Another email arrived the other day from a citizen who blames Democrats for everything bad about Baltimore — for the poverty and the potholes, the homicides and homelessness, the high property taxes and the trash in the Inner Harbor. These assertions have been arriving in a moderate flow since the April riot, framed between harsh criticism of Baltimore's Democratic mayor and soaring praise for Maryland's Republican governor who "saved the city."
The most recent email came from an "interested friend" — few writers of these letters sign their names — who declared: "Democrats have had Baltimore in its grip for 50 years and it's an incorrigible mess."
Of course, blaming Democratic politicians for the complex, multi-generational problems of Baltimore is easy because it's your only choice. The city has not had a mayor from the Grand Old Party since Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin in 1967, and as of this writing, no Republican has entered the field of candidates for the 2016 municipal election.
So, for all of my "interested friends" who have written since the April riot to state the obvious — that Democrats have been in charge of Baltimore for a long time, thus to blame for all its failings — allow me to provide some perspective. Otherwise, you can stop here and return to designing memes ridiculing the mayor.
First of all, to assign blame for Baltimore's failings to a particular party is to ignore about 50 years of major changes in American society: where we work, how we live, how much we make. I know some believe that the loss of industry is yesterday's news, having nothing to do with where we are today, but the region is still adjusting to that seismic shift.
"Over the past 35 to 40 years, the economic base of Baltimore and Maryland has dramatically changed," says Michael Reisch, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work who has studied the American family and public policy for decades. "The city and the state lost most of its manufacturing jobs. These were union jobs that enabled men and women with a high school diploma or less to earn a living wage and provide their families with some sort of decent life. Factory jobs helped create a substantial black working class that helped stabilize neighborhoods."
When those jobs started to disappear, workers trying to climb out of poverty had a tougher time; they still do today. "What happened in the Baltimore region is a microcosm of what happened in the U.S. as a whole," says Reisch.
And so the poverty rate in Baltimore is about 2 1/2 times higher than that for the state's. Across Maryland, median household income is almost twice that of the city's. The rate of high school completion in Baltimore has improved in recent years, but it still lags behind the rate in surrounding counties. That disparity is important, says Reisch, because, since 1980, the salary of college graduates has increased by 16 percent while the salary of high school dropouts has fallen by 25 percent.
"There were several other developments that disproportionately affected the lives of Baltimore residents," says Reisch. "The impact of drugs, which dates back to the 1980s, and the resultant war on drugs that produced mass incarceration and family breakdown. …"
And let's not forget the acceleration of white flight to the suburbs and exurbs, starting in the 1960s. Republicans as well as conservative Democrats invested in political strategies aimed at the increasing numbers of white voters in suburban and rural areas; they saw little to gain politically from embracing progressive policies that would help Baltimore. The city lost hundreds of thousands of residents, its tax base shrank, and poverty became even more concentrated within the inner city.
Then, in the Reagan era, federal aid to Baltimore and other cities was significantly slashed, making it tougher for any mayor to succeed since then.
"Overall, there's no evidence that Republicans want anything to do with big, sprawling, diverse, problem-ridden cities," says Herb Smith, professor at McDaniel College and longtime observer of Maryland politics. "The mantra of modern, conservative Republicanism is small government, with privatism and individualism a close second and third." That approach, he says, is antithetical to dealing with the challenges of a city like Baltimore. "There's only one party that believes that government can make a positive difference, and that's sure as hell not the Republicans," says Smith.
That's why, in May, I suggested that Gov. Larry Hogan cut a new path for Republicans right through Baltimore, while the eyes of the nation were on the city. An effort by Hogan to help the city in a transformative way would have cracked the political identity Smith just described.
I say to Republicans, especially my "interested friends" who think Democrats are so bad at governing this city: What's your idea? Are you up to the challenge? Can you make this a better Baltimore, once and for all, with great schools, fewer homicides, lower taxes, and no more rioting? If so, let's hear your plan.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM