Let's help the poor, but not too close to home

Following up on Grasso's comments about 'freeloaders' in Arundel

We recently got a good dose of John Grasso's bilious blather about poor people and the idea that government should help provide them with a place to live at affordable rents. The poor "have issues," the Anne Arundel councilman said, adding that affordable housing policy was largely to blame for Baltimore's problems. "What I don't want," he said, "is that situation of Baltimore City migrating its way to Anne Arundel County."

Grasso thinks people who get public assistance are "freeloaders." People are poor, he said, because they're lazy and have children they can't support. If they work, they don't work hard enough. And if they can't afford to live in Anne Arundel, they should go elsewhere; they should not expect government to help them rent apartments near expensive single-family homes.

Last month, Grasso and the three other Republican members of the County Council voted to reject a proposal for an 84-unit "workforce" development on Ritchie Highway in Pasadena — apartments that would have been for people of mixed income levels, including those who make $50,000 a year or less.

That action, and Grasso's remarks about the poor, sound like a federal discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen. But apparently, other people share these views.

A Pasadena resident named Kim, for instance, wrote an email to explain why.

Her points, and my responses, follow:

Kim: "Homes located [near] a low-income housing complex would be affected by the value of their homes going down. ... When low-income housing moves next door, crime goes up."

This is the classic argument, Kim. If you buy it, it means no affordable housing will ever be built anywhere near people of affluence, or even middle-class standing. We would restrict the poor to poor neighborhoods, which is not only segregation, but a bad idea. It's why we blew up the old public housing projects in Baltimore. It was bad public policy and a waste of tax dollars.

Kim: "I was born in a family in Pennsylvania which did not have much. We lived in the country where my parents could afford a home. My parents did not graduate from high school and struggled. I took out student loans (thanks to Ronald Reagan) and got my [undergraduate] degree and paid every penny back. How did I do it? I worked two jobs til I was 30. When I got married and moved to Maryland, I got a cheap apartment in Glen Burnie, worked overtime, and we saved until we could put a deposit on a townhouse that was within our budget. As we worked our way up in income, we sold our townhouse and built a house within our income in Pasadena. We take care of our property as do our neighbors and we want to protect our investment. What is wrong with that?"

Nothing, Kim. But you're assuming that the opportunities you had are equally available to poor people today. As for Ronald Reagan — sorry, but the Gipper cut student aid, social services, welfare benefits and federal support for public housing and urban renewal. The cost of a college education relative to the cost of living was so much lower than it is now. Getting married certainly helped your economic status, but a lot of low-income women face limited choices when it comes to potential partners with steady jobs. And even those with steady jobs — the working poor — struggle. Wages for many workers have been generally flat for close to three decades. This country is a very different place from when you and I were growing up.

Kim: "I would love to live in Georgetown, but cannot afford to do so, so I pick a community that I can afford to live in and I don't ask anyone to subsidize me."

Actually, you and I and millions of other American homeowners are subsidized by the government. We get the mortgage interest and property tax deduction. That's something renters don't get.

Kim: "If everyone would work a little harder and smarter, everyone can improve their quality of life over time if they truly desire, without government handouts."

Easier said, Kim. There are millions of working poor in this country. "If you worked 60 hours a week at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, your income would still be under the federal poverty line for a family of four," says Michael Reisch, professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. "And that line (about $24,000) is a woefully inadequate measure of human need, especially in an expensive region like ours."

Bottom line: Some people talk a good game about wanting to break the cycle of poverty, but they don't want much done about it near where they live. You probably won't see it as a missed opportunity, Kim, but it is. Not only do kids from poor families do better when they live among kids from mixed economic levels, but studies show well-off kids who live in mixed-income communities develop more inclusive values as adults. Imagine that.


Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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