WASHINGTON – Maryland’s poverty rate is among the lowest in the nation and its median household income is one of the highest, the Census Bureau reported Thursday.
Only two states have a poverty rate lower than Maryland’s 8.6 percent, according to the Census Bureau, which estimated the state’s median household income at $47,711.
Nationally, the poverty rate sank to its lowest level in a decade, with an average of 13.2 percent of the population living in poverty between 1996 and 1998. The income and poverty statistics released Thursday were based on a sample of 50,000 homes across the country and averaged over three years.
“It’s phenomenal,” said Mike Morrill, spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening. “Maryland has a very good economy right now and it’s keeping these statistics, which have been good, in those good positions.”
Alaska and New Jersey were the only states with income levels higher than Maryland’s during the period, according to the Census Bureau stats. Only Utah and New Hampshire had poverty rates lower than Maryland, which was tied with two other states at 8.6 percent.
Census Bureau statisticians warned that the 1.8 percent margin of error for Maryland’s poverty rate could sharply affect the state’s standing. But that caution did not stop state officials from crowing about Maryland’s numbers.
“This is great news for Maryland,” said Walinda West, spokeswoman for Department of Business and Economic Development. “What should be up is up and what should be down is down. We have a robust economy and it is trickling down to every sector of our population.”
Experts echoed West’s assertion that a robust economy is behind the state’s standings.
“Maryland is essentially a wealthy state characterized by high incomes and a solid base of employment in professional services and federal government,” said Anirban Basu, senior economist at RESI, a consulting arm of Towson University.
“The state’s proximity to the federal government provides it with a job engine that is as powerful as any that exists in the nation,” Basu said. “Federal workers are paid extremely high wages on average and there are few private-sector industries that match the average wages that federal workers receive. In terms of income, this provides Maryland with an advantage few states can match.”
Basu also said the state’s aggressive welfare reform efforts and a growing tourism industry should continue to lower its poverty rate. In general, however, he said
Maryland’s poverty tends to be fairly concentrated, which is difficult to deal with on a public policy level.
“Certainly there are pockets in Maryland, in rural areas and urban areas alike, where there is ample poverty and where the state’s overall prosperity has yet to penetrate,” he said.
“Baltimore City continues to lose jobs, but new opportunities will soon open up downtown, including in hotels and other entertainment venues. These jobs will help bring many city residents into the labor force and push the poverty rate further downward,” Basu said.
But Lynda Meade, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities in Baltimore, said the statistics do not represent the reality that groups like hers are seeing in their soup kitchens, shelters and other assistance programs.
“Maryland is a very rich state. I wonder if it’s not that poverty is decreasing, but the statistics are there because there are more people who are wealthy,” Meade said.
Although the state can tout a 64.5 percent decrease in the welfare rolls over the last five years, Meade wonders if the state’s poor are really any better off.
“Behind those numbers are real women and children and adults who are struggling every day to make ends meet,” she said.