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Census highlights prosperity of 1990s


Most of America prospered during the 1990s, with the biggest and most surprising gains made in the former "Rust Belt" of the Midwest.

The latest batch of data from the 2000 Census, released yesterday, shows that the nation's median household income grew by 7.6 percent after inflation. Median home values increased by 20 percent, and the number of families living below the federal poverty line dropped by 8 percent.

Midwesterners living in metropolitan areas saw median household incomes climb by $4,351, to $47,775, after adjusting for inflation - the biggest increase for any region in the country. Likewise, poverty in the Midwest metro areas declined by almost 1.5 percent - the best performance in the nation.

Although household incomes in the Midwest continued to trail those in the West and Northeast, experts who combined housing, poverty and employment factors into the calculation declared the Midwestern metro areas, overall, the most prosperous in the country during the 1990s.

Marylanders' pocketbooks got fatter, too. The state held onto its ranking as the third richest, with a median household income of $52,868. Howard and Montgomery counties were once again among the 20 richest counties in America, according to the new data. The Baltimore metropolitan area had the 15th-highest median household income of the 50 largest metro areas, while the Washington metropolitan area was ranked fourth.

But not everyone shared in America's well-being in the 1990s.

"I see the general story as one of unequal fortunes and prosperity that is not fully shared during the 1990s," said John R. Logan, director of the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at the State University of New York at Albany.

"The people with above-average incomes did much better than people at the poverty level," he said. "People in the suburbs did much better than people in cities. And metropolitan areas in the Midwest and the South did much better than in the Northeast and in Southern California."

Despite growing income, the percentage of people living in poverty grew in 14 states, including Maryland. (In 1999, a family of four with two kids was in poverty if the household income was less than $16,895.)

"In a long period from the mid-1970s and 1980s, the trend was toward declining income inequality," Logan said. "In the 1990s, the real story was that the rich were getting richer."

The new Census data include the first nationwide statistics from the 2000 Census "long-form" questionnaire, completed by about 19 million American households, or about one in six.

The figures are the first from the 2000 Census long form that allow national comparisons. In addition to its high income, Maryland had the 12th-highest median housing values. And two Maryland counties (Calvert and Charles) clocked some of the nation's 25-longest commuting times (about 39 minutes each).

Perhaps most strikingly, the data reveal that Americans nearly everywhere became better-educated during the 1990s. The percentage of people older than age 25 with a college degree grew from 20 to 24 percent. The percentage of high school dropouts shrank from nearly 25 percent to less than 20 percent in 2000.

Americans saw they needed a college education to achieve a middle-class lifestyle, Logan said. But this upgrading of the labor force did not pay off with substantially higher incomes.

"People have to be better-qualified now to make more or less the same living they did 10 years before," he said.

An independent analysis by the Mumford Center found that among the 331 largest metropolitan areas, those in the Northeastern and Western states - especially Southern and Central California - saw overall declines in their prosperity.

The study measured prosperity by folding Census data on income, poverty and unemployment rates, educational and occupational attainment and housing indicators into a single index.

Logan said the impressive gains in prosperity in the Midwest's metro areas represent a rebound from the "de-industrialization" of the 1970s and 1980s, when many old auto, steel, tire and meat-packing plants closed. He credited a diversification of the region's economy to include businesses related to health care, agriculture and financial services.

In the South, Logan said, improvements in income and poverty rates appear to flow from "a long-term catching-up with the rest of the country" rather than industries specific to the region.

Metro areas in Southern California put in some of the nation's worst performances. The decline of the region's aerospace industry, combined with the large number of immigrant workers and people coming off welfare, encouraged the development of businesses that compete by cutting labor costs. Garment manufacturing, landscaping, construction, food service and health care all produced jobs but pulled down median incomes.

Los Angeles saw the biggest decline in median household income of any metro area in the nation during the 1990s - down more than $3,000. Poverty rates increased in Los Angeles and three surrounding counties.

The Northeast also failed to share fully in the good times, the Mumford study found. Poverty rates increased in New York City and in the wealthier Long Island metro areas despite gains in household income.

The Washington, D.C., area, which includes counties in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, ranked fourth in median income among the nation's 50 largest metro areas. It trailed only San Jose, Calif.; the Nassau-Suffolk metro area on Long Island, N.Y; and San Francisco.

But though income increased in the Washington area, the percentage of people living in poverty also grew, from 6.6 percent to 7.4 percent.

The Baltimore metro area, which ranked 15th in median income, trailed metro areas including Atlanta (No. 12), Newark, N.J. (No. 8), Orange County, Calif. (No. 7) and Denver (No. 14).

Median household income increased in metropolitan Baltimore by about $2,500, compared with $3,000 for metro areas nationally. The percentage of people in poverty grew in the city and three of its six metro counties. And unemployment increased slightly, to 4.9 percent.

As with many Northeastern metro areas, the income gap between the city and Baltimore's suburbs widened during the 1990s, Logan said. Median household income in Baltimore slipped from 58 percent of its suburban counties to 54 percent in 2000.

That's not news, said Kristen Forsyth, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Planning. It began in the 1950s when people began moving to the outer suburbs and left older communities with fewer resources.

Despite Baltimore City's travails, the 2000 Census ranked five of its six suburban counties among the nation's 100 wealthiest as measured by median household income. Even the laggard, Baltimore County, ranked 189, still in the top 6 percent.

Baltimore City was ranked No. 2,282 in household income, in the poorest 29 percent of the nation. More than 27 percent of the city's households had incomes less than $15,000 - the highest percentage in the state.

Howard County's income figure slipped from 6th place to 10th among the nation's 3,141 counties, at $74,167.

Montgomery County ranked 8th nationally in the 1990 Census but slipped to 13th in 2000.

Income growth in both counties was low compared with many others on the "wealthiest" list. But Pradeep Ganguly, chief economist at the state Department of Business and Economic Development, said that's not surprising in mature counties with relatively slow population growth and already high median incomes.

"As long as Montgomery and Howard continue to have high income levels, it's not a big concern that the growth rate has declined," he said.

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