This year marks two decades since two important events in the efforts to get Baltimoreans to face hard truths about Baltimore — David Rusk's warning that a city in decline could pull the whole metropolitan region down and the filing of a major class-action lawsuit to end decades of segregative housing policy that left the city with a disproportionate share of the region's poor.
I mentioned Rusk in Sunday's column about Gov. Larry Hogan's unique opportunity to address problems laid bare by the riots that followed Freddie Gray's funeral. A leading urban scholar and former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., Rusk warned in 1995 that leaving high concentrations of poor blacks in Baltimore's inner-city neighborhoods would create long-term hardship for the city and six surrounding counties.
Rusk's book, "Baltimore Unbound,' declared that the city had reached a point of no return in social and economic decline, and that without a new metropolitan approach to governance, the suburban counties would next feel the pain.
By a "point of no return," Rusk meant a combination of population loss, a disproportionately high minority population, and great disparities between city and suburban income levels.
"There are 34 American cities, including Baltimore, that have passed the point of no return," Rusk wrote. "Not one of these cities has subsequently ever closed the income gap with its suburbs by so much as one percentage point!"
Twenty years later, the numbers support Rusk's prediction that nothing would change without a bold regional effort to break up the concentration of urban poor: Median household income across Maryland was more than $73,000 in 2013 while median household income for Baltimore was $41,385. The rate of poverty in Baltimore remains three times as high as the rate in surrounding suburbs.
Rusk did not believe this would change even with the best-intended efforts: "No combination of urban renewal, downtown development, model cities programs, community development corporations and, I predict, enterprise or empowerment zones has ever reversed the downward slide of such cities. There is no factual basis for believing that more of the same, including Baltimore's new federally funded empowerment zone, will reverse Baltimore's decline."
Rusk warned government and business leaders that Baltimore could not continue as "poorhouse for the region's minority poor." He argued convincingly that the whole region would face hardship if its central city did not reverse its decline.
The year of Rusk's warning is notable for another reason: It was in 1995 that tenants of Baltimore's public housing complexes filed a lawsuit contending the city and federal governments had engaged in a long pattern of segregation, restricting poor, black residents to the poorest areas of the city and the worst conditions.
Lengthy litigation followed, with a federal judge eventually ruling that officials had violated housing laws by not taking a regional approach to giving black families opportunities to live outside high-poverty, segregated neighborhoods. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the judge said, had treated Baltimore as "an island reservation for . . . all of the poor of a contiguous region."
In the late 1990s, the city started demolishing its decrepit high-rise public housing projects and redeveloping those areas as mixed-income communities. The city and federal government also agreed to provide hundreds of subsidized units for public housing residents in middle-class areas of the city and the suburbs.
By 2012, at least 1,800 families chose to leave public housing and neighborhoods of deep poverty for low-poverty neighborhoods throughout Baltimore or the surrounding counties. Since then, an additional 400 families per year have been given the same opportunities; that program stays in place until 2018, under the terms of a court settlement.
Barbara Samuels, the veteran fair-housing lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, says 2,800 families have participated in the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program since 2004, with priority in the last year going to families with children under 7.
Still, Samuels says, another 7,100 families are on the waiting list for vouchers.
New research from Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren should heighten the urgency to meet that demand. Their comprehensive study of the role that place plays in a child's chances for success confirmed the depressing lack of social and financial mobility for boys and girls raised in Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods.
"In the context of our very strong region, and the fact that Maryland is the wealthiest state in the nation, we should all be embarrassed that Baltimore City ranks dead last among large cities and counties for economic mobility for children," says Samuels, citing the Harvard study.
"We should all agree — left and right — that economic mobility is important. We should be ashamed. Where is the business community? They have been silent all through this. That speaks volumes about the state of our corporate leadership."
More funds would mean more vouchers. More vouchers would mean more families with children making the decision to move to better neighborhoods in the city and counties — exactly what David Rusk suggested 20 years ago to reverse the city's decline.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.