Howard County and economic inclusivity in the 21st century

6 minute read

In a previous post I discussed how Howard County and Columbia could be better suburbs, not by the standards of the 1960s and 70s but by the standards of today and years to come. In my next few posts in this series I’ll consider whether and how the traditionally heralded Columbia virtues of diversity, tolerance, and inclusivity might translate into 21st century terms. This post addresses economic diversity, i.e., the relative balance between low-income, middle-income, and high-income households, and Howard County’s inclusivity toward families of modest means.

I previously blogged about income inequality in Howard County. The takeaway from those posts is that Howard County has less income inequality than the US as a whole, a status it shares with several other Washington area jurisdictions; this isn’t really a result of the Columbia vision but is simply a consequence of Howard County’s geographical location in an area flush with Federal spending.

However although Howard County didn’t do anything special to get into this position, we can certainly discuss where the county could or should go from here. One question of particular interest (at least to me) is whether Howard County’s low income inequality is also a function of the difficulty that low-income families have in affording life here. In other words, is the high cost of living in Howard County in effect removing a whole stratum of society from the income inequality calculations?

For example, per the 2008 American Community Survey estimates Howard County has a Gini coefficient of only 0.38 compared to 0.45 for Montgomery County. (By comparison Baltimore city has an estimated Gini coefficient of 0.50.) Given that the two counties have relatively similar economies, this difference is possibly at least partly attributable to the presence of concentrations of lower-income families around Silver Spring and elsewhere in Montgomery.

If true, this means that although Howard County has a lower degree of income inequality it may be no more egalitarian in outlook than Montgomery County, and may in fact be less so; as an apposite quote from Wikipedia notes:

Care should be taken in using the Gini coefficient as a measure of egalitarianism, as it is properly a measure of income dispersion. For example, if two equally egalitarian countries pursue different immigration policies, the country accepting [a] higher proportion of low-income or impoverished migrants will be assessed as less equal (gain a higher Gini coefficient).

For country we can here substitute county and for immigration inward migration in general (including from other counties and states), and thus capture what’s possibly going on.

The Census Bureau’s more detailed data on household income lend some support to the above hypothesis. The highest-earning households in the bottom 20% (first quintile) in Montgomery earn about 15% less than the comparable households in Howard. This gap shrinks as we move up the income scale, until we reach the highest earning households in the bottom 80%, whose household incomes in Howard vs. Montgomery are almost identical.

Above that point Montgomery County moves ahead (as it were), so that the lowest earning households in the top 5% of households in Montgomery have household income about 11% higher than the corresponding households in Howard. (Note however that this result is a bit shaky due to the very high margin of error for the Howard County estimate.) So the broad middle classes in both counties (second through fourth quintiles) appear to be approximately equally well off, with Montgomery appearing to have relatively more poverty at the low end of the income scale and (possibly) relatively more affluence at the top end.

So, is Howard County hosting its fair share of the low-income population of Maryland and, if not, should we be doing more?

To answer the first question: The poverty rate in Howard County (i.e., the number of people living below the poverty line) is 4.3% (from census data), while the poverty rate in Montgomery County is 5.8% (from the same data source). The same source has the poverty rate for Baltimore City at 19.2%, and that for Maryland as a whole at 8.2%.

Let’s leave aside the exact poverty rates (which depend on how exactly one defines poverty—a subject of some controversy) and look at the poverty rate in Howard County relative to other nearby jurisdictions and to Maryland as a whole. If we couch this as a fair share issue then we would conclude that Howard County is not pulling its weight in terms of housing lower-income families: In percentage terms it has about half as many lower-income people as Maryland overall, about 25% less than Montgomery, and a whopping four to five times less than Baltimore city.

Should we be doing more to make it possible for lower-income families to live in Howard County? I think it’s natural to want to answer yes, but in practice I think there are limits to the extent to which we could do this. In particular the suburban nature of Howard County means that it’s difficult to live and (especially) work here without having a car; this imposes a cost burden that many families aren’t able to bear, especially if multiple members of the household need to work in order to make ends meet, and thus need multiple vehicles.

As HoCo Rising recently noted, mass transit is the best social program that can be implemented to raise the position of the poor and under-privileged. It enables people to get to work at low cost, which is often a prohibition to finding work in the first place. Unfortunately Howard County doesn’t have true mass transit now, and quite possibly will never have it. Certainly Howard will never be able to match the mass transit possibilities of Montgomery County, where lower-income workers have comparatively easy access to a much wider variety of employment opportunities in and around DC.

I am therefore skeptical of both the feasibility and desirability of making Howard County a haven for a population of lower-income families much larger than that already present in the county. It does such families no favor to be stuck in a location where they’re cut off from employment and other opportunities due to lack of adequate transportation options and thus are socially isolated from their fellow county residents. As I noted in my 21st century suburb post, I think a better approach is to make sure that the county has a suitable set of affordable neighborhoods that working families of modest but not minimal means can realistically aspire to live in, and a range of employment opportunities to help make that possible.

This doesn’t mean that every family will be able to (or should be able to) live in every neighborhood in Howard County, but every family willing and able to make the effort should be able to live in a neighborhood that feels like Howard County and partake of what the county has to offer. That includes having access to a school system with a level of funding that allows it to continue its relative level of excellence (a point I addressed in my previous post), and access to employment opportunities that can support at least a lower middle class existence (a point I’ll address in a future post).

As for improving the lives of the truly poor (those whose incomes can’t stretch far enough to support residing in the suburbs), I think that will be best done by improving employment prospects and educational opportunities in the center cities, and better integrating their poorer sections into the overall regional economy. I don’t have any solid ideas to offer here, so I’ll refrain from making any facile comments. However to the extent that government funding can help (which is probably somewhat but certainly not totally) I think it’s perfectly consistent with my own sense of social justice to have my state and Federal taxes supporting that effort. If we can’t make it possible for some of our fellow Marylanders to live in Howard County, we can at least try to help them out where they are.