Median wages in Md. fail to keep up with cost of basic needs, report says

Some metropolitan counties see 60 percent increase in expenses

February 23, 2012|By Caitlin Johnston and Carl Straumsheim, Special to The Baltimore Sun

A family of three in Baltimore County needs about $62,000 just to make ends meet, a new report shows. And, without government assistance, minimum wage barely gets them a quarter of the way there.

In Baltimore City, that same family of an adult with a preschooler and a school-age child needs nearly $50,000, the report said, for a bare-bones budget.

The 2012 Self-Sufficiency Standard, scheduled to be released in Annapolis on Thursday morning, calculates the cost of living for Maryland families based on prices of such necessities as housing, food, transportation and child care. The report, prepared for the Maryland Community Action Partnership, found that median wages in Maryland — which have risen about 25 percent since 2001 — have failed to keep up with the increasing costs of basic needs, which are up statewide about 54 percent.

The result is a real cost squeeze, said Diana Pearce, director of the Center for Women's Welfare at the University of Washington School of Social Work, which conducted the study.

"People are working just as hard and more efficiently and more productively, but it's not showing up in wages," Pearce said. "And their costs are going up."

This continues to add pressure to what Pearce calls the working poor — people whose jobs simply aren't providing enough to meet basic needs. Even families with two working parents are in danger of not being able to pay their bills.

"It's not the lazy bunch," said Zenobia Williams, executive director of the Maryland Community Action Partnership, which advocates for policies that support working families. "It's hard-working Marylanders who just can't make ends meet."

Of the 37 states where the self-sufficiency standard has been calculated, Pearce said they haven't found any place in the U.S. that hasn't fallen victim to the growing gap between wages and cost.

John Ham, a University of Maryland economics professor, said, "Good industrial jobs for low-skilled workers are basically unavailable now. In terms of social programs, it's certainly clear it's not getting easier to be poor in America with all these budget cuts. Poor people don't vote as much, so they're much easier to cut than Social Security."

With an election looming, who votes and whom politicians pay attention to are critical pieces in this cost equation. The national poverty rate in 2010 stood at about 15.2 percent, meaning 46.2 million Americans were living in poverty — the highest number recorded in more than 50 years.

The 2012 federal poverty level, as calculated by the Department of Health and Human Services, is $19,090 for a family of three.

Factors like increased costs of working, including transportation and child care, were negligible when the poverty line was developed nearly half a century ago. The "inadequate measure" failed to take demographic and economic changes into account, Pearce said.

The standard might be too conservative, she added, as the calculations do not include expenses such as extracurricular and recreational activities, fast food and restaurant meals, and emergency costs or savings.

"We have seen an incredible jump in people becoming eligible for and accessing food stamps and other programs since the Great Recession," Pearce said. "We need to not have people be demonized when they have to turn to those programs to support their families."

While the state is broadening the application pool for some programs, it's also encouraging independence from the safety net, said Pat Hines, communication director for the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

"No one wants it to be a way of life," Hines said. "We don't want to be in the poverty maintenance program."

The recession has a whole new demographic trying to decipher how to access support programs such as food stamps. "People are embarrassed," Hines said. "The last thing in their comfort zone is going to their neighbor and asking, 'How do you get public assistance?'"

The report reveals striking differences within Maryland, from nearly $78,000 for a family of three in Montgomery County — more expensive than both San Francisco and New York City — to Garrett County, where families can get by with less than half of what their suburban counterparts pay.

More alarming is that several counties — Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard, among others — have seen their expenses increase by more than 60 percent. Expenses in Queen Anne's County nearly doubled in the past 10 years.

While no single cause is driving the cost increases, the report shows child and health care costs in particular have risen more than 50 percent each in the last decade.

Not a single county saw overall costs go down.

The University of Washington study did not determine how many working families have incomes below the Self-Sufficiency Standard. Census Bureau data show that roughly 1,215,591 people in Maryland — about 22 percent of the population — live in families with incomes less than 200 percent of the official federal poverty line. (For a family of four, twice the poverty line would be about $44,000.) The census data count the elderly and other categories that were not included in the self-sufficiency calculations for working families.

Johnston and Straumsheim are students in the Abell Urban Affairs Reporting Program and the Carnegie Seminar at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park.

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