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Joe Nathanson: Hard times in suburbs, too

The country recently marked the five-year anniversary of the market meltdown that was punctuated by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the venerable Wall Street investment bank and securities firm, which filed for bankruptcy protection on Sept. 15, 2008.

A few days after that doleful anniversary, the Census Bureau released the latest snapshot of America’s households in the form of the 2012 American Community Survey. Focusing on the Baltimore area, the census information presents in sharp relief the economic wreckage felt across the region.

Household incomes took major hits in nearly every corner of the area. Baltimore city median household income dropped by about $3,600 between 2008 and 2012 in inflation-adjusted dollars, from $42,800 to $39,200. In relative terms, Baltimore County households fared even worse. There, the median income fell by more than $4,500, and Harford County households experienced an average loss of $6,000 in income over the years since the nation’s financial collapse. Howard and Carroll counties had more modest declines. Only Anne Arundel County avoided a similar loss, but the average gain for its households was just $700 over the four-year period, from $88,500 to $89,200.

This bleak economic picture also confirmed news reports from earlier in the year. Poverty is not just a story applying to the urban core. Poverty has found a home in suburbia. Taking the five counties surrounding Baltimore as a whole, the suburban ring has about the same number of persons in poverty. Each — the suburban ring and the city — has just above 150,000 people living below the poverty level.

Looking at young people in the region — the population under 18 years of age — poverty has an even greater presence in suburbia. The suburban ring was home to an estimated 44,300 young people living in poverty, compared with 41,900 in Baltimore.

Almost all of the jurisdictions experienced increases in the percentage of youth living in poverty. Baltimore recorded the greatest increase, from 25 percent to more than 31 percent of its youth in poverty. But there was also Baltimore County, registering an increase from 10.1 percent to 12.8 percent, and Harford County jumping from 7.8 percent to 12 percent.

With more than 125,000 workers unemployed (8.6 percent of the labor force) in 2012, how did households in the region cope with these difficult economic conditions? For one thing, many were relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. While SNAP is much in the news these days, with a current proposal to cut these benefits by $40 billion over the next 10 years, it should be clear that food stamps are not only used by the urban poor. In 2012, this benefit was used by more than one of every 10 Baltimore County households. Food stamps were also helping make ends meet for one of every 12 Harford County households and for one of every 14 households in Anne Arundel County.

It should be clear that efforts to provide assistance to individuals and families experiencing economic hard times must extend into suburban pockets of poverty, without diminishing efforts directed on behalf of the urban poor. These findings are not necessarily a surprise to those community organizations that provide services to those suffering the effects of poverty.

For example, still in the early stage of the recession and its aftereffects, the Community Foundation of Anne Arundel County presented its 2010 report titled “Poverty Amidst Plenty.” It reports: “Beneath [a] comforting picture of general affluence, however, lies another Anne Arundel County, this one characterized by significant poverty and distress. Despite the county’s growing affluence, over 22,000 Anne Arundel County residents lived in poverty … and more than 7,000 of these are children. … The chances of living in poverty are more than double for blacks.”

The United Way of Central Maryland also recognizes the level of distress in the suburbs as well as the city. The organization reports on food insecurity across the region. Food insecurity is the inability to consistently obtain adequate food due to lack of funds. The United Way estimates that 130,000 face food insecurity in Baltimore city. But nearly 200,000 are in that precarious position in the suburban ring, according to the United Way’s estimates, including more than 92,000 food-insecure individuals in Baltimore County and nearly 47,000 in Anne Arundel County.

The suburban counties around Baltimore are not unique in having residents in fragile economic circumstances. This story is repeated across metropolitan America. Policy makers should be mindful of the widespread impacts — across cities, suburbs and rural areas — of shredding the already fraying social safety net.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates, Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He contributes a monthly column to The Daily Record. He can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net.