By MELISSA MOORE
CNS Special Report
COLLEGE PARK – The cost of making ends meet for working families in Queen Anne’s County has nearly doubled over the last decade, according to a new study. No other county in the state has experienced such a great rise, the study showed.
Housing and childcare costs have skyrocketed, making it hard even for people who are working full time to pay their bills. The study by researchers at the University of Washington School of Social Work calculated how much families of different sizes and ages in varying locations must earn in order to meet basic needs, such as housing food, child care, transportation and health care, without government assistance.
They found that the cost for one parent with a preschooler and school-age child in Queen Anne’s County rose from $33,855 in 2001 to $65,072 in 2012. Queen Anne’s County saw the biggest cost increases in housing and child care. For example, housing for a family of three now costs $1,518 a month, a 110 percent increase, the study says. Childcare went up 91 percent, to $1,425.
County officials say they have tried to accommodate the need for housing assistance but have not been able to keep up with the demand. There has been a 30 percent increase over the past five years in people seeking assistance from the state-funded rental allowance program, which provides residents with rental subsidies with the goal of moving them to permanent housing. The waiting list grew so long that the county finally closed it.
“It gets to the point to where we look at the list and see that we have people that will be on this list for six to eight years, and this is becoming unrealistic so there is no sense in putting them on the list,” said Renee Carter, housing program coordinator for the family self-sufficiency program of the Queen Anne’s County Housing Authority. (That office is not connected to the Self-Sufficiency Standard report).
Those who are turned away are referred to other agencies that may be able to provide them with services, but most often residents are left with no options.
“In many cases we can offer nothing, and in terms of the wait list, there most often is no hope when you are going to be that far down on the list,” said Billy Reep, wait list coordinator and manager for the housing voucher program of the Queen Anne’s County Housing Authority.
Some newer applicants had run out of unemployment benefits.
“When we investigate the reason, 90 percent of the time, we find that they are just unemployed and the unemployment has run out and they need help,” Carter said.
Queen Anne’s county has seen an increase in unemployment, going from 1.9 percent in 2000 to 4.8 percent in 2010. The maximum income that a family of three can make in order to qualify for the rental allowance program is $23,150.
The county has received a $103,000 grant from the Obama stimulus plan toward the federal Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing program, which provides emergency rental assistance and utility assistance for workers who are out of a job or have seasonal jobs.
“Seasonal employment is something that hits home for Queen Anne’s because we have a booming summer restaurant business as well as an agricultural and water-based industry that depends on the season, so we see a lot of people whose hours are cut back drastically during the winter,” said Julie Handzo, family investment plan supervisor at the Department of Social Services.
One of the state’s few child-care assistance programs for working families, the child care subsidy program, instituted a wait list in February, 2011. The assistance is only available to those working or involved in qualified activities, such as attending school. Residents who are out of a job and unable to put their child into care while they search for a job sometimes look to family members and friends for support.
“That is what we call informal care, and we have seen a lot of people move toward that because when times are tough you might not even be able to afford to put your child into part-time day care,” Handzo said.
The Self-Sufficiency Standard is used to provide policymakers and officials with the tools needed to assess what changes they need to make to help close the gap between the real costs and current wages that residents make, the study’s developer, Dr. Diana Pearce, said.
The University of Washington study did not determine how many working families have incomes below the Self-Sufficiency Standard. Census Bureau data show that roughly 7,800 people in Queen Anne’s County, about 16 percent of the total population, live in families with incomes less that 200 percent of the census poverty threshold. (For a family of four, twice the threshold would be about $44,000.) The census data counted elderly and other categories that were not included in the self-sufficiency calculations for working families.