High costs in Howard County might be daunting to young adults

COLLEGE PARK — — Howard County has about 8,000 fewer young adults than 10 years ago, according to the U.S. Census. And some officials believe the county's high living costs may be the reason.

The Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning used data from the 2010 Census to show a decline of adults 30 to 39 years old over the past decade. The county also had about 800 fewer infants and children.

"If you put those two together, it may indicate that many young families are having difficulty living in Howard County," said Duane St. Clair, the director of the Association of Community Services of Howard County, a network of community organizations.

A family of four with two adults, a school-aged child and a preschooler needs to make an annual income of at least $83,557 to live in Howard County, according to the 2012 Self-Sufficiency Standard for Maryland.

Young professionals, who grew up in the county, might not be able to afford its high cost of living, St. Clair said.

The study calculates the basic costs for Maryland families by looking at the price of essentials such as housing, food, transportation and child care. It was created by researchers at the University of Washington School of Social Work, in cooperation with the Maryland Community Action Partnership.

But a family of four with two adults, a preschooler and a school-age child needs to earn more than 370 percent of the poverty level to "realistically support a family, without public or private assistance" in Howard County, the new Self-Sufficiency Standard shows.

"The Federal Poverty Level has little relevance to the reality of trying to make ends meet in Howard County," according to a recent study by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. The Policy Analysis Center and the Association of Community Services of Howard County commissioned that study.

"We have a lot of folks here that don't meet our income guidelines but are really living in the edge of poverty," said Anne Markson, the director of programs and services at the Community Action Council, a nonprofit that has been serving Howard County for more than 40 years

Families of any type are eligible for help paying their heating and electrical bills from funds such as the Maryland Energy Assistance Program, if they earn up to 175 percent of the poverty level, Markson said. She said case workers would refer those who may not qualify for assistance to churches, charities and other agencies.

A family could get food stamps and health insurance for its children if it makes as much as 200 percent of the poverty level, according to federal rules. That is still less than half of what a family of four would need to be self-sufficient, according to the new study.

"Many families lose benefits before they can be economically self-sufficient," St. Clair said.

Sometimes families are so close to the income limit that, when they get a modest raise of as little as an extra $1 or $2 an hour, they could be pushed over the income limit for several benefit programs, Viviana Simon said.

Simon is the former director of Howard's Policy Analysis Center, a partnership between the Association of Community Services of Howard County and the Horizon Foundation created to measure the impact of the recession on Howard's residents.

An example from the Hopkins report illustrates that a single parent of two children working full time, while earning minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, would lose benefits if she gets a raise to make $10 an hour.

The University of Washington study did not determine how many working families have incomes below the Self-Sufficiency Standard. Census Bureau data show that roughly 29,902 people in Howard County — about 10 percent of the population — live in families with incomes less than 200 percent of the census poverty threshold. (For a family of four, twice the poverty line would be about $44,000.) The census data count the elderly and other categories that were not included in the self-sufficiency calculations for working families.