It's the kind of statistic that makes politicians and economic development gurus cheer: Maryland ranked as the richest state in the nation last year, according to estimates released yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The state's proximity to Washington's lucrative jobs, its abundance of workers with advanced degrees, and solid health and research opportunities in the Baltimore area continually keep Maryland at the peak of the economic charts, experts said."We are able to access a level of job opportunities that are simply not available to the balance of the nation," said Anirban Basu, chief executive of the Baltimore economic consulting firm Sage Policy Group Inc. "That doesn't mean that Maryland doesn't have some degree of impoverishment in rural areas and in Baltimore City. But what Maryland has that many states do not have is pockets of affluence."
Look no further than Howard County, with a median household income of $94,260 - the nation's third-wealthiest behind the Virginia counties of Fairfax and Loudoun. In Maryland, Howard came in first.
"Not to sound arrogant, but what would really be news for us is if we fell off the top," said Richard W. Story, chief executive of the Howard County Economic Development Authority. "We're used to being number one when it comes to median household income."
Statewide, Maryland became wealthier in the first half of the decade, with the median household income rising to $65,144 in 2006, from $63,973 in 2000, when adjusted for inflation. Demographers note that while Maryland took the top slot last year, its median income was not statistically different from New Jersey's at $64,470. Maryland's income was nearly three times that of the nation's poorest state - Mississippi.
The figures come from the American Community Survey, which, unlike the once-per-decade census, are an estimate rather than a true head count. The tally includes jurisdictions of 65,000 or more and, for the first time, includes people who live in group quarters, such as nursing homes, prisons and college dormitories.
Even areas with entrenched poverty experienced some improvement, according to figures. Baltimore, which consistently places among the nation's poorest jurisdictions of its size, showed a decrease in the percentage of people living in poverty from 22.9 in 2000 to 19.5 last year.
"It's a good thing for the city," said Mark Goldstein, an economist at the Maryland Department of Planning. "It's certainly a sign that things are improving, but given the level of poverty, it's still a long way to go. But it's a start."
Basu, however, characterized the decline as modest and hypothesized that the poverty threshold had not been adjusted for inflation. Still, he agreed that Baltimore's economy is progressing, particularly in areas that have never been mired in extreme poverty.
"It should be stated that Baltimore's economy is performing much better than it was in the late 1990s - but renaissance came late to Baltimore," he said. "It's not surprising that the poverty rate went down, but it's somewhat disappointing that it didn't go down further."
For those who work with people struggling to make ends meet, the statistic offered little comfort.
"It's a good thing that the minimum wage went up by a buck, but you still have to have a job," said Ralph E. Moore Jr., director of St. Frances Academy Community Center, which links low-income people to jobs and training. "As you travel around the streets of Baltimore, you can see lots of people standing around in the middle of the day. These are folks who don't have work, some of whom have given up."
Grinding poverty means health insurance is often out of reach, and the cycle of hardship continues, said Moore. "It's a huge barrier," he said.
"If people are uninsured, it means they cannot afford health insurance and they are poor, end of story."
Nationwide, the median income climbed from $47,845 in 2005 to $48,200 in 2006, while poverty dropped slightly for the first time this decade, from 12.6 percent in 2005 to 12.3 percent last year.
Nevertheless, the ranks of the uninsured expanded in number and percentage from 44.8 million (15.3 percent) in 2005 to 47 million (15.8 percent) last year, according to a separate survey also released by the Census yesterday.
In Maryland, 776,000 people lacked health insurance last year, about 13.8 percent.
Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens Health Initiative, which advocates increasing the tobacco tax to benefit health care, said the need for reform is urgent.
"The number of uninsured is tragically high and we must do something about it now," he said. "Maryland is one of the best states in the country providing health care to children, but is one of the worst for providing health care to adults. That's unacceptable for the richest state in the country."
Incomes might be rising, but not fast enough to cover the surging cost of health insurance, said Mark Mather, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington think tank.
The national figures also reflect wealth gaps across demographic groups.
For instance, in 2006, seniors had the lowest poverty rates in decades at 9.4 percent, while the child poverty rate was nearly double that at 17.4 percent, about 12.8 million children.
"We have lots of programs in place to provide for the elderly, but clearly, programs that are designed to reach children are not as effective because there is still a large proportion who are poor," Mather said.
Across race and ethnicity, disparities persist. Nationwide, Asians had the highest median income with $64,200, while non-Hispanic whites' income was $52,400. Blacks and Hispanics showed the lowest median incomes with $32,000 and $37,800 respectively.
But in places such as Howard County, minority median income remains well above the national average, with blacks at $76,411, Hispanics at $64,188 and Asians at $100,523. The median income for non-Hispanic whites was $102,721.
People from every background are attracted to Howard County's schools, said Basu. In addition, an established Asian immigrant population in Columbia and Ellicott City tends to comprise young professionals with elevated incomes.
"People always ask who is going to buy all those five- and six-bedroom homes in Howard County. Well, I say a leading candidate is highly educated immigrants," he said.
Sue Song, a professor of psychiatric nursing at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, moved her family from Arlington, Va., to Ellicott City in 1981 expecting to enroll her children in private school. Then she learned of the good reputation of the county's public school system. She found a small but growing Korean community, many of whom were professionals like her. Many others yearned to be entrepreneurs and began pooling their money to start businesses.
"Pooling money is a real force in creating a savings," said Song, who - through her involvement with the Korean American Association of Howard County - has watched businesses take hold over the years.
Story said the growth of new businesses keeps Howard County's economy strong. The jurisdiction created about 4,500 jobs last year, second only to Montgomery County, he said.
Said Story: "I think we have the perfect balance of quality of life and a vibrant economy."
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