WASHINGTON – While the nation’s poverty rate rose for the first time in four years and median household income declined last year, those figures remained level in Maryland, according to Census reports released Tuesday.
Maryland’s median household income over the past three years averaged $55,013, second-highest in the nation, and the state’s poverty rate of 7.3 percent is well below the national average of 11.7 percent, the reports said.
But advocates for the poor say that Census figures are not accurate indicators of real poverty levels in Maryland.
Jennean Everett-Reynolds, director of the Maryland Kids Count Partnership said that the Census’ national survey method has “high error rates, especially for small states like Maryland” and that the report “should be taken with a grain of salt.”
Ed Welniak, chief of the Income Surveys Branch at the U.S. Census Bureau, said that “the story on income and equality is mixed” for the nation.
According to the study, Maryland’s median household income fell from $55,755 in 1999-2000 to $54,794 in 2000-2001, a drop that analysts consider statistically insignificant. During the same period, national median income fell from $43,195 to $42,695.
Maryland’s average median income over the three-year period was second only to Alaska, which had average income of $55,426 over the three years.
The federal poverty rate increased nationally from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 11.7 percent in 2001, marking the end of a four-year decline. The poverty rate in Maryland remained unchanged at 7.3 percent from 1999 through to 2001.
But Jan Schmidt, government relations director at Maryland Advocates for Children and Youth, said that the federal poverty level is “totally unrealistic in terms of cost-of-living in Maryland.”
She says that federal poverty level calculations are based on family food budgets from the 1950s. Social realities such as the need for child care have changed family budget priorities since then, she said, but the method of calculating federal poverty levels has not kept up because, “no politician wants poverty rates to go up on their watch.”
Schmidt points to Maryland Child Health Program participation guidelines as an indicator of just how far federal poverty rates are from the reality of poverty in Maryland: Under that program, families can earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level income and still qualify for no-cost assistance.
“There is no place in the state where a person could live at the poverty level,” Schmidt said.
Steve Hill, director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, agreed that the overall poverty numbers mask the real problem in the state.
“The focus on (average) poverty rates masks hardships that are experienced by Maryland families in some areas of the state, such as Baltimore City, where the poverty rate is up to 25 percent,” Hill said.