The path to poverty is crowded and difficult to exit. Take the city of Baltimore, for example. A recent New York Times article compared the top 100 counties in the nation and found that Baltimore is the one where children were least likely able to escape poverty. That is a jaw-dropping finding considering the enormous investment that is made in Baltimore’s public programs.
Over the decades since President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs, two things have grown exponentially in Baltimore: poverty and the size of government. Just look at the numbers:
Thirty-five percent of Baltimore’s children live below the federal government’s definition of poverty; the unemployment rate for young black men is an alarming 37 percent, which is more than double the number for the national average for young black men. Considering that official unemployment numbers continue to improve, something is wrong in this important mid-Atlantic city.
Let’s take a look at education. The funding is great, the results are dismal. Baltimore follows New York and Boston in per student funding, we are talking about $15,000 a year, yet 55 percent of fourth graders scored below basic level in reading, and 54 percent of eighth graders scored below basic level in math. These numbers speak to a lost generation.
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Then there is health and quality of life. There is one measure that says it all: The average life expectancy in Baltimore is 10 years below the national average, according to the Washington Post.
Has anyone cared? Sure.
Twenty years ago, the Rouse Corporation wanted to invest in Baltimore to help. The idea was to develop around Johns Hopkins University, but city leaders insisted that the best bet would be to put the money in west Baltimore, which they did.
Rouse invested $130 million in Sandtown. What is there to show for the multimillion-dollar investment? Streets lined with dilapidated buildings with broken windows, boarded-up homes and drug-plagued streets. Today, Sandtown is better known as the community where Freddie Grey was arrested, later dying in police custody.
At first, many wrongly assumed that this was another case of rampant racism against a young black man, but that does not appear to be the case. Baltimore has a black mayor and the majority of the police force is minority. In fact, three of the police officers who were indicted for the death of Grey are black.
Baltimore’s problem isn’t racism but rather poverty, drugs and crime that are not being appropriately addressed.
Fighting poverty is difficult because a part of it has to do with personal decisions. Children that are raised in single-parent homes, or homes where the parents are absent, are more likely to be poor. Studies show that many of these children go hungry, struggle in failing schools and live in crime-infested communities.
They suffer the follies of government programs that should have been scrapped long ago. It certainly isn’t what President Johnson had in mind with the fight against poverty. He intended “not to make the poor more secure in their poverty,” but it is a constant in the lives of many. It isn’t just the failure of the federal government, the state of Maryland and Baltimore officials that bear most of the blame.
Baltimore’s local government responds to problems as if the world hasn’t changed since 1964. Like it or not, global competition has wiped out manufacturing in many cities, and Baltimore has done little to adapt.
The truth is that fundamental change comes from the bottom up rather than the top down. It requires a committed community that is ready to embrace change. Parents have to take responsibility for raising their children. Radical reform in education is required. Economic incentives for entrepreneurs and the reduction in outdated rules and regulations that suffocate innovation need to be implemented. Successful organizations today are smaller and more nimble. Can we say that about government?
In many ways, Baltimore is a failed city, but it doesn’t have to remain so. Abraham Lincoln once said that if you want to predict the future you have to create it. The time has come for the community of Baltimore to do just that, if nothing else, for the sake of the children who are still waiting for the audacity of hope to become a reality.