The challenges of Baltimore (and the nation) in context

Baltimore police

No fires burned, and no stores were looted in my Baltimore neighborhood last week. The same held true for most across the region. Still, it was impossible to see these events unfold here and not be heartbroken by not only the harm they inflicted—on people, on businesses—but by the broader circumstances and conditions in which they took place.

While violence is never justifiable, knowing such context is critical to understanding what happened in Baltimore, and why. 

The Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived is plagued by joblessness, entrenched poverty, and the full range of social challenges that accompany economic disparity and distress. According to data from the Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore over half of the working age population in the Sandtown-Winchester is either unemployed and looking for work or out of the labor force all together. Over a third of its homes are vacant or abandoned. And almost half of its children are growing up poor.

Yet this community exists in a wider metropolitan area that by many measures—income levels, educational attainment, the concentration of high wage industries—is doing quite well. Indeed, though they may feel worlds away, Baltimore’s growing downtown and thriving waterfront communities are just a short distance away from Sandtown and other troubled neighborhoods that have remained untouched by the affluence and revitalization that characterizes much of the region.

But while the economic challenges in parts of Baltimore are steep, they are, sadly, not unique to this city.  More than that, we haven’t made much progress in overcoming them.

In the decades since President Johnson launched the War on Poverty, concentrated poverty has actually become deeper and more widespread in cities, and increasingly in suburbs, across the country. According to Joe Cortright and his colleagues at City Observatory, since 1970, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods in the United States has tripled, and the number of poor people living in them has doubled. As they point out, for all the fretting over gentrification—legitimate cause for concern though it may be in some regions—we should be far more dismayed by the fact that the vast majority of communities that were poor in 1970 have remained so 45 years later.

The intractability of concentrated poverty shows just how difficult an issue it is to solve. We can point to a long list of reasons behind it, but what do we actually do about it? How do we not just help alleviate the worst symptoms of economic stress for families and neighborhoods, but actually raise incomes so that people can move up and out of poverty?

The answer lies in part in cities and regions’ ability to leverage their existing economic strengths in order to grow the kinds of industries where more and better jobs are created—and in ensuring that all residents have an opportunity to participate in that growth by investing in education, skills, infrastructure, and the revitalization of downtown and other employment centers in the urban core.

In Baltimore, sectors like information technology, advanced health care, bioscience, and logistics—anchored by the port and airport—offer some of the best opportunities for people to make a good living without a college degree. And the region has a powerful set of assets and advantages that should help these sectors grow, including a robust network of colleges and universities, several world-class hospital systems, close proximity to the nation’s capital, and unique, vibrant communities where people and firms want to locate.

For the region to help raise more residents out of poverty and into the middle class, it has to build from these strengths. The fact is, we want—we need—people, firms, and anchor institutions to continue to invest in Baltimore’s job centers, including, yes, strong market areas in downtown, the waterfront, and Harbor East. Only by doing so can the city continue to grow the number of businesses and quality jobs, as well as a robust tax base.

Equally critical, though, is that existing city residents have an opportunity to participate in that growth, by being able to access new jobs or open a new business, and by seeing the kinds of improvements in their schools and neighborhoods that new revenues can help finance.

As the spotlight on Baltimore dims, the city will begin to heal, and hopefully start to undertake a hard, unvarnished look at all that transpired here, and the reasons behind it. At the same time, we as a nation need to examine the broader economic backdrop against which these events occurred, and the kinds of changes we need to undertake if we don’t want them to see them happen—in this city, or any city—again.