Helping children

January 21, 2008

It's not surprising that Maryland has the lowest child poverty rate in the nation, according to the latest estimates from the Census Bureau. After all, the bureau also found the state to have the second-highest median household income, and another recent survey ranked Maryland as the nation's wealthiest state. None of these rankings, however, should encourage state officials or residents to become complacent. There are still significant pockets of poverty, most notably in Baltimore, where children and families need a lot of help.

The latest Census numbers - from 2005 - show that 12.2 percent of Maryland children under age 5 live below the poverty line, compared with a national average of 21.3 percent. Overall, the state's average poverty rate is 8.3 percent, the second-lowest in the nation. But a sobering reality is that the rate in Baltimore is still 22.2 percent. And the Maryland State Department of Education also reports that nearly 40 percent of elementary school students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

In a wealthy state, just trying to maintain a decent standard of living, much less avoid poverty, can be difficult. A recent study released by Maryland Advocates for Children and Youth showed that the cost of living for a family of three (a mother and two young children) in Maryland increased by 31 percent from 2001 to 2007, driven largely by high housing costs. That means a working family in Baltimore requires an annual income of more than $41,000 - about twice the federal poverty level for a family of four - just to make ends meet.

During the recent General Assembly special session, Gov. Martin O'Malley and legislators made an important move to help working families by expanding the earned income tax credit, leaving those families with more disposable income in their pockets. Passage of a child care tax credit during the current session would also help reduce child care expenses that are critical to working families.

Beyond tax credits, Mr. O'Malley and the Assembly could best assist low-income families by at least maintaining, if not expanding, the state's rental subsidy program and helping localities provide more affordable housing. Such long-term investments are essential if Maryland wants to maintain its status as a good place for children.

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