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A local war on poverty [Commentary]

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. … It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.

— President Lyndon B. Johnson, January 8, 1964

Last week, the nation marked the 50th Anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's announcement of a federal War on Poverty, igniting a national discussion about the war's legacy and what a renewed effort to address social inequality might look like.

But what about us here in Baltimore?

We aren't doing so well. According to the U.S. Census, 23.4 percent of all residents — almost one quarter of Baltimore's population — live below the federal poverty level.

A third of all children under 18 in the city live in households whose incomes fall below the federal poverty level, and nearly two thirds of children under 18 live in households whose incomes are below 200 percent of the poverty level.

The consequences for these families and children — for their future education, employment, health and well-being — are dire and well documented. They are also severe for the rest of us in the lost productivity and potential of our fellow citizens and in the higher social costs we all share.

The accumulated research evidence is clear: The way out of poverty is through opportunity — and especially through education and skills.

What can we do about it?

We can marshal our collective resources and will across government, philanthropy and the not-for-profit sectors here at home around a couple of key strategic goals at citywide scale. We can redouble our efforts to ensure more children enter school ready to learn, have access to high-quality public education, graduate with skills and experiences to succeed in college and work and that their parents and guardians have the skills and training to pursue jobs at family-sustaining wages.

Public/private leadership groups are currently supporting innovative programs and strategies to achieve some of these goals. A few examples:

•The Baltimore Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is a collaborative effort of funders, nonprofits and public organizations working to close the gap in reading achievement that separates many low-income students from their peers.

•The Open Society Institute-Baltimore is leading a comprehensive and strategic effort that has driven down school suspensions for students in the city schools and has supported a robust collaborative that includes more than 25 organizations working to improve student attendance.

•The Baltimore City Opportunity Youth Collaborative, a broad city-wide coalition, is developing a collective approach to re-connecting young people ages 16-24 to school and work.

And I recently had the great privilege of working with representatives from across the city, including the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, on a strategy to improve the labor market prospects of low-income city residents through education, training and transitional employment with a focus on sectors where growth is projected.

We certainly don't lack for effort, but we do lack urgency.

So let's call in the generals, set citywide targets, coordinate investments to sustain and scale what is working and continue to experiment where our approaches are not yet robust enough. Let's combine these efforts into an intentional, strategic and vigorous campaign — a war if you will — to tackle the pervasive poverty that is holding our city back.

I know this may appear naïve. Certainly there are circumstances well beyond our control. But, like President Johnson said 50 years ago, we can't afford not to do better. A new war on poverty: Why not here? Why not now?

Martha Holleman is an independent social policy consultant in Baltimore and the principal of Strategic Thinking for Social Change. From 1996–2008 she served as the senior policy director for Baltimore's Safe and Sound Campaign. Her email is holleman.martha@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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