By LIZ FARMER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Advocates for the state's low-income families are asking Maryland legislators to give top priority this session to allocating funds for affordable housing, health care, adult education and child care for the poor.
"I know, and it's been my experience, that you will go through the budget piece by piece, and program by program," Kathleen Gardiner told the Senate Budget and Taxation committee during a briefing Thursday by the Maryland Alliance for the Poor (MAP). "And even among all of those programs, we believe programs that alleviate poverty and help people bring themselves out of poverty are critically important."
However, the legislature is working with a tight budget this year and increased funding for these programs will not be easy, legislators said.
"They are already a major part of the budget and I'm sure they'll continue to be," Sen. Rona E. Kramer, D-Montgomery, said. "There's no one here that doesn't see that as a very important need."
Members of MAP voiced their concern that, with the increasing cost of living in Maryland, those who earn a minimum wage cannot reasonably support themselves without assistance.
According to the group's briefing book, Maryland ranks seventh among the most expensive states in which to find housing. The group's numbers also indicated that, if 30 percent of a family's income went toward housing, the annual income needed to afford a 2-bedroom apartment in Maryland is nearly $42,000.
Julie Varner, chair of MAP, noted the increasing difficulties for even those in the middle class to find affordable housing. She said she herself cannot afford to buy a home and has to rent. Varner said she makes less than the median annual income for the Baltimore Metro Area, which is $72,800.
"We hope that you will keep in mind that as difficult as it is for a middle-income person to find affordable housing, it's almost impossible for a low-income person to find a house to feel safe and secure in," she said.
Other advocates emphasized the difficulties low-income parents have in moving out of poverty when they have to work extra hours to pay for childcare, leaving them little-to-no time to advance their own education and employment opportunities.
"Parents who work spend a lot of their money on childcare and it can be a very difficult thing for them to do," said Laura Collins, a coordinator at the emergency shelter Sarah's House. Collins said one of her shelter patrons spends $600 per month - about 40 percent of her paycheck - for childcare services, and said that these numbers were by no means unusual.
Collins added that many people who come to the shelters want to work but can't afford to also pay for childcare. Or, if they do pay for childcare, it cuts down on their ability to afford other expenses like housing.
"A lot of people end up coming back to Sarah's House because there isn't anything for them out there," she said.
According to the Maryland Children's Action Network, the average annual full-time wage of a job in the welfare-to-work program in 2005 was $16,806, and the average annual cost of full-time child care for two children was $13,734.
Wendy Shores, a geriatric nursing assistant who recently received her high school diploma equivalent through the Community College of Baltimore County, spoke on behalf of those who have benefited from adult learning programs. Shores, who had to find a job after recovering from a brain tumor operation, described her job as "physically difficult, the pay is minimal and there isn't much of a future."
Through financial assistance, Shores completed her diploma program and now says she can continue towards her goal of becoming a registered nurse and moving into a more secure financial future.
Gov. Martin O'Malley's 2008 budget plan includes a record-high $69 million in capital funding for community colleges and a $5 million increase in funding for drug abuse treatment facilities - another issue of concern for those who work within the homeless community.
"These programs make a difference to not only quality of life and well being, but really to the survival of the people we serve," said Gardiner, who went on to say that families - much like the state government - face a structural deficit in their own household budgets.
"It's very true, it's a very accurate analysis," said Kramer, who added that the main question for both sides was how to fix a deficit problem for the long term, instead of simply making payments for on-going expenses. "I think what we have to put our program money into is assisting those families to get to the point where they can responsibly fix their structural deficit as opposed to just handing them money," she said.