Debbie Evans

Debbie Evans has had a room at the Project PLASE shelter for a year and a half. She is homeless but she is not officially classified as living in poverty because her monthly disability payments put her just above the poverty line. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / September 18, 2012)

The poverty rate in Baltimore held steady last year with about 1 in 4 counted as impoverished by the U.S. Census Bureau — a situation that economists say reflects the fits and starts of the nation's economic recovery.

After a jump of more than 4 percent in the city's poverty rate between 2009 and 2010, the rate held steady in 2011, according to data released Thursday. That stagnation reflects the national trend. In the past two years, 15 percent of the U.S. population was living in poverty, up from 12.5 percent in 2007, the year the Great Recession began, according to census estimates.

None of the Baltimore region jurisdictions — Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties — had a statistically significant change in the poverty rate between 2010 and 2011.

While the nation's unemployment rate declined from 9.1 percent to 8.5 percent last year, the number of people receiving public assistance such as unemployment insurance dropped as benefits ran out, economists said.

Many people who started receiving public assistance during the recession were reaching the end of their benefits last year, said Gregory Acs, the director of the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington. A significant number of people who lost benefits were pushed below the poverty line, he said.

"That was a bit of a wash," Acs explained. "The reason that poverty didn't go up was that we saw improvement in the labor market and not a whole lot of change in the social insurance programs."

Debbie Evans, 48, finds herself teetering toward poverty. For the past year and a half, her bedroom has been the size of a dorm room, and she has shared a bathroom, kitchen and living room with four other women.

"I really don't have no expenses, except my rent, my cellphone, food," said Evans from a chair next to her bed at Project PLASE (People Lacking Ample Shelter and Employment), a homeless shelter off North Avenue in Baltimore.

In the eyes of the government, Evans is not poor. She receives $1,047 a month in Social Security Disability Insurance, placing her about $1,000 above the poverty line for 2011. The federal standards for poverty count those who earn less than $11,500 for a single person and $23,000 for a family of four.

Some of the factors may result in another year of static poverty numbers in 2012 when the Census Bureau releases that data next fall, Acs said.

The U.S. economy had a fair beginning in 2012, with significant employment gains, which could put downward pressure on the poverty rate, Acs said. But at the same time, the wave of people whose unemployment insurance benefits are phasing out is greater in 2012 than in 2011, so that could push the poverty rate up.

"Based on where we are so far this year, I would expect to see a negligible change in poverty for 2012 relative to 2011 … but we haven't seen all of the year yet," Acs said.

Others say the extent of poverty has been masked by the expansion of welfare programs.

"If you get enough benefits, you're technically not poor," said Douglas J. Besharov, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland. "The stability is being driven by the fact that we count income from unemployment benefits."

He believes more people should be considered to be living in poverty than are actually counted by the government. "Take away the disability payments and they'd be considered poor," Besharov said. "We've let the disability program expand beyond the true levels of disability."

Moreover, Besharov said, most of the recent declines in the unemployment rate can be attributed to "discouraged workers" — people giving up the job search after months or years without work, Besharov said.

"It would be wonderful if there were more jobs," he said. "I don't see any evidence that there are more jobs."

Regardless of whether the poverty level goes up or down this year, experts said, Baltimore's population will suffer significant long-term effects because of the high incidence of childhood poverty.

More than 37 percent of Baltimore's children were living in poverty in 2011, up from 28 percent in 2007, according to Census Bureau estimates. The city's childhood poverty rate is unchanged from 2010.

"Being born into poverty is a good marker to being persistently poor and that's indicative of a whole host of problems," including poor performance in school and high levels of personal stress, Acs said.