Maryland ranks 3rd in nation in wealth

Montgomery, Howard among richest counties


Maryland is the third-richest state in the nation and home to two of its richest counties, a U.S. Census Bureau report showed yesterday, in part because of a high number of double-income families and the well-paying service sector jobs in the Washington area.

The report, based on 2003 surveys and on tax records, listed Howard as the nation's eighth-richest county, with a median income of $79,455, and Montgomery County 11th, with a median income of $76,546. Los Alamos County, N.M., a county with a relatively small population that includes many scientists and government workers, is the nation's wealthiest county.

The median household income in Maryland was $54,302, behind Connecticut at $56,409 and New Jersey at $56,356.

Montgomery and Howard counties have found a place in the upper echelons of wealth partly because of their large upper-middle-class populations, said Stephen Fuller, professor of public policy at George Mason University.

"It's not that we all get big salaries here. We just work very hard. And we have more workers," Fuller said. "There are not that many billionaires and not that many persons at the low end of the income spectrum."

The latest data were culled from a national survey of about 80,000 households and from administrative sources such as tax returns and food stamp records, said David Waddington, chief of the Census Bureau's small area estimates branch.

In general, the census figures show a bulge of wealth in the Mid-Atlantic region, more specifically in the orbit of Washington. Also ranking high were five Virginia counties, Loudoun (No. 3), Fairfax (No. 5), Falls Church (No. 9), Stafford (No. 13) and Prince William (No. 20).

Historically, women in the Washington area have joined the labor force in relatively high numbers, which places households in nearby counties at an economic advantage, Fuller said.

"Our economy is more gender-neutral than Pittsburgh or St. Louis, where there is a manufacturing and warehouse base," he said. "The muscle between the ears is more important than the muscle in the arm. ... We've been pushing paper here for years."

In addition, those paper-pushers tend to have generous pay.

"The biotech industry in Montgomery County, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, the National Security Agency at Fort Meade - these are pretty bright people, and they get paid pretty good wages," Fuller said. "They're examples of the kinds of jobs that have fueled the economic growth in Montgomery and Howard counties."

Officials in the high-ranking counties are delighted but not surprised by their rankings, which are similar to previous Census rankings based on a slightly different and less comprehensive survey.

Howard County's economic health can be illustrated by the growth of its businesses, including Dryer's Grand Ice Cream Holding Inc.'s $250 million construction project in Laurel, which will result in the world's largest ice cream manufacturing plant when completed next year, said Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

In addition, many companies that have been doing business in Howard for decades are opting to stay in the county. Baltimore Aircoil Co., a worldwide manufacturer and marketer of heat transfer and ice thermal storage products, recently moved into its $10 million headquarters in Jessup after being in the county for more than 30 years, Story said.

Joe Shapiro, spokesman for the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development, called the county's ranking a "great sign" of its diverse economy and business community.

Perhaps the county's prime example of economic growth is Silver Spring, which has been transformed into one of the hottest business addresses in the area, Shapiro said.

"It's flourishing," Shapiro said. "I think that, right there, is the county in the microcosm."

Not everyone is benefiting equally from the infusion of money into these counties.

"There are a lot of people who live in Howard County who can't really afford to live there," said Ruben N. Gaimaro, an area real estate agent. "Some of the housing has been selling for $750,000 or more, and even at [a median income of] $80,000, you're not going to get" those homes.

County officials have expressed concern about land and housing prices and are seeking ways of promoting more affordable housing units in the county.

Overall, the new census data also revealed that although there are many pockets of wealth in the South and West, the states with the highest incomes are all on the East Coast.

Mississippi had the lowest median income, at $32,397. Montana was 46th, followed by Louisiana, Arkansas and West Virginia.

The median income for the nation was $43,318.

Census figures show that Southern and Western states have been growing in population much faster than those in the Northeast and Midwest. Despite those population shifts, the list of the wealthiest and poorest states in 2003 looks a lot like the list from a decade before.

"You're going to see those areas - Mississippi, Appalachia - those are just characteristically, throughout history, poorer areas," Waddington said.

The income gap among counties was even more pronounced than the one for states. Most of the wealthiest counties were suburban, and nearly all of the poorest ones were rural.

"This is a reflection of a poverty problem in non-metro areas," said Dean Jolliffe, an economist at the Department of Agriculture. "These are areas where there really isn't any economic development going on."

Sun reporters Laura Cadiz and Gerald P. Merrell, and the Associated Press contributed to this article

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