Charles Opher, 46, moved from Cambridge to Baltimore last November… (Amy Davis / Sun Photographer )
About one in four Baltimore residents is living in poverty, a one-year increase of more than 20 percent, according to estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Although the recession officially ended in June 2009, a federal survey conducted last year shows that the downturn's enduring effects have led poverty rates to skyrocket over a short period. The uptick is straining government and charitable resources and leaving Baltimore leaders scrambling for solutions.
"People who were managing have now dropped into poverty," said Susan J. Roll, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. "The poor are everywhere. They're not just people living in shelters. They're the person who poured your coffee. … They're cleaning your office when you're not there."
From 2006 through 2009, Baltimore's poverty rate hovered near 20 percent, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. The 2010 survey concluded that Baltimore's poverty rate was 25.6 percent, with a 1.8 percent margin of error. That is about 15 percentage points higher than the poverty rate for Maryland and 10 percentage points higher than for the United States.
Poverty sets in
Charles Opher, a 46-year-old from the Eastern Shore, wound up in Baltimore and in poverty last year. Pneumonia spread to his lungs and he was laid up for three weeks. When he was able to return to work, he says, he'd lost his job at a food manufacturing plant in Dorchester County.
He moved to Baltimore in November, thinking there would be more job opportunities for people like him who had survived the recession only to be steamrolled by its crawling recovery. Nearly a year later, Opher is still looking for permanent employment. His only income is from disability payments of less than $800 a month, about $9,600 for the year.
The Census Bureau's yardstick to determine whether a person is in poverty varies according to the number of people in the family and each person's age. For instance, a single person is considered to be in poverty if his annual income is about $11,000 or less. A family of nine is in poverty if the household income is less than about $45,000.
"I have to focus on the things I need, not the things I want," said Opher, who worked as a live-in manager at a transitional group home after moving to Baltimore but is now looking for a job as a security guard. Last week, he took part in a five-day workforce development program offered by the Our Daily Bread Employment Center. On Wednesday afternoon, he was at a computer there researching prospects and preparing to meet with a career counselor.
Across the nation, employment centers are filled with people like Opher. Baltimore is not an outlier, said Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington.
"This is a widespread challenge," Kneebone said. Many cities did not feel immediate effects of the recession because the housing industry wasn't a major local market driver, she said. During the recession, just over half of the biggest cities saw increases in poverty. By 2010, more than three-quarters of the nation's 100 largest cities had seen an increase in poverty levels. "As the recession spread to other industries and deepened, poverty increased."
Mary White, 52, encouraged her daughter Nikki McClaim, 29, to go to Catholic Charities' downtown employment center this week to look for a job so they can stay afloat after McClaim's unemployment benefits run out. Her unemployment and food stamps and her mother's Social Security come to about $15,000 per year, McClaim estimates.
That's just a hair above the Census Bureau's poverty threshold for a two-adult household. When McClaim's unemployment benefits run out, they will dip below the poverty line unless she is able to find a job.
"I'm looking for a career," McClaim said, as she sat with her mother at a computer next to Opher. McClaim wants to work in the medical field but expects she'll have to work in a warehouse first, at least until she receives a high school equivalency certificate.
Regardless of her level of education, as a Baltimore resident, McClaim is more likely to be living in poverty than an average twenty-something elsewhere in the state. More than 30 percent of Baltimore residents who did not graduate from high school are living in poverty, compared with just under 20 percent statewide. Baltimore's poverty level is higher than the state average at all education benchmarks. Even college graduates living in Baltimore are more than twice as likely to be living in poverty as the average Maryland resident who has a four-year degree, according to estimates.