WASHINGTON – Maryland’s median household income of $55,394 was one of the highest in the nation in 2002, despite a slight drop from the year before that mirrored a nationwide decline, the Census Bureau reported Friday.
The report said Maryland’s median income fell a “statistically insignificant” $271 between 2001 and 2002 and the poverty level increased by 0.9 percent.
That was slightly better than the nation, where the number of people in poverty increased by 1.7 million, to 34.6 million, and the median income fell 1.1 percent, or about $500, to $42,400.
Experts attribute the downturn to the loss of jobs caused by the recession, which began in March 2001 and technically ended in November 2001.
The trend is “not surprising,” said Bob Zahradnik, a policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “because unemployment went up. And as unemployment goes up, income goes down. As incomes go down, poverty goes up.”
While Maryland’s median income was slightly higher than that in Minnesota and Alaska, the Census Bureau said the three states were close enough statistically to be tied for first place. Because the report released Friday was based on a Census survey, the numbers are not considered as reliable as those from the decennial census.
But experts warn that Maryland’s relative wealth is misleading.
“For every state there’s a story that the numbers don’t tell,” Zahradnik said. “There’s a real geographic inequality in terms of the distribution of income in Maryland.”
He said the extreme wealth concentrated in counties such as Montgomery, Howard and Prince George’s camouflages the immense poverty in areas like Baltimore, the Lower Shore and Western Maryland.
The latest county-by-county numbers released by the Census confirm that. In 1999, the most recent year for which county numbers are available, Montgomery County’s median household income was $71,551, compared to the statewide average of $52,868. Baltimore City’s median income that same year was only $30,078.
“When you look at numbers for a state like Maryland, it seems there is no problem,” Zahradnik said. “But, in reality you have to look a little deeper.”
Some are concerned that Maryland’s “illusion” of wealth will hinder federal and state aid for social programs.
“We hope that people who are the policy makers in this state and the general public realize that, in fact, there are great pockets of poverty in this state,” said Lynda Meade, chairwoman of Welfare Advocates, a statewide coalition on welfare.
“Every day in Baltimore City, 800 people line up for a meal at Our Daily Bread soup kitchen,” she said. “Clearly the need is there.”
The reports on poverty and income that were released Friday also showed that poverty rates in the Midwest increased in 2002, while the rates in the South, Northeast and West showed no statistically relevant change.
Whites and Asians were the only racial groups whose median income did not decrease during the period, the Census said. It also reported that women earned 77 percent of what men earned, matching an all-time high.