By Megan Schneider
CNS Special Report
COLLEGE PARK – A family of three in Caroline County — an adult, a preschooler and a child in school — would need more than $44,500 to cover essential costs, including housing, child care, transportation, health care and food, a new study shows. That’s more than twice the federal poverty level, which is $19,090 in 2012, as calculated by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Self-Sufficiency Standard, created by researchers at the University of Washington School of Social Work in cooperation with the Maryland Community Action Partnership, calculates a baseline income that Maryland families need to earn to cover their basic needs.
According to census data, the median household income in this Eastern Shore county is just under $60,000. But more than 11 percent of the county’s population earns less than the federal poverty level. Caroline County is tied with Worcester with the sixth highest poverty rate in Maryland.
The annual self-sufficiency wage for this three-person family in Caroline County in 2001 was $26,569. Today, in 2012, that figure has jumped 67.5 percent because of rising costs.
Since 2001, this family’s taxes more than doubled, health care increased 82.6 percent, and child care went up 70.5 percent.
Because of this jump in costs of these basic needs during the recession, more county residents are applying for financial assistance from the government.
So far in fiscal 2012, the average number of monthly applications for the temporary cash assistance program at the Caroline County Department of Social Services has increased 20 percent from fiscal 2011 and 35 percent from fiscal 2010, according to state numbers.
As the recession has dragged on, nonprofit organizations that deal with needy families have also answered more calls of help.
Saint Martin’s Ministries, located in Ridgely, serves families at or below the poverty level with its emergency food pantry, stocked by the federal government through The Emergency Food Assistance Program.
Jean Austin, operations officer of this charity, said more new families, averaging an additional 15 each month, are seeking help because of their long-term unemployment.
“Last year, for our FY ending July 31, we served an average of 277 families per month,” said Austen in an email. “This FY, in the first six months, that average has increased to 318 families per month.”
Saint Martin’s Ministries also runs an eviction prevention program that is based on the availability of funds. In 2010, funding that was awarded to Saint Martin’s by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development under the state’s Homeless Prevention Program was projected to last 36 months. It was gone in 18 months, Austin said.
In Denton, Rebuilding Together Caroline County provides free services to low-income homeowners who are elderly, disabled, veterans or families with children. The group has built wheelchair ramps, repaired ceilings and floors, installed new electric wiring and heating systems, and improved insulation.
Families of one to five members, who received assistance from Rebuilding Together Caroline County in 2011 earned, on average, $18,351.70, which is below the poverty level, said Patrice Morrison, the group’s president.
Of the 48 “critical” projects in 2011 completed by Rebuilding Together Caroline County, the homeowners have lived in their home for an average of 24 years, half were between 19 and 64 years old, and the other half were over 65 years old. Eleven of those homeowners were disabled and four were veterans.
This organization’s funds come from donations. Ninety-nine percent of those funds finance its projects.
“We’re doing more without more money. The town (of Denton, the county seat,) is not getting as much money as previous years from taxes because people aren’t making it,” Morrison said. “It’s not a dead-end county. It’s a beautiful county, but it just doesn’t have the financial resources.”
Caroline County ranks second in the state of Maryland in terms of land protected under the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, preserving 28,000 acres of land.
But the agricultural nature of the county has limited the number of businesses to mainly farms and mom-and-pop stores.
Caroline County’s fiscal 2011 financial report said that “the collapse of the housing market, high unemployment and weak consumer demand have dampened local business activity.”
“The entire county has gone into a tailspin within the last years. I can’t think of even a dozen new construction projects within the last five years,” said Morrison, who added that some residents have to drive more than an hour to work because the county has so few jobs.
Those mom-and-pop businesses used to line the main street in Denton, but today, a majority of them are empty storefronts. Caroline County’s weekly newspaper, The Times Record, reported that in the 200 block of Market Street, two buildings that have four storefronts are in foreclosure due to the owner’s bankruptcy filing.
A December 2009 retail market study identified two of the main challenges for Denton: “We need to fill in the empty shops” and “Business recruitment and retention is a challenge for this market as it is not as affluent as other markets.”
One business plan for Denton that residents hope will bring greater economic development is the addition of a Walmart, which will provide at least 250 more jobs for residents, including the disabled.
The supercenter is set to open this summer or fall off Route 404.
The University of Washington study did not determine how many working families have incomes below the Self-Sufficiency Standard. Census Bureau data show that roughly 8,687 people in Caroline County — nearly 27 percent of the population — live in families with incomes less than 200 percent of the census poverty threshold. (For a family of four, twice the poverty line would be about $44,000.)
The census data count the elderly and other categories that were not included in the self-sufficiency calculations for working families.