The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland sought an accurate poverty count. It found 110,000 more kids.

Most of the children live in the suburbs; the find could eat up resources for Gov. Wes Moore’s ambitious agenda

Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly find a new state government analysis of child poverty is accurate, though disturbing. The analysis identified about 110,000 new students qualify for anti-poverty programs. (Michael Robinson Chávez/The Washington Post)
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Child poverty in Maryland is deeper and more widespread than previously calculated, with a new state government analysis finding that more than half of public school students now qualify for a range of anti-poverty programs.

Most of the 110,000 newly identified poor students — a 34 percent increase — live in suburban counties.

The revelation has far-reaching implications: The larger number of poor students makes Maryland’s landmark education program, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, dramatically more expensive just as it was set to launch. And paying for it, in turn, could deplete the resources newly inaugurated Gov. Wes Moore (D) campaigned to use for his ambitious agenda.

Budget analysts say delivering promised anti-poverty and education support to the newly identified kids will make the already expensive Blueprint program cost $1.6 billion more over the next five years, turning what was going to be a $529 million cash surplus in the last year of Moore’s term into a nearly $1 billion deficit.

“It does change the dynamic and it does change the math,” Moore said of the impact of the study, which was conducted as part of the Blueprint to more accurately identify which students need help.

“We have to be just very sober about how we’re going to approach this,” he said.

Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature, largely accept the new poverty count as accurate — and alarming, even as some suggest the count may go down in the future.

The new cost sparked behind-the-scenes debate among Democratic leaders in Annapolis about how and whether to slow the rollout of the sweeping education initiative. The program was a Democratic rallying point during the 2022 campaign season and the party’s signature policy achievement in a state with the nation’s highest median household income.

Moore’s goal to “end child poverty” dovetails with the Blueprint’s plan to funnel wide-ranging resources to low-income families through public schools. But the new governor has also pitched a $100 million-a-year program that aims to further eradicate poverty, among other high-price policies that include reviving the Red Line in Baltimore, hiring thousands of state workers and hastening the switch to clean energy sources.

The education program’s new price tag has also raised the question of whether state lawmakers can launch anything else ambitious until the tab is paid.

“If we want to do the next big thing, we need to first finish the last big thing,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ben Barnes (D-Prince George’s), referring to implementing the Blueprint.

Community advocates of the Blueprint’s mission responded to the higher count by openly pushing lawmakers to restructure the state’s tax laws for corporations and the wealthy, aiming to raise more money to pay for the initiative. So far, key Democratic leaders say it’s too early to pass tax hikes this session, but they did not rule them out for the future.

The new analysis showed 52 percent of Maryland’s 852,806 public school students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals, which means their families earn 185 percent of the federal poverty level or less.

Maryland sought to meet its ambition to give better educations to poor kids by first getting a more accurate count of poor students than typical methods yield. It spent years developing how to accurately use statewide Medicaid enrollment records to identify specific families who meet that 185 percent of poverty threshold, rather by than counting only students whose families actively signed up for benefits. It’s a general technique used by more than a dozen states in a decade-long pilot program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to better identify students entitled to meals, cutting down on enrollment paperwork in the process.

But Maryland’s analysis is more detailed and used differently: The state matched it against enrollment records, and made it a proxy for poverty to identify students and the schools that qualify for enhanced education aid.

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Roughly half of the previously uncounted students reside in the D.C. suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The analysis identified 70 percent more low-income students in wealthy Montgomery, 27,648 specific students from families poor enough to receive government-subsidized meals but not enrolled in the benefit.

The largest undercounts were in rural and mostly suburban areas; the poverty count in Baltimore City was the most accurate in the state.

“The state has been undercounting nearly 1 in 9 students,” said Shamoyia Gardiner, executive director of Strong Schools Maryland, which advocates for the Blueprint to be implemented as planned. “We have been waiting for the realization of these numbers, and we continue to wait for an explicit commitment from state leaders that fully fund the Blueprint.”

Moore, who previously ran a poverty-fighting nonprofit, said the new data “was not terribly surprising” to him given that people who work in the field know that many typical poverty measures undercount its scope.

“I think it highlights the urgency,” he said. “It’s not a small problem. It’s not a regional problem. It’s a challenge that the entire state still continues to wrestle with.”

And while he said he thinks the state needs to figure out how to move forward, “We don’t have to have any conversation now about tax increases. I think that there’s ways that we can roll this out smartly.”

He added: “I’m fully committed to the Blueprint, and we are not going to retreat on that.”

Long before Moore declared his candidacy, Democratic state lawmakers passed policies directing Maryland’s education officials to conduct a more accurate count of poverty in schools ahead of the new education plan.

The Blueprint was the result of years of studying how to take Maryland’s schools from what policymakers saw as middle-of-the-pack to one of the best in the country. It creates tougher standards for teachers but also raises their pay; it invests in prekindergarten and child-care assistance statewide; and it spells out policies designed to meet the lofty goal of Maryland 10th-graders being ready to graduate early and start college or launch on a career apprenticeship, which the plan calls “college or career ready.”

By the time today’s kindergartners are high school seniors, the plan was supposed to increase statewide education spending by 45 percent, or $3.9 billion.

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Some of the most expensive initiatives are designed for high-poverty areas: free all-day prekindergarten starting at age 3, access to tutors, full-time access to mental and medical providers at school, extended schools hours and other family supports.

The program was delayed by a year after then-Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed it in 2020, citing the economic uncertainty wrought by the pandemic. Democrats overrode him in 2021.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), a former Teach for America volunteer who was among many championing the Blueprint legislation, said if the new poverty counts are accurate, the state must help those poor children get an equitable education.

“We have a duty to implement the Blueprint with fidelity,” he said. “We have a duty to uphold the commitments that we made.”

But Ferguson also questioned whether the poverty counts would remain so high. The Medicaid data, he said, can be collected as much as year ago, and perhaps people who fell on hard times during the pandemic and signed up for Medicaid could have seen their fortunes change by now.

That’s one of the reasons Ferguson said “it’s too early to say” if state lawmakers have to find $1 billion to pay for the education plan.

Maryland had two years of multibillion-dollar budget surpluses thanks mostly to federal pandemic aid, and lawmakers have stashed away hundreds of millions of dollars in savings to pay for the Blueprint in the future. But budget analysts say the new, higher price tag means that money will now run out two years earlier than expected, the year the entire General Assembly and governor are up for reelection.

While the state can pay for the added costs of the newly identified poor students for the next few years, it’s unclear how long it can continue.

“We may not be seeing this kind of money again,” said Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Guy Guzzone (D-Howard).

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard) said she “already had an appetite to change the tax structure” before the state discovered how many more poor students were in public schools.

But she thinks any proposals to come up with more revenue for the program wouldn’t come up for serious debate until next year at the earliest, after policymakers could sit down and come up with a “soup to nuts” proposal.

“We found these kids that we have to take care of,” Atterbeary said. “We can’t pretend we didn’t.”