Frederick County continues to enjoy favorable economic conditions compared to the state and nation, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
More county residents benefit from high-paying jobs, evidenced by the household median income of $90,043, according to the Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey estimates published Sept 14. This is 14 percent higher than Maryland’s $78,945 median income as of 2016 — the highest among the states, according to the Census. The median household income nationwide as of 2016 was $57,617.
At the same time, fewer county residents struggle with unemployment and poverty than their state and nationwide counterparts.
About 4.1 percent of county residents were unemployed as of 2016, while 7.2 percent earned below the federal poverty level. Maryland’s unemployment rate was 5.4 percent, and the poverty rate was 9.7 percent. Across the country, 5.8 percent of Americans were unemployed and 14 percent were in poverty.
Why Frederick fares better
Erin George, an assistant economics professor at Hood College, was not surprised by Frederick’s position relative to the state and national numbers. The county reaps many economic benefits as a result of its proximity to major cities and multiple, high-paying jobs, she said.
George specifically named Fort Detrick and D.C. as sources of such high-paying jobs. She also cited the higher education levels among county residents as contributing to their ability to access these kinds of jobs.
The booming biotechnology industry along the Interstate 270 corridor has also benefited Frederick, both in terms of helping existing residents secure higher-paying jobs and attracting new residents who already work in these jobs, according to Benjamin Orr, the Maryland Center for Economic Policy’s executive director.
Biotech and technology companies have also increasingly looked to Frederick to open offices, including startups that can make use of incubator programs like Tech Frederick and the Frederick Innovative Technology Center Inc., or FITCI, according to Elizabeth Cromwell, the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce’s executive director. And when these companies graduate from incubator programs into spaces of their own, they are looking to hire for “high skill, high pay” jobs, Cromwell said.
Frederick and the state as a whole have also largely been spared the economic hit of the declining manufacturing industry, George said.
Instead of a declining, Maryland’s economy actually grew from 2015 to 2016, at least in terms of median income. Median household income increased 3.1 percent from $76,596 to $78,945, according to the data.
This is likely the result of more people working, and in higher-paying jobs, which Orr described as “signs of progress.”
Frederick also saw a slight increase in median income, but the change was so small that the Census does not consider them statistically significant when accounting for the margins of error. Changes in county and state unemployment and poverty rates were also not statistically significant when considering margins of error.
Winners and losers
While Orr acknowledged that the state’s economy has improved, its growth has not benefited all residents equally, as evidenced by a relatively unchanged poverty rate. He also noted that the increase in median household earnings disproportionately benefited white households, compared to black and Hispanic households, according to Census data.
“The story shows things are looking up... [but] the story really depends on where you sit in the community,” Orr said.
George also noted that increasing median income indicates that economic benefits are concentrated among top income earners, with consequences for those whose incomes fall below the median.
“If everyone else is making a lot of money and you’re not, it make it even harder to keep up with the Joneses,” she said.
Rising income often drives up prices for goods and services. The resulting increase in cost of living is particularly challenging for those already struggling to afford basic necessities — about one in three county residents, according to a recent report commissioned by the United Ways of Maryland.
The ALICE Report published in 2016 highlighted the plight of residents who earn more than the federal poverty level, but not enough to afford basic costs of living. Thirty-two percent of Frederick County’s 89,084 households — about 28,507 — in 2014 fell below the ALICE threshold, the report stated.
Ken Oldham, United Way of Frederick County’s executive director, anticipated that this number might be even higher when the data is updated next year as a result of increasing costs of living.
“As household income goes up, it has the potential to increase the cost-of-living in a community, which really puts a strain on those ALICE families,” Oldham said.