Economic plans sometimes forget the most needy


By now, you have probably read about or seen Sheila Dixon's shoe-waving to excess. Ms. Dixon, a city councilwoman in Baltimore, brandished her shoe last week during a rancorous council debate over the racial implications of a plan to change the boundaries of the city's six council districts.


The plan, which has since been signed by Mayor Schmoke, will create stronger black majorities in most of the six districts, reflecting the city's black majority in a manner that Ms. Dixon felt was long overdue.

At one point in the evening, she responded to the heated protests of some white council members by waving her shoe at them and saying something to the effect that maybe it was time white people starting learning what it was like when the shoe was on the other foot.


Ms. Dixon's shoe got nearly as much attention as Bo Jackson's hip. She became the Nikita Khrushchev of Baltimore.

And, for maybe 15 or 16 minutes, these antics propelled her past even the Emir of Maryland as the most talked about public official wherever Bawlmerese is spoken.

The same morning that Ms. Dixon's remarks were reverberating around town, however, another news story was published that bothered me a lot more than whether black officials were getting fed up with their continued minority status in a city in which they outnumber whites by roughly a 3-to-2 ratio.

In the upper left-hand corner of its front page, the New York Times chronicled Milwaukee's successful transition from a blue-collar, manufacturing economy to a world of white-collar, high technology and professional services jobs.

From 1979 to 1983, the story said, Milwaukee lost 60,000 manufacturing jobs, or more than 25 percent of its total manufacturing job base.

Since then, however, a combination of renewed but smaller manufacturing enterprises (manufacturing regained only 9,000

jobs) and a large increase in service jobs have made Milwaukee one of the nation's most vibrant urban economies, with employment up every month for more than seven years.

The underside of the recovery, and the reason the article jarred me, was its largely unchallenged assertion that not only had Milwaukee's black community not participated in this success, but it was even excluded, in effect, from the city's economic recovery strategy.


Having grown up in Chicago and having spent time during my youth in search of the real beer that made Milwaukee famous, I've long been struck by the similarities between Milwaukee and Baltimore.

These are down-to-earth places, populated with the kinds of people you see in those John Hancock ads about real solutions to real financial problems.

Both cities exist in the shadow of larger urban areas but have maintained their own strong identities while carving out areas of economic achievement, clearly superior public sectors and, generally, higher qualities of life than their larger neighbors to the south.

So, when the Times reported on Milwaukee's problems, I kept substituting Baltimore in the story, especially in these key paragraphs:

Milwaukee's recovery, the article said, "has devastated the city's poor black neighborhoods, whose residents thrived in the high-wage union jobs of the city's manufacturing heyday and are now adrift on a rising tide of unemployment, crime and despair."

" 'Milwaukee is a classic case of how a restructured economy has diminished the employment opportunities for blacks and for black males in particular,' said Dr. James H. Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty at the University of California at Los Angeles, who has studied poverty in Milwaukee. 'The indicators of poverty and joblessness fall solidly in the black community.'


"The retooling of factories also hurt unskilled whites, of course. But the effect was less severe for several reasons. At factories that laid off only some workers, whites often had seniority and were retained. And even for whites who were laid off, the prosperity of the white parts of the city insured that new businesses would spring up there, offering jobs suitable for former assembly line workers. Such jobs have generally not appeared in black sections.

"The result is a city of 600,000 people where black men stand idle on street corners just blocks from the breweries and factories that used to employ them, while well-dressed white-collar workers sell insurance or computers out of some of those same factories, now converted into office parks.

"More than half of all black Milwaukeeans are on some form of public assistance. The city has one of the highest black unemployment rates in the country: 20.1 percent, which is more than five times the rate for white residents. And its homicide rate, fueled by a new and thriving drug trade, doubled in three years to a record 165 in 1990, from 78 in 1988."

Is it fair to assume that black Baltimoreans have made out as poorly as blacks in Milwaukee? I've seen no good studies of how Baltimore's neighborhoods and its black citizens fared economically during the 1980s, so I don't know for sure how close to draw the parallels.

But whether Baltimore is a few percentage points better or worse doesn't concern me so much as the sense that Milwaukee's "trickle-down" economic development strategies were produced from the same mold being tried here.

With a few exceptions, there is no effort here to craft an economic development agenda for a community with many, many disadvantaged citizens. Instead, we get many well-intentioned efforts to develop what I call the "techs": high technology, biotechnology, information technology and so on.


Better public education and enhanced job training through improvements in the community college system are usually trotted out. They illustrate our awareness of the need to improve the competitive abilities of Baltimore's large group of economically disenfranchised citizens. But the progress here has been maddeningly slow.

What we're left with is a top-down emphasis on linking up with tomorrow's growth industries -- an emphasis that may not create all that many job opportunities for Baltimore's economic have-nots.

One major potential exception to this is the evolving effort in West Baltimore's Sandtown community to deal with a broad range of social issues -- drugs, crime, urban services, housing and others -- that most experts know must be addressed to achieve meaningful economic development.

(This effort's most showy piece is the Nehemiah Project, a collaborative housing venture involving the city, the federal jTC government, the Enterprise Foundation and many neighborhood institutions.)

I don't know if this kind of gritty, bottom-up effort will succeed here, but it clearly seems to be headed in the right direction.

Don't misunderstand.


The "techs" are important, but they are no substitute for more inclusive strategies. Milwaukee, after all, has posted 88 consecutive months of employment growth in its recovery efforts, with dubious benefits for its minority community.

We haven't even done as well as Milwaukee in terms of employment growth, so where does that leave our minority community?

Further, if we ask whether an economic-development strategy can truly be centered on the needs of the disadvantaged, are we being socially responsible but economically irrelevant, or are we posing the right question?

Regardless of which race has a majority of the seats, these are matters I'd like to see the Baltimore City Council, and others, take to heart.