Verretta Scott travels between two worlds every day. When her alarm clock rings at 4:30 a.m., she's in a rough northeast Baltimore neighborhood where she's rearing six children on her own. By 7 a.m. she will have journeyed to a sprawling green office park in suburban Howard County, where she works for $5.65 per hour doing janitorial work.

If Scott, 33, is going to make her kids "a good, hot breakfast" -- and make her first bus at about 5:20 a.m. -- she's got to be cooking eggs and grits before dawn.

"It's early. Sometimes you get angry it's so early," said Scott, who feeds whichever children are awake and leaves her 17-year-old daughter to supervise the rest. "But out in the suburbs is where the jobs are. You do what you got to do."

Scott's commute is a 90-minute, two-bus commute -- a 15-mile trip that would take 20 to 30 minutes by car. The early morning sun streaming into the No. 320 bus to Laurel reveals a crowd of sleepy people whose commuting routines are much like Scott's: a man who has already changed buses three times, a woman who will walk nearly two miles after getting off the bus, a third who tells of once spending $18 for a cab to keep from being late for work.

In Baltimore, Washington and many other Northeastern and Midwestern cities with shrinking urban cores, inner-city residents without cars face daunting commutes to suburbs on mass transit systems geared toward bringing suburbanites to downtown jobs.

Employers, meanwhile, need workers to fill low-wage jobs in small offices, fast-food restaurants, hotels, janitorial services, nursing homes and industrial parks -- jobs no one in the increasingly affluent suburbs will take.

"It's a shame -- there's people who want to work and jobs they could do out here, but no way to get the two together," said Nick Sambuco, a suburban restaurant manager who reports paying a dishwasher $7 per hour just to make his commute to Howard County worthwhile.

Officials in the region are beginning to tackle the problem by pushing for additional public transit service and subsidizing private vans for "reverse commuters," but riders say there's still a long way to go.

In Baltimore, where a recent Morgan State University study found public transit to the suburbs time-consuming and inconvenient, the proportion of city residents journeying to suburban jobs has dropped from 28 percent to 19 percent in the last decade. Yet Maryland transportation officials say they are besieged by urban job training programs and employers at far-flung suburban job sites.

"It's our greatest need, our biggest demand," said Ronald J. Hartman, administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration.

Similarly, in the Washington region, officials say plenty of people would be working at jobs in the suburbs if only they could get there.

"The jobs are there, in places like Fairfax, and District people want them, but transportation is the biggest barrier to getting them there," said Samuel L. Love, chief of the District's division of marketing and employment relations.

Reverse commuting from the District has been increasing -- statistics from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments show that from 1980 to 1985 it rose by 27 percent in inner-ring suburbs such as Montgomery, Prince George's, Arlington and Fairfax counties and Alexandria. Transportation officials said the Metro rail and bus systems are partly responsible for the increase, but they said public transit does not serve workers on late shifts and odd schedules. And fast-growing outlying suburbs, such as Charles and Prince William counties, are still largely inaccessible for inner-city job-seekers who don't have cars.

The situation in Baltimore illustrates how the gap that widened between rich and poor in the 1980s was not only an economic and political gulf, but a physical one as well.

"It's a lot tougher trying to work downtown," said Augustine Dixon, 40, who works with Scott at a Jessup book distribution company. "Downtown you make minimum wage, and there's so many people applying {that} the jobs are snapped right up."

In July the unemployment level in Baltimore was 7.5 percent, while in Howard it was 2.9 percent and in Montgomery 2.7 percent. Baltimore's overall employment also has lagged, remaining essentially the same for the last two decades. During the same period, employment has soared in the suburban counties, increasing 280 percent in Howard County, for instance. There also has been a deterioration in the kind of jobs available in the city; Baltimore has lost more than 72,000 manufacturing jobs since 1972.

Sharing Howard County's job wealth is not easy for city residents without cars.

"You'd better not get caught out there after 5 or 6 o'clock, or you're stuck there all night," Scott said.

Many restaurants and office parks in suburban communities such as Columbia are inaccessible or inconvenient by bus. The No. 320 bus, for instance, which goes from Baltimore down Route 1 to Laurel, does not run at midday, after about 5:30 p.m., or on weekends.

"We don't have a choice, we couldn't work the night shift," said Dixon, who said she can't afford to buy and insure a car. "Some people try it anyway, and finish up at 3 a.m. and then have to wait three, four hours to get back home."

The state's few improvements in services for reverse commuters have been wildly popular. The No. 320 bus has been so crowded during its year of service that drivers on occasion have had to roll past people waiting on the street to board, according to drivers and passengers.

But state officials say cost limits the number of suburban communities to which bus service can be extended. As an alternative, they plan to encourage private van companies. This fall, MTA plans to unveil "Access to Jobs," a $550,000 pilot program designed to subsidize private van services and act as a kind of transportation clearinghouse for employers, job training programs and transit providers. The program, 75 percent funded by the federal government, will help with the purchase of vans to serve Baltimore and five surrounding counties.

The District encourages van service already with a limited subsidy program and travel vouchers for qualifying workers.

Some employers are abandoning the idea of encouraging reverse commuters. The Hardee's fast-food chain, for example, is phasing out the van service it uses to bring Baltimore workers to six suburban Maryland restaurants. Donna Mundis, local personnel manager for Hardee's, acknowledged that the company considers the $5,300 per month service expensive, but said the company was simply looking to shorten commuting time and "reduce wear and tear" on workers.

Store managers "have relied on the van service for too long" and will be prodded to do a better job of recruiting workers who live near the stores, Mundis said.

Employers in the area near Dulles International Airport recently dropped the idea of seeking inner-city workers from the District, deciding instead to woo workers from West Virginia communities such as Martinsburg.

Experts disagree on how the problem will be solved. Some say that the market will eventually solve the problem: van services will pop up and employers will raise wages to the point where people will be able to afford cars.

Others say employers will find alternative labor sources closer by, turning to suburban women and older residents. Others say nothing less than affordable housing in the suburbs and the return of jobs in the inner cities will solve the problem.

Meanwhile, for workers, the irony is obvious.

"It's a Catch-22: We can't afford to live here because we're manual labor," said Wendy Lyman, a cook at Piccolo's, an Italian restaurant in Columbia. "But they want people like us here, to serve them."