WASHINGTON – The proportion of Maryland children living in poverty rose from about one in 10 kids in 1990 to almost one in eight by 2000, according to an analysis of Census data released today.
Maryland’s increase came as the percentage of children living in poverty nationally fell. While the number of impoverished children here stayed below the national average of about one kid in six, Maryland’s rate of increase was fifth- highest in the nation.
The rapid spike in the number of poor Maryland children — from 126,000 in 1990 to 177,000 in 2000 — is cause for concern, said Bill O’Hare, director of Kids Count, which published the study with the Population Reference Bureau.
“The fact that poverty crept up so drastically during the ’90s is disturbing,” O’Hare said. “In light of how rich Maryland is, how come poverty is headed in the wrong direction?”
Some advocates said the rise was driven by a dramatic poverty increase in places that were left behind by the economic boom of the 1990s. Debbie Trumbull, of the Center for Poverty Solutions, pointed to Baltimore, the state’s urbanized counties and the lower Eastern Shore as places where poverty blossomed over the last decade.
“When the lieutenant governor came out a couple oof years ago (boasting) about Maryland’s low child-poverty rate, Maryland was touted for a while,” Trumbull said. “But those of us who work in the trenches were saying that there still was serious poverty in pockets around the state. What we’re seeing now is a testimony to that.”
Officials at the Governor’s Office for Children, Youth and Families would not comment on the survey, which they had not seen Wednesday. But spokeswoman Cleo Stamatos said the office has previously incorporated Kids Count data into statewide studies and plans to look into these findings.
“Whether we’re No. 1 or whatever, we’re constantly working to improve the lives of kids,” Stamatos said. “Even one child in poverty in Maryland is one child too many.”
Advocates said the boost in child poverty also can be explained by the increase in the number of Maryland kids who lived in working poor families during the 1990s.
The study showed that the percentage of Maryland kids whose parents had jobs but could not earn enough to climb out of poverty grew from 12 percent to 18 percent in the ’90s. The percentage did not rise as sharply nationally, going from 19 to 22 percent.
Chronic poverty of working families has become a problem in the past five years, as welfare reforms have pushed them off welfare and into jobs that pay less than a living wage, advocates said.
Because these parents have jobs, they often do not qualify for aid like food stamps or child care vouchers. But they also cannot stretch their paychecks to pay for everything their kids need.
“Kids in working-poor families are less likely to have health insurance and other benefits than those kids who are really poor, who qualify for government programs,” O’Hare said.
“We pushed a lot of people off of welfare since 1996, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” he said. “But I think the second stage is the need to support these working-poor families with child care and health insurance and food stamps and after-school care.”
Whether parents are working or not, life can be devastating for children who live in poverty, said Lynda Meade, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities in Baltimore.
“We hear birds, they hear gunshots,” Meade said. “I deal with people walking their dogs, they deal with drugs dealers. They probably can’t go on school trips, and sometimes instead of a birthday party they might get one modest gift.”
The study did offer some bright spots for Maryland. It showed that the number of kids who lived in a household headed by a high school dropout fell 24 percent during the 10-year span, slightly faster than the national average. It also showed that the proportion of kids who lived in “high-risk” families — those that meet several criteria related to poverty — remained constant.