By ERIKA WOODWARD
ANNAPOLIS (May 5, 2009) - As she waited in line recently behind a Catholic church in one of the state's wealthiest counties, Victorine Ngang, a community college student, never thought it would come to this.
For the first time in her life, Ngang, 21, received donated food—a sealed cardboard box of meats, produce and canned goods handed to her for her family from the hull of a white truck by employees of Manna Food Center in Montgomery County.
In addition to the donated food, Ngang's school-aged sibling receives free lunch provided by federal Title I funds, for which Maryland's need is growing at the fastest rate in the region.
Title I funds to Maryland increased at a rate more than twice that of Washington and Virginia in the last two years, according to the U.S. Department of Education, raising questions as to why poverty is on the rise in one of the nation's richest states.
In Maryland, Title I funds went from almost $170 million in 2006 to more than $191 million in 2008, more than a 12 percent increase. The district's funds actually went down almost 6 percent during that time period, while Virginia's increased a modest 2 percent.
Economists and advocates said Maryland's growing need for federal dollars points to its persistent income gap, climbing unemployment rate and deep pockets of poverty too often eclipsed by sprawling suburbs and swanky condos.
And as Washington attracts more wealthy people to its revitalized neighborhoods, more low- and middle-income families may have been forced to leave the city for Maryland's suburbs, possibly adding to the need, said Peter Tatian, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute's Center on Metropolitan Housing and Communities.
"I think that there has been some change in poverty levels (in the district)," he said, "because of new residents moving in with high incomes and people moving out of the city because the cost of housing is going up."
Tatian said the district's "job boom" in the years prior to the recession coupled with gentrification may explain why Title I funds there decreased slightly over the same period that Maryland's increased, even though the district and Virginia have more poverty per capita.
"Basically the growing need is that the population of poor children is growing in (Maryland)," said Maria Lamb, director of program improvement and family support for the Maryland State Board of Education.
The federal government awards Title I funds primarily based on poverty data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The number of children ages 5 through 17 who live in foster homes or in institutions for neglect and delinquency, needy families above the poverty line that receive temporary assistance, and the cost of education per-pupil also determine the amount states receive.
Title I grants help provide impoverished students with specialized instruction and free and reduced lunch. Baltimore, Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties are Maryland's top recipients.
"It's like icing on the cake," said Lamb.
Maryland is one of 10 states in the nation to experience the greatest increase in income inequality between the top and middle classes and the top and bottom classes from the late 1980s to the mid 2000s, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
In the United States, income gaps grew considerably in 37 states in that period. But "the gap between the richest fifth of families and the poorest fifth of families grew faster in Maryland than in all but six other states. (Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Alabama, New York and Kentucky) And the gap between the richest fifth and the middle fifth grew more in Maryland than in all but three other states (Connecticut, Oregon and Oklahoma)," said a report on the study.
Where the wage inequality "hits the hardest is single-income families. But the middle class, the working poor and the poor have all lost ground when you adjust for inflation," said Neil Bergsman, executive director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, which co-wrote the report with the Progressive Maryland Education Fund.
Families will keep losing ground in the state as long as unemployment continues to climb, said experts. In the last year, unemployment here increased by more than 80 percent, from about 3.7 percent in February 2008 to 6.8 percent in February 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
However, unemployment in Maryland is still well below the national average, which is more than 8 percent. But that may be of little comfort to those in need.
"There's been a tremendous increase in the number of people on food stamps ... We've had an explosion of people who are now eligible for poverty programs," said Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth. Despite being one of the richest states in the nation, he said, "Maryland is not at all immune to the economic recession."
The persistent wage gap, unemployment and the economic recession has forced a number of working class families already balanced on the precipice of self-sufficiency, to seek help to meet their basic needs, especially for food, which is more expensive in Maryland than in many other states in the union.
Groceries in Maryland cost 10 to 21 percent more than the national average, according to a nationwide study of self-sufficiency standards by Diana M. Pearce, director of the Center for Women's Welfare at the University of Washington.
Free and reduced price lunch, provided by Title I, can help cash-strapped parents struggling to fill a lunch box daily at that increased cost. It made all the difference for the Ngang family.
Growing up, "my parents didn't have to worry so much about giving us lunch money. Multiply that by five (siblings) and that's more than 20 dollars a day," said Ngang, as she loaded a box of donated food into her car.
The situation worsened for Ngang and her family when her mom lost her second job and her father had hours cut at work. The family of seven has joined the growing number of Marylanders struggling to remain self sufficient.
Although per-capita poverty in Montgomery County is far less than in the district and Baltimore, the high cost of living there puts great strains on the have-nots.
The number of students applying for free and reduced price meals in the county surged in 2008, said Monica Martin, a representative for Linkages to Learning, which provides on-site health and social services to children in the county's public schools.
Linkages to Learning representatives use free and reduced price meal enrollment, among other things, to gauge the number of children who might need assistance.
Martin said case managers are currently working with 35 families many of which don't have food for the next day.
She said, "at least half the families our caseworkers are working with are in crisis."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.