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Op-ed

Wherever the economy is going, it’s leaving too many Maryland families behind | GUEST COMMENTARY

Volunteers from the United Way of Central Maryland packed 150 food boxes in August for a “Dinner On Us" program, in partnership with Hungry Harvest and McCormick Company.

This is a confusing time. On one hand, our country has seen the cost of food, gas and other basic necessities skyrocket. On the other, we’ve seen strong wage growth and greater labor force participation. Some people think we are on the road to recovery. For others, things are harder than ever.

As the leaders of two Maryland-based organizations working to improve the well-being of families in this state, we find common concern in telling the real story of how Marylanders are faring, using real data.

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The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual KIDS COUNT Data Book, released in the back-to-school rush, did show a drop in child poverty nationally. So did a new analysis from the New York Times reflecting the boosting effects of safety net programs launched in the early 1990s.

But some of the more helpful tools, like the pandemic-era enhanced child tax credit, are gone. And left behind are more than 663,000 Maryland households living as ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), a population to which United Way of Central Maryland is calling urgent attention through local and national reports.

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ALICE families face an impossible Catch-22: They make too much to qualify for federal programs but too little to afford what are truly basic needs: housing, child care, food, transportation, health care and a smartphone plan that is essential for both job-seeking parents and kids tasked with homework.

The challenge is most acute in Baltimore City, where 36% of families with children are ALICE households; next in the region is Baltimore County (30%), followed by Anne Arundel (28%), Harford (25%) and Howard (23%). But even where the rate is lowest (Carroll County, 21%), there are still about one out of every five kids — a whole row of students in a classroom — who are trying to do their best to succeed in spite of hunger, illness and perhaps even spillover stress from parents struggling to make ends meet.

United Way and Casey Foundation data also reveal devastating and stubbornly persistent racial and ethnic disparities, the kind that throw additional obstacles in front of children of color. Overall, 12% of Maryland kids lived in poverty between 2016 and 2020, but the figure was 15% for Latino kids and 18% for Black children.

National dialogue does not always tell the full story of what these young people or the ALICE families in our state are facing. But understanding the data — and the experiences behind them — is crucial for lawmakers, nonprofits and other organizations like ours to develop solutions that address sometimes-invisible needs and help families thrive.

United Way, Casey and our partners are supporting several initiatives to connect Maryland children and families with the resources they need. The 211 Maryland United Way Helpline, for example, connects callers to resources, such as housing relocation assistance and Lyft rides to doctors’ appointments or job interviews. There have been more than 230,000 calls to the helpline from Central Maryland since the beginning of 2021. The new United Way Family Center that opened last month in Columbia is another example. Like similar United Way Neighborhood Zones in Poppleton and Brooklyn, both in Baltimore City, it offers affordable child care to local families. And, United Way’s Strategic Targeted Eviction Prevention (STEP) program — which launched during the pandemic — has distributed more than $70 million to prevent evictions for more than 9,000 households and utility shut-offs in the area.

But more solutions, programs and policy changes are needed. In the Maryland General Assembly, lawmakers should consider policies to ensure all children have nutritious food, stable housing and safe neighborhoods, as well as tools to achieve financial stability. And they can act to help the 49,000 children in Maryland who do not have health insurance. Any child without health care coverage is one too many in a prosperous state like Maryland.

The 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book ranked Maryland 16th among the states in promoting the economic well-being of children, and United for ALICE has the state tied for the 18th-highest share of working families living above the asset-limited, income-constrained, employed threshold. These rankings are not the worst. But Maryland is nowhere near the best. We know that we can — and should — do better for the parents, caregivers and kids in our state.

Together, we can improve the lives of Marylanders. Join us by supporting volunteer efforts and implementing policies that meet kids’ basic needs and foster positive mental health, wellness and future stability.

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Franklyn Baker (franklyn.baker@uwcm.org) is president and CEO of United Way of Central Maryland. Lisa M. Hamilton (president@aecf.org) is the president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.


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