Maryland is No. 1 in household income


Maryland had the highest median household income and the lowest poverty rate in the nation during the past two years, the U.S. Census Bureau said yesterday.

Household earnings rose to $51,715 according to combined data from 1998 and 1999, meaning that half of all Maryland households earned more, and half earned less. The national two-year median was $40,280.

At the same time, the percentage of Marylanders in poverty was 7.2 percent, down from 7.8 percent during the previous two-year period. The national rate was 12.3 percent.

"Things are good all over the nation in general, and now they're good finally in Maryland," said Mark Goldstein, an economist with the Maryland Department of Planning.

The data were part of the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, a monthly, national sampling of 50,000 households. The numbers reflect conditions in 1999, and are not part of the 2000 Census.

Nationally, the bureau reported the fifth consecutive annual increase in median income, adjusted for inflation, and the third straight year of declines in the national poverty rate.

The income gains were spread across all racial and ethnic groups, and marked the highest household incomes ever recorded for whites, blacks and Hispanics. The gaps between rich and poor were unchanged for the sixth straight year.

"That will happen when you have a strong economy that's been strong for quite a number of years now," Goldstein said. "I'm sure unemployment rates are higher for certain minority groups. But I'd bet their rates are down compared to historical measures."

The increase in median household income in Maryland - from $49,790 in 1997-1998, to $51,715 in 1998-1999 - nudged Alaska aside as the highest-income state.

"To lead the nation in household income is a stunning achievment," said economist Mahlon R. Straszheim, chairman of the economics department at the University of Maryland College Park and an advisor to Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Straszheim credited a highly educated labor force and rapid growth in knowledge-based industries in Maryland

"The state also benefits from a huge concentration of federal labs and agencies, all high-income employers that provide a lot of spinoff in federal contracting," he said.

Maryland also enjoys the affluence of the Washington suburbs, without being burdened by the District's urban poverty.

Straszheim said Maryland's affluence owes more to the D.C. suburbs, including Frederick County, than to the Baltimore metropolitan area. Even so, he said, the major job losses due to downsizing in Baltimore's manufacturing sector are in the past, and the city has seen new growth in other sectors.

Goldstein said, "No one is going to erase Baltimore's problems overnight." But he noted positive signs in the new job growth in Baltimore's high-tech sector and renewed demand for housing in some parts of the city.

Straszheim agreed that not everyone has shared in the state's abundance. "You have to have good skills, experience and education. And you have to have a family structure that allows you to get to work and take care of the children at the same time."

"But a strong and growing economy is the best guarantor of success throughout the income distribution," he said.

According to the Census data, blacks continued to trail other groups. The median household income for blacks in 1999 was $27,910, compared with $44,366 for non-Hispanic whites, and $30,735 for Hispanics.

Asian households topped the income breakdown at $51,205 - also a record high.

Nationally, the median household income reached $40,816 in 1999. That's the highest ever recorded, and an increase of 2.7 percent from an inflation-adjusted $39,744 in 1998.

The nation's poverty rate, which exceeded 20 percent of the population in 1960, continued to fall in 1999. It slipped from 12.7 percent of all households in 1998, to 11.8 percent in 1999.

That is the lowest national poverty rate since 1979, but still above the all-time low of 11.1 percent recorded in 1973.

It means 2.2 million fewer people were living on incomes below the official federal poverty lines, down from 34.5 million in 1998. The poverty threshhold in 1999 was $17,029 for a family of four.

Poverty rates fell among all racial and ethnic groups, the first time that has happened since 1969. The rates set or equaled historic lows for all groups except whites.

The state with the lowest median household income in 1998-1999 was West Virginia ($28,363).

No states registered an increase in their poverty rates. The highest rates of poverty were recorded in New Mexico (20.5 percent of the population), Louisiana (19.1 percent); and the District of Columbia (18.6 percent).

The District's poverty rate was 22 percent in 1997-1998. Median household income in the District climbed 8.4 percent during the same interval, from $33,621 to $36,429, compared with 3.1 percent nationally.

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