The number of residents receiving food stamps in Howard County has increased by nearly 30 percent in the past year, one of several indications that people are struggling in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, according to a report commissioned by two local organizations.
The number of students requiring free school lunches has risen 20 percent, while the number of food bank grants has risen 27.4 percent since last year, according to a study by the Policy Analysis Center, a partnership between the Association of Community Services and the Horizon Foundation.
The report measured need based on the use of services to subsidize food, health care, housing and education. The groups that conducted the study say the high cost of living in Howard County can make it more difficult for low-income families to make ends meet.
"The economic impacts of the recession might not have been felt in large parts of the community," said Duane St. Clair, executive director of the Association of Community Services, but the report findings show a number of families in Howard County who live on the edge."
But the food support programs aren't the only indications of an increase in need among Howard residents.
Those receiving temporary cash assistance are up 18 percent for households and 24 percent for individuals. Evictions are up 7 percent in the last year, and the number of residents on a waiting list for county-owned public housing has increased 41 percent, even though the number of available units rose 19 percent, to 1,065 units.
Since the recession began, the annual income needed to remain self-sufficient has risen 13 percent to 18 percent for various family sizes in Howard, and the county has one of the higher costs of living in the state.
For example, center-based child care in the county averages $1,350 a month but is $1,032 a month in the state as a whole, the study states. And child care costs can account for up 20 percent of income, the study says.
While the median household income is over $100,000 a year in Howard, one in five households makes less than $50,000 a year.
That amounts to over 20,000 households, said Viviana Simon, director of the Policy Analysis Center. "It's not a small percentage," she said.
Despite the high cost of living in Howard, the federal thresholds to receive benefits remain the same as in less-expensive areas.
"A lot of the benefits are tied to the federal poverty level," and when a family surpasses that income level, it's "far before you are able to have enough income to be self-sufficient" in Howard, St. Clair said.
An earlier report from the group shows that a single person in Howard must earn $31,517 to remain self-sufficient, but the federal poverty level, which determines eligibility for most public assistance programs was one-third of the cost in Howard: $10,850.
A single parent with two preschoolers must earn $72,000 in Howard, but the federal guideline is $18,310.
And while Howard residents face a wide gap between the cost of living and what subsidies will pay, many of those programs could see a decrease in funding as the federal government looks to cut spending, meaning the unmet need will grow.
"That is a concern that the situation will only get worse, but the need is only going to get worse," St. Clair said.
And while some might argue that residents who can't afford to live in Howard should look for a more affordable area, St. Clair said there should be more equal opportunities for all incomes, including those who work in the county but don't achieve that high median income.
He said many of the attractions in the county — such as strong schools and safe communities — draw people of all incomes.
"Why should we think that people without higher incomes would not want to live here?" St. Clair asked.