1 in 4 Baltimore residents living in poverty

About one in four Baltimore residents is living in poverty, a one-year increase of more than 20 percent, according to estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Although the recession officially ended in June 2009, a federal survey conducted last year shows that the downturn's enduring effects have led poverty rates to skyrocket over a short period. The uptick is straining government and charitable resources and leaving Baltimore leaders scrambling for solutions.

"People who were managing have now dropped into poverty," said Susan J. Roll, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. "The poor are everywhere. They're not just people living in shelters. They're the person who poured your coffee. … They're cleaning your office when you're not there."

From 2006 through 2009, Baltimore's poverty rate hovered near 20 percent, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. The 2010 survey concluded that Baltimore's poverty rate was 25.6 percent, with a 1.8 percent margin of error. That is about 15 percentage points higher than the poverty rate for Maryland and 10 percentage points higher than for the United States.

Poverty sets in

Charles Opher, a 46-year-old from the Eastern Shore, wound up in Baltimore and in poverty last year. Pneumonia spread to his lungs and he was laid up for three weeks. When he was able to return to work, he says, he'd lost his job at a food manufacturing plant in Dorchester County.

He moved to Baltimore in November, thinking there would be more job opportunities for people like him who had survived the recession only to be steamrolled by its crawling recovery. Nearly a year later, Opher is still looking for permanent employment. His only income is from disability payments of less than $800 a month, about $9,600 for the year.

The Census Bureau's yardstick to determine whether a person is in poverty varies according to the number of people in the family and each person's age. For instance, a single person is considered to be in poverty if his annual income is about $11,000 or less. A family of nine is in poverty if the household income is less than about $45,000.

"I have to focus on the things I need, not the things I want," said Opher, who worked as a live-in manager at a transitional group home after moving to Baltimore but is now looking for a job as a security guard. Last week, he took part in a five-day workforce development program offered by the Our Daily Bread Employment Center. On Wednesday afternoon, he was at a computer there researching prospects and preparing to meet with a career counselor.

Across the nation, employment centers are filled with people like Opher. Baltimore is not an outlier, said Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington.

"This is a widespread challenge," Kneebone said. Many cities did not feel immediate effects of the recession because the housing industry wasn't a major local market driver, she said. During the recession, just over half of the biggest cities saw increases in poverty. By 2010, more than three-quarters of the nation's 100 largest cities had seen an increase in poverty levels. "As the recession spread to other industries and deepened, poverty increased."

Staying afloat

Mary White, 52, encouraged her daughter Nikki McClaim, 29, to go to Catholic Charities' downtown employment center this week to look for a job so they can stay afloat after McClaim's unemployment benefits run out. Her unemployment and food stamps and her mother's Social Security come to about $15,000 per year, McClaim estimates.

That's just a hair above the Census Bureau's poverty threshold for a two-adult household. When McClaim's unemployment benefits run out, they will dip below the poverty line unless she is able to find a job.

"I'm looking for a career," McClaim said, as she sat with her mother at a computer next to Opher. McClaim wants to work in the medical field but expects she'll have to work in a warehouse first, at least until she receives a high school equivalency certificate.

Regardless of her level of education, as a Baltimore resident, McClaim is more likely to be living in poverty than an average twenty-something elsewhere in the state. More than 30 percent of Baltimore residents who did not graduate from high school are living in poverty, compared with just under 20 percent statewide. Baltimore's poverty level is higher than the state average at all education benchmarks. Even college graduates living in Baltimore are more than twice as likely to be living in poverty as the average Maryland resident who has a four-year degree, according to estimates.

Baltimore also has an extreme rate of childhood poverty. The 2010 statistics estimate that 37.3 percent of people under age 18 in Baltimore are living in poverty, compared with an average of 13 percent for the state. The high level raises the question of how long the recession will remain in the psyche of city dwellers.

"Researchers who have studied recessions in the past are concerned about the long-term effects of poverty on children and youth," said Olivia Golden, a fellow at the Urban Institute research group in Washington. The stresses of poverty affect how children learn and ultimately influence their adult paths, she said. "We may be dealing with this for a long time."

Searching for a way out

Stemming poverty-related problems in Baltimore is complicated by the recession's "double whammy," Golden said. As the number of people in need of public and charitable support has increased, the resources available to help have dwindled.

Baltimore is struggling to hold on to its population and grappling with how to make ends meet.

Baltimore lost nearly 5 percent of its population from 2000 to 2010, and the high property tax rate has been hotly debated as its base of payers shrinks. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the City Council were forced to further cut city services this year to close a $65 million budget gap.

Rawlings-Blake has said she supported major events such as the Baltimore Grand Prix to create jobs, while focusing other economic development initiatives on strong local industries such as health care and biotechnology.

Before last week's election, Rawlings-Blake noted that in the current city budget she devoted an added $100,000 to Canton's Emerging Technology Center, a business incubator. She also said she has maintained funding for the city's career centers despite two consecutive years of budget shortfalls.

"The mayor believes that it is absolutely critical Congress pass the president's jobs bill now to get Baltimoreans back to work and earning paychecks," said spokesman Ryan O'Doherty in an email Wednesday. "Failure to act now will only raise the risk of even more city families falling further behind and into poverty."

City Councilman Carl Stokes, chairman of the Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, says that in addition to rethinking the property tax, Baltimore leaders have to boost the incomes of poorer residents by improving the public schools and creating an environment in which private employers will train and hire city residents.

"Poverty is the thing that is killing our city," he said. "We create jobs in this town, but they're frequently going to people who live elsewhere."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young is not concerned that the jump in the poverty rate will deter future employers. The city's many low-income residents, he said, are a blank slate for manufacturers, in particular, who could educate residents for certain types of jobs while they are still in high school.

"We need businesses to step up to the plate, partner with our schools," Young said.

He also hopes that employers will give opportunities to residents who have been convicted of crimes, a group that makes up a large portion of Baltimore's poor. "Once a person has done their time, give them a second chance."

Eighty percent of the people Michael Jones teaches have criminal backgrounds. Jones is part of the front line for Baltimore's poor job-seekers as training and curriculum coordinator for the Our Daily Bread Employment Center and an employment academy operated by Catholic Charities.

Jobs and training programs are not plentiful enough in Baltimore, Jones said, to meet demand. In the year and a half that the Work 4 Success program has been going, he said, more than 1,500 people have attended and there is a waiting list for future classes. At the end of each course, he provides his students with a list of about a dozen job training programs, many that are paid.

"The number of resources is diminishing, but the number of people looking for help is increasing," Jones said. "If I'm the Maryland State Department of Labor, I should be doing whatever I can do to increase the number of resources for these same folks. We should be looking at 30 to 40 of these training programs, not a dozen or less."

Eugene Tauber of Tribune Newspapers contributed to this article.