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In Baltimore City, more people need help feeding their families

From 2008 to 2011, average monthly applications for food stamps in Baltimore increased by 66 percent, and applications for temporary cash assistance rose 35 percent, according to the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

These numbers are the most dramatic of many that all tell the same story: The recession has hit middle- and low-income Baltimore residents hard.

"We are seeing a whole new demographic of people: formerly middle-class people living middle-class lives who've lost their jobs and now are struggling to put food on the table," said Deborah Flateman, chief executive officer of the Maryland Food Bank. "In my experience, it's really unprecedented."

The 2012 federal poverty level for a family of three, as calculated by the Department of Health and Human Services, is $19,090. But a new study by researchers at the University of Washington, working with the Maryland Community Action Partnership, estimates that a single-parent family of three in Baltimore needs an annual income of $39,000 to $52,000 (depending on the age of the children) just to cover such basic costs as housing, food, child care and transportation. It does not include the purchase of a car, restaurant meals or even soda.

That is, to make ends meet without depending on outside aid, a family of three needs to earn well over the federal poverty level.

In Baltimore, from 2008 to 2010, an estimated 44 percent of the population earned less than double the federal poverty level and 62 percent earned less than triple the federal poverty level, according to census data.

In 2007, the same study estimated that minimal self-sufficiency in Baltimore required a family of three to earn between $33,200 and $44,000 annually. Since 2007, it has become between 17 percent and 19 percent more expensive to live in Baltimore City, a rise that significantly outpaces inflation.

The Maryland Food Bank sees many people who earn more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level — the cutoff for many safety-net programs — but still need help making ends meet, Flateman said.

The root problem is a common one nationwide: loss of jobs. The unemployment rate in Baltimore rose from an average of 5.7 percent in 2007 to an average of 10.1 percent in 2011, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Idle workers led to a spike in poverty. Twenty percent of families in Baltimore, one in every five, lived below the federal poverty level in 2010 — up from 15.4 percent in 2007, according to U.S. Census data. That is nearly double the national rate of 10.5 percent.

The rise in Baltimore families living in poverty is reflected by what's happened to household incomes over the same span. The mean household income in Baltimore fell by $541 from 2007 to 2010, according to census data. That does not account for an average annual rate of inflation of 2.1 percent over that span.

All this has led to a greater demand for social safety-net programs. Some of those programs have been able to cope with their increased burdens better than others.

Both temporary cash assistance and the food supplement program are federally funded. The food supplement program, which used to be known as food stamps, gets increased federal funding as demand rises, so qualified applicants are not turned away due to lack of funding.

Temporary cash assistance provides emergency financial aid to families with children under 18. Unlike the food supplement program, the state receives a lump sum of federal money for temporary cash assistance, and that sum does not increase no matter the demand. If applications surge (as they did from 2007 to 2010), the state must make do as best it can. It cannot ask the federal government for more money.

In 2008, Baltimore's Department of Social Services was able to help 63 percent of applicants for temporary cash assistance. In 2011, that number was down to 57 percent.

Private charities have been hit hard as well. Baltimore's largest soup kitchen, Our Daily Bread, served 1,800 more meals in the past six months of 2011 than it did during the same time period in 2010, according to its spokesman, Dennis Murphy.

David Smith is the manager of the Northern Community Action Center, one of the centers in Baltimore where citizens go to find out about and access myriad social services programs. He's seen the effect of cuts to these programs firsthand.

"We rely on a variety of federal grants to assist people, and some of those federal grants have been reduced, so we have to give a smaller amount of help to a larger amount of people," Smith said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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