We know how to help the poor, in the suburbs and in the city

May 24, 2013

Thank you for Jamie Smith Hopkins front page story on the growth of poverty in suburbs across Maryland ("Poor people in Balto.'s suburbs outnumber those in city," May 21). The article is must reading for policymakers, civic groups, faith-based leaders and everyone who is concerned about the current and future well-being of our state.

As Ms. Hopkins notes, many of the poor in the suburbs have jobs, even full-time jobs, yet they live below the official poverty level of $23,000 year for a family of four. This dispels the notion some people have of the poor as people who avoid work and try to game the system. Those myths simply are not borne out by the facts.

Your article accurately describes the need for basic services like food, emergency shelter and others that are creating even more demand on the 17 Community Action Agencies across Maryland. Unfortunately, poverty has not declined in Baltimore and in our other urban areas. Rather, poverty has increased in the suburbs due to reduced number of jobs with a livable wage, the skills gaps and mismatch between what many employers need and what too many job applicants lack, and other distressing health and transportation deficiencies.

There is great potential for reversing these trends — trends that research shows not only hurt poor people but also negatively affect the quality of life for all in Maryland. The promising news is that Maryland's Community Action Agencies have been working on these problems and their solutions for almost 50 years. They know what works in really helping lift people and families out of poverty and into futures of economic security.

A few months ago, a letter writer to The Sun criticized Sen. Barbara Mikulski for referring to social safety net programs like Head Start, energy assistance, food banks, and community economic development as "investments." The writer called such public expenditures "waste and abuse."

That writer was wrong, and Senator Mikulski was right. Investments are those expenditures that produce a return on such investment. A client gets and keeps a job, a Head Start child enters public school ready to learn and achieve, a senior citizen gets a home-delivered meal, a family gets energy assistance and a better chance to move out of poverty.

Now that data show poverty is a problem in suburban, urban and rural areas, let's tackle it head on.

Don Mathis, Washington

The writer is president and CEO of Community Action Partnership.

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