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White House group works behind the scenes to help Baltimore

White House group works behind the scenes to help Baltimore
A US Secret Service Uniformed Division officer and his K-9 dog patrol the fence line of the White House in Washington, DC, October 23, 2014. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Baltimore officials had an idea to help neighborhoods that were torn by last year's riots: They wanted to expand a federal program that provides free meals to children during the summer.

But federal regulations made it nearly impossible to offer a third daily meal. Breakfast and lunch could be served, but an afternoon snack or supper was off limits.

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Then a group of Obama administration officials that has been working behind the scenes to help Baltimore got involved. The task force, which includes senior officials at the Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies, got the city into a pilot program that made the third meal possible.

Baltimore is one of three places in the nation with a dedicated White House task force, along with Detroit, which became the largest U.S. city to declare bankruptcy in 2013, and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest places in the country with high unemployment, poor health outcomes and substandard housing.

Created weeks after the death of Freddie Gray and the ensuing protests and riots, the White House Task Force on Baltimore has been working largely under the radar for more than a year to cut through federal bureaucracy, encourage development and identify funding for the city.

Not only is Baltimore offering the meals for a second summer, federal officials are testing whether the expanded meal program might have merit in other parts of the country.

"We needed things that the federal government also thought we needed," said Andrew Smullian, Baltimore's deputy mayor for government relations and labor. "When you have these Cabinet-level agencies taking an interest in your city programs — it's been great to have that level of attention."

Baltimore was chosen in part because of the unrest that followed Gray's fatal spinal injury in police custody in April 2015 and also because of a report a few weeks later — widely read within the White House — that ranked Baltimore last among 100 large jurisdictions for a poor child's ability to climb out of poverty later in life.

The report's conclusions about young men in Baltimore were particularly striking: For every year that boys in low-income families live in the city, their income as adults dropped by 1.4 percent.

That was a sobering finding for an administration that has focused on improving the lives of black children through the My Brother's Keeper initiative. That program, launched in 2014, leverages private-sector money to try to close gaps in education and employment.

The Baltimore task force is led by Nate Loewentheil, a senior policy adviser at the National Economic Council who was born in Baltimore and whose father co-owned Mencken's Cultured Pearl restaurant near Hollins Market.

The group includes senior officials at more than a dozen federal agencies who meet regularly with representatives of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration.

The task force is similar to another program the White House rolled out in 2011 in which communities receive technical assistance from federal agencies. Both programs are part of a broader focus by the Obama administration to engage more directly with local governments.

Loewentheil has appeared at several significant announcements in Baltimore this year, including when the federal government closed the sale of the former Social Security Administration complex in West Baltimore to a Towson-based developer. The building has been vacant for two years, and officials hope that turning it over to private hands will spur economic revival.

Loewentheil credited Rawlings-Blake and others for "working to connect people to jobs now and to lay the foundations for longer-term growth."

The broader effort to improve coordination between levels of government has come as funding for federal grants to cities has slipped in recent years.

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The Community Development Block Grant program, a large source of federal money to cities for strengthening low-income neighborhoods, will provide about $3 billion this year — roughly 56 percent less than in 2000, according to an estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Federal funding is expected to make up about 6 percent of Baltimore's current operating budget, compared with 8.4 percent in 2009.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said the likelihood of new money being set aside for cities is small, no matter who wins the White House this fall. That means the federal government has to rely on efforts such as the task force to squeeze new ideas and funding out of the sources already in place.

"We've had to find more creative ways to use existing programs," Cardin said. "The task force has helped us in that regard."

The group does not pretend it can solve such deep-rooted issues as racial and economic inequality in Baltimore, but members believe they can make a difference within vast bureaucracies. They are working to improve communication between the city and federal governments, help the city identify programs that exist and shake loose funding that local officials might not know about.

The Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, identified money that was sitting unused in state government last year after the program it was initially intended to fund was delayed. That money was repurposed to expand health worker home visits to new mothers in the city.

In another instance, the group helped Cardin free up spending for an Inner Harbor water taxi terminal that Congress passed years ago but languished in a budget approval process at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The group also helped the city secure a $5 million award last year from the U.S. Department of Labor for job-training programs.

Loewentheil reports to the director of a team within the Office of Management and Budget that is focused on improving coordination between federal, state and local governments.

"Growth and change in Baltimore are driven by Baltimore's community, nonprofit, business and political leaders," said Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget. "Our job is to provide the resources that make change possible."

The task force meetings have been an opportunity for officials to trade ideas across the federal government and with Rawlings-Blake's administration. The Baltimore Sun was invited to observe a meeting this month that included senior officials from the departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Labor and other Cabinet agencies.

Loewentheil led a lengthy discussion about the city's summer jobs program, in which Baltimore placed 8,000 youths at work sites around the region.

Federal agencies took on about 178 of the teenagers, either by identifying funding or at work sites such as at the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration. That represents a significant increase from last year, when the federal government placed about six students, city officials said.

Officials used the meeting to discuss how to iron out kinks in the process — such as ensuring that teens have the identification required by federal workplace rules — and how to expand participation next summer.

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Loewentheil said the Obama administration has learned from the work in Baltimore lessons that can be applied elsewhere. The success of the city's summer jobs program, he said, inspired the Summer Opportunity Project, which the White House announced this year as part of an effort to make it easier for local governments to identify federal funding for summer jobs.

President Barack Obama is briefed regularly on the work of the Baltimore task force, the White House said.

Loewentheil has been working to ensure that the cooperation continues next year, after Obama and Rawlings-Blake leave office. That effort has involved ensuring that city civil servants know whom to call when they need help from Washington.

Ben Seigel, a Baltimore native who preceded Loewentheil and led the task force for its first 10 months, said the group has "focused on blocking and tackling assistance, the type of work necessary to build capacity and make government operate effectively, but that doesn't necessarily make it into the highlight reels."

Seigel is now leading the 21st Century Cities Initiative, a separate effort at the Johns Hopkins University to strengthen neighborhoods. That program will draw on faculty from across the university as well as outside groups to develop ideas to improve the economy of troubled communities, according to Hopkins.

"The hope is that the approach sticks," Seigel said of the task force, "and that a coordinated federal government is working collaboratively with a coordinated Baltimore City."

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