's really depressing," said Nickey Jefferson, 26, referring to the housing project near Eden and Gough streets in southeast Baltimore. "But right nearby, the houses are so much money, just because it's Fells Point. But look at the conditions in these neighborhoods right here."

Jefferson, a medical office assistant at City Springs Elementary School, was chatting with friend Evangeline Davis, 30, who was picking up her 4-year-old son from the school yesterday.

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