Having to balance her part-time job as an EMT, going to school to get a nursing degree and carrying for her disabled son, 31-year-old single mother Rina Johnson knows it's not easy to make ends meet, especially living in expensive Howard County.
"It's hard," said Johnson, who lives in an apartment in the Columbia village of Kings Contrivance. "There are things that don't get paid on time and stuff."
With its high cost of living and highly skilled workforce, Howard County is a difficult place for low-wage workers like Johnson, who made $17,000 last year, to become self-sufficient, according to a Policy Analysis Center study released Wednesday, Sept. 21.
"Because Howard County is such an expensive county to live in, there are some people living under really dire conditions," the center's director, Viviana Simon, said. "These folks are working and working hard, and yet they're having hardships of making ends meet."
The center, a partnership between the Association of Community Services of Howard County and the Horizon Foundation, focuses on health and human services policy research, analysis and evaluation. It commissioned the "Making Ends Meet in Howard County" study to examine the local impact of the gap between the income level at which low-wage workers can receive public assistance and at which they become self-sufficient.
ACS executive director Duane St. Clair said he hopes the study will encourage individuals and organizations to work with the association to find solutions to the challenges low-wage workers face in moving from dependency on public benefits to self-sufficiency.
The study, conducted by Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies' researchers Marsha Schachtel and Shelley Spruill, found 7,750 "working poor households" in Howard County, defined as households where income falls between the Federal Poverty Level and the self-sufficiency standard.
"These numbers are 2009 numbers, so we're only capturing a little bit of what the recession caused," Simon said. She said it would be interesting to look at the data again in a few years to evaluate the full effect of the economy.
The Federal Poverty Level is the standard used for most public assistance programs. It does not account for geographic cost of living variances. Developed by the Policy Analysis Center, the self-sufficiency standard accounts for Howard County-specific costs of housing, child care, transportation, healthcare and taxes.
For one adult to be self-sufficient in Howard County, he or she needs to earn $31,517 a year, according to the standard. The Federal Poverty Level for one adult is $10,830.
The gap becomes even wider when factoring in children. The self-sufficiency standard in Howard County for one adult and two preschoolers is $72,000, but the Federal Poverty Level for the same family is $18,310.
Child care, the study notes, is "the largest non-tax expense in Howard County family budgets, and … has the ability to throw families into the financial abyss."
For Johnson, whose son needs constant medical care, it's even harder. She said he gets 50 hours of paid nursing services from the state (not based on her income), but it's not enough and she can't afford to pay for additional care.
"If he could receive the amount of nursing care that he needs, it would be a lot easier for me to go to work and go to school," she said.
Challenges are everywhere
St. Clair said the gap between dependency and self-sufficiency is wider in Howard County because of the high cost of living.
"For many people, they lose eligibility for public benefits before they are earning enough to purchase those (benefits) without some sort of subsidy," he said.
The disparity, the study notes, provides a "disincentive to earn higher wages."
Those who do strive to earn higher wages, however, face other challenges.
The study noted several growing industries in Maryland that would provide opportunities for the working poor to advance to self-sufficiency. The problem is many of those industries, such as educational, medical and technical services, require advance education or training.
"We are fortunate in Howard County to have a lot of high-tech companies and companies that pay very livable wages," St. Clair said. "The challenge is the people working in low-wage jobs don't have the education and training and experience to take advantage of those."
The study found that 62 percent of the county's working poor are without a college degree, compared to 39 percent of the entire county population.
Two-thirds of the working poor hold service, sales or office jobs, according to the study.
Johnson said she hopes getting her nursing degree will enable her to earn more money.
ACS plans to look at how it can provide educational and training opportunities and other supports, such as affordable child care, that will help low-wage workers move toward self-sufficiency, St. Clair said.
"Howard County's working poor are both victimized and blessed by their high-cost, high-talent, high-opportunity environment," the study concludes. "In other non-metropolitan parts of the state they might not be counted among the working poor because their expenses align better with their income. But they would not have the same opportunities in a growing economy. Enabling them to better connect with these opportunities remains the challenge."