Howard County Times

Report shows Howard poverty on the rise

Needy people are having a tougher time getting by in prosperous Howard County as the continuing recession and high living costs pinch even working people with incomes far above outdated federal poverty guidelines, a recent county report on poverty says.

Though the county's median household income is $102,540, many families facing high rents, medical and transportation costs are just squeezing by — or not — according to statistics gathered by the county's Board to Promote Self-Sufficiency. Statistics that measure the need for free food, or help with utility bills, housing and medical care, are all sharply higher, while the number of homeless people is also increasing.

"I think the gap [between rich and poor] is widening," said Andrea Ingram, the longtime director of Howard's Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center and the county's main homeless shelter. The 1960s-era federal poverty guideline, intended as an indicator of the cost of food for a family of three is $18,310 a year, but a more realistic minimum amount for independent survival in Howard County is more like $47,000 to $72,000, depending on the number and ages of children, the report said. Ingram said Grassroots is having to turn away more callers, despite having a larger, three-year-old building next to Atholton High School.

Howard schools have 463 students who are homeless, Bita Dayhoff, director of the county's Community Action Council anti-poverty agency told about 100 people at a Columbia meeting on homelessness Oct. 28. The number of families getting money to prevent eviction has risen from 298 in the 2008 and 2009 discal years to 327 for the year that ended June 30. In the first three months of this fiscal year, the number is on track to reach 480 by June 30.

"This is unprecedented for our organization," she told the group.

"It seems like since the economic problems began, the job situation is affecting more people," Ingram said. Many people in distress are working, she added, but have had their hours cut or can get only the lowest-paying jobs. Many, she said, "are having trouble adjusting to lower-paying jobs." And some can't get by even making the income listed in the county's new minimum-income standards.

Eva Whitley, 55, a widow who lives in North Laurel, said she fits that description. She has a college degree and a $62,000-a-year technical editing job with a federal contractor, but can't quite support herself and her 19-year old son, a Howard Community College student who has been unable to find a part-time job to help out. She and her son have chronic medical conditions, she said, and with rent for their two-bedroom apartment at $1,400 a month, a $333 monthly car insurance bill to allow both to drive one vehicle and a $462-a-month car payment, she's slowly sinking financially and now is facing eviction. "I have hundreds of dollars of unpaid medical bills," she said.

She'd like to buy a small house as a way of paying less for housing, but bad credit from her past has made that difficult. She bought her Kia when her last car died and she had a higher-paying job, but if she sold it now, the proceeds wouldn't even pay off the loan, and then she and her son would have no transportation. He has mild Asperger's syndrome, and she has arthritis in both knees, which is why she had to leave her last job, which was six blocks from a Metro station. Whitley had e-mailed Dayhoff describing her problems under a heading of "I don't know what to do."

She needs one month's rent and an income of $200 more a month to get by and start paying off back bills. She asked for and got a 3 percent pay raise at work, she said, but then higher health insurance costs wiped it out.

"I now understand 'Alice in Wonderland,' where the Red Queen says, 'You have to run as fast as you can to stay in place.' "

She is far from alone.

In the past three years, 79 percent more Howard families are getting food stamps, including 31 percent more children. In just one year, according to Dayhoff, the number of people getting donated food rose from 6,614 in fiscal year 2009 to 12,599 the next year. The amount of food distributed from county food banks went from 136,630 pounds to 295,503 pounds.

"I think that life in Howard County is very challenging for low-income families," Dayhoff said.. "As our population grows more affluent, families in the low-income sector get pushed down to the bottom."

Medicaid, the state and federally funded health program for the poor, was serving 14,025 Howard residents in March, the report said, a 19 percent increase in three years. Uncompensated care at Howard County General Hospital grew 11 percent during that period.

Cash grants given to pay utility bills are up 224 percent over three years, thanks in part to an expansion of funding to cover more of the need. County-subsidized housing voucher programs (formerly Section 8) had a waiting list of 3,987 people in the fiscal year that ended June 30, and there's a list of 5,000 waiting for public housing.

To keep more people from becoming homeless, eviction-prevention cash grants rose 82 percent in three years, while funding has also gone up from $94,494 to $167,877. Despite that, the county's annual one-day count of the homeless in January found 141 people who had no permanent place to stay, including those in shelters, and 88 of those people were living on the streets, an increase of 200 percent since 2009.

To fight back, agencies that help the poor are trying to find ways to address problems before they reach a crisis. Dayhoff said she wants to place small food banks across the county, instead of having them mostly concentrated in Columbia, as they are now. That would help those without transportation.

Jane O'Leary, director of Bridges to Housing Stability, a small anti-homelessness group, said focus is shifting to prevent homelessness if possible, rather than solving it once it occurs. A 10-year plan to end homelessness is due out by year's end.

"It's a goal and the first step in reducing it," O'Leary said, acknowledging the difficulty of the task. "It's a tough time to be setting out on this."