WASHINGTON – Maryland recorded the lowest average poverty rate in the country from 1997 to 1999, while posting the second-highest median household income over the same period, according to a report Tuesday from the Census Bureau.
Maryland’s average poverty rate over those three years — the number of poor in the state divided by the total population — was 7.6 percent, according to report, Poverty in the United States. The national average for the same period was 12.6 percent, the lowest level since 1979.
The report also said the average of Maryland’s median income over those three years was $50,630, which trailed only Alaska’s median income of $51,046. The average national median income for the period was $39,657, the highest ever.
Maryland had the highest median income for 1998-99 and for 1999 alone, according to the report, at $51,715 and $52,310, respectively.
Advocates for the poor agreed that most people in the state are better off than ever before. But they said the poverty statistics in the report are misleading, since they are based on poverty formulas that were originally set in the 1960s.
But state officials were quick to hail the new findings, and attributed Maryland’s standing to the aggressive steps taken by the government to eradicate poverty and create job employment in the state.
“The numbers are in strong relation to the state’s strong economic growth,” said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gov. Parris Glendening.
“We have over the years laid strong emphasis on education and the creation of a. . .work force in the state,” that is attractive to businesses, Guillory said. “All this is prompting investors to take serious note of the state and has resulted in a huge increase in the job opportunities here.”
Advocates give the state credit for aggressively addressing social problems, but they said that the overall statistics can cover up some real and troubling pockets of poverty in Maryland.
“The numbers are really good, but there should be a degree of caution,” said Lynda Meade, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities in Maryland. “A family living in poverty is still terribly poor.
“We can never forget that a single disabled adult in Maryland gets only $4.40 per day to meet all of their needs,” said Meade.
She said the federal poverty rate is $14,000 a year for a family of three. Baltimore City and some counties on the Eastern Shore have the lion’s share of the state’s poor, while wealthy counties like Montgomery skew the overall results, Meade said.
Toni Graf, executive director of Annapolis Area Ministries Inc., said the federal poverty formula needs to be overhauled to present a more realistic picture of the actual numbers of poor.
“The figures taken by the bureau to determine who is above the poverty line and who falls below it is same as that was used in the 1960s when this study was first done,” Graf said. “The standard of living today is so much higher than what it was, and so it does not really reflect the poverty scenario correctly.”
Census officials agreed that the formula is old, although the actual poverty “matrix” has been upgraded along with inflation over the years. But they said it still provides an accurate measure of the relative number of poor residents, state to state and in the nation.
“It’s the official measure of poverty,” said Charles Nelson, the Census’ assistant chief for income, poverty and health. He said the old formula “gives a good measure,” but that the bureau is developing a new measure that it hopes will give a clearer picture.
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