As knowledge increases in Frederick County about the driving forces, psychology and barriers to leaving poverty, the number of people living on the economic and social margin continues to grow.
More Frederick County residents are impoverished than five years ago, according to census data. The increase in people below the federal poverty line is almost universal across race and gender.
On Friday morning, approximately 40 nonprofit and community leaders gathered in a Frederick Community College conference room to learn how to better address the needs of these residents. The challenge is complex, requiring action on individual, community and institutional levels, along with organizations working together, said Kelly Overholtzer, case manager at Seton Center.
Seton Center in Emmitsburg put on the Friday training. Overholtzer said the seminar was to get more people to adopt the “Bridges Out of Poverty” framework used by Seton Center in its work engaging people to address the root causes of poverty. The hope is to make the program a county-wide initiative like in neighboring Howard County, Overholtzer said.
“Poverty is not about how much money you have but how much a person, community or institution does without resources,” she said.
Some of those resources include financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, physical and support systems. Solutions to poverty involve removing barriers in each of those resources, Overholtzer said.
The federal poverty line is an income of $12,140 a year for a single household and $25,100 for a household of four. In 2012, 6,571 people in Frederick city and 13,091 in Frederick County were below the line. That number rose to 7,713 and 17,336 in 2017. The increase was greater than the overall level of growth in the area, too. In 2012, 5.7 percent of Frederick County residents were living in poverty. Today, 7.2 percent do.
Local leaders said transportation issues, child care costs and the lack of affordable housing options in the area are some of the main factors pushing people into poverty. The cost of living in Frederick County is rising while wages are not, said Mike Spurrier, Frederick Community Action Agency director. The living wage in the county is $16.81 an hour.
“People are struggling to find jobs that pay a living wage,” he said. “Even something simple like transportation can be a barrier for many people to get to a job.”
Frederick is a vulnerable place to live because of rising costs of living, said Ken Allread, Advocates for Homeless Families executive director. His program is seeing an increasing number of clients whose poverty is not the result of the stereotypical ideas associated with poverty — such as alcoholism or drug addiction — but rather from problems related to opportunity, such as working a low-paying job to support a family and having to put off further education.
There is rarely a single, isolated factor, except in cases of domestic violence, that causes poverty, Allread said. The reasons often contribute to one another — a low-paying job limits housing options or affording child care, avoiding treatment for a health issue can lead to later problems that cause a person to miss work or lose a job.
“Everyone we see has four or more of those circumstances,” Allread said.
Nick Brown, Religious Coalition executive director, said he was not surprised to learn about the growing number of impoverished county residents. The number of people asking for help through the Religious Coalition’s short-term rental assistance program spiked in the summer. Instead of distributing around $20,000 a month to help people avoid an eviction with a check up to $500, the organization was spending $40,000 a month.
“We definitely saw our resources dwindling,” Brown said. “We had to actually restrict a couple times ... how much we could do because of the strain on resources here.”
And the requests did not stop, Brown said.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines being “cost burdened” by housing if a person is paying more than 30 percent of their income toward housing. Almost half of renters in Frederick County are cost burdened, according to a county needs assessment in 2016.
The median gross rent in Frederick County has risen by 23 percent since 2009 — $1,084 to $1,338 — according to census data. The county faces a 5,700-unit shortage of affordable housing units, after including units currently under construction, according to the county needs assessment.
Brown said his organization is preparing to better withstand increasing needs in the community, but predicting when those changes will come and what they will need is difficult. Looking back, there is no pattern or trend, he said.
“Everybody says the economy is doing great, or it was at least doing great, but we really didn’t see that in the folks we’re helping here,” Brown said. “The folks that are marginally hanging on feel any changes a little more than some of the other middle-class or upper folks may be.”
While poverty can become a political issue, which each party champions its solution over the other party, Overholtzer said, the problem is more complex and requires a solution beyond telling someone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps or changing social structures.