Worcester County Family Needs $46,000 to Get By

CNS Special Report

COLLEGE PARK – A family made up of one adult, one preschooler and one school-age child in Worcester County needs $46,600 dollars a year simply to get by, a new study shows.

That number is well above the federal poverty level and includes only basic needs, such as housing, childcare, transportation, taxes healthcare and food.

The 2012 Self-Sufficiency Standard for Maryland was created by researchers at the University of Washington School of Social Work, in cooperation with the Maryland Community Action Partnership.

Worcester County is best known for the tourist spot of Ocean City and includes the towns of Berlin, Pocomoke City and Snow Hill. Ocean City’s many small businesses depend on tourism, but the recession has reduced the number of people coming to the county, elected officials say.

Over July 4, Ocean City’s population can grow to 325,000, but other Worcester communities range in size “from 2,400 to 4,100 year-round residents,” according to Harold L. Higgins, finance officer in the Worcester County Treasurer’s Office.

Tourism accounts for a large share of county economy — more than 50 percent of employment, according to a 2010 report by Tourism Economics. In Ocean City, tourism accounts for nearly 85 percent of employment.

“We have one industry, and that’s tourism,” said Brent Ashley, an Ocean City council member. But he said he’s seeing fewer visitors since the recession hit.

The county contains many small businesses, including many that thrive because of vacationers. For these business owners, fewer vacationers means their business is seeing a smaller profit and they are taking home a smaller income.

“You would think that Ocean City would see greater tourism (since the recession) because many people don’t have the means to travel far for a vacation,” said Britt Olson, who has worked in the Ocean City restaurant business for about seven years, “but it’s actually the opposite.”

Olson said that the recession has “shortened the season.” She said she used to see a tourist crowd from late May until late August. She believes families are only taking one trip a summer, as opposed to years when tourists took multiple trips each season.

“Now you get a boom for only about four weeks in July, and once it’s over, you know it’s over.” Olson said.

Margaret Pillas, an Ocean City council member, agreed.

“With the economy, with the recession, people have less to spend on things other than their necessities — which is gas for work and food for nourishment and clothing for the children and school,” Pillas said. “Where people might have taken two weeks of vacation per year, they might take one, or may take two long weekends.”

Pillas said that in the past, as well as today, people get creative in hard economic times. When people can’t find jobs, “they create their own small businesses,” she said. Pillas has found fliers in her mailbox from people offering to do service jobs, like painting or lawn care, for a smaller price then the large businesses offer.

The Worcester County Department of Social Services runs state welfare programs, including food aid, medical assistance and temporary cash assistance.

The number of temporary cash applicants per month has risen within the past few years. There were on average 26 Worcester County applications per month for the 2012 fiscal year, as opposed to the 14 applicants per month during the fiscal years of 2008 and 2009, according to the Maryland Department of Human Resources data.

The average number recipients of food stamps, now called the Food Supplement Program, each month nearly doubled from 3,640 in 2008 to 6,295 in 2011, according to the state data.

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 13,008 people in Worcester — about 25 percent of the population — live in families with incomes less than 200 percent of the official federal poverty line. (For a family of four, twice the poverty line would be about $44,000.) The census data count the elderly and other categories that were not included in the self-sufficiency calculations for working families.

In 2010, more than 20 percent of children under age 18 were living below the federal poverty level, according to census figures. This compares to Howard County, where 6 percent of children live below the poverty level, and Baltimore, where more than 34 percent of children live in poverty, according to census figures.

“Our county in general reaches out through its churches and these nonprofit type organizations to help the homeless or the people in need — the people who can’t pay their utility bills,” Pillas said. “All of our churches are in involved in (helping to provide) free meals.”