Every workday, out-of-work people stream into the downtown Baltimore office of Goodwill Industries, looking for advice, for training, for anything that could help them land a job.
The gray marble building on East Redwood Street is always busy. This is a city filled with unemployed residents, even in good times.
But the full extent of the problem is more difficult to see: So many in Baltimore are not even looking for jobs that the city's labor force participation rate is one of the lowest among the nation's 100 largest cities, census data show.
For reasons as diverse as motherhood, criminal records, old age and simple hopelessness, half of Baltimore's adults are not working. That puts an extra burden on the half who are working and goes a long way toward explaining the strain on the city's finances.
This limited taxpayer base has eroded in recent decades even as participation swelled elsewhere, a bedrock problem for a city struggling to turn itself around.
Though the city is making well-publicized strides - with west-side redevelopment and ritzy waterside townhouses - it's being held back by the weight of about 200,000 residents 16 and older who don't have jobs.
"That should be a wake-up call," said Alan Berube, senior research associate for the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy in Washington, which studied Baltimore's demographics last year.
"If you want to improve the quality of life in a city over time, you need to have taxpaying residents who can support the fiscal base. ... It's hard to imagine where you're going to get those revenues if only half of adults are earners."
The cost of fighting crime and providing social services keeps growing even as the population drops, and it's no less expensive to maintain the roads, bridges and sewers crisscrossing the urban landscape, officials say.
"Garbage still has to be collected, crime has to be dealt with, fire demand is still there. The geographic boundaries and the infrastructure remains," said Edward Gallagher, Baltimore's deputy director of finance. "Not only the population is decreasing, but a large percentage of our population is poor."
And getting poorer.
The tens of thousands who moved out in the latter part of the 1990s had higher salaries than those who remained, according to federal tax data. The average Baltimore resident makes roughly half as much - and pays half as much in state and local income tax - as the average Marylander.
The flourishing suburbs that surround the struggling city also pay a price. Population loss and inflation have eroded Baltimore's tax and fee revenues by $250 million over the past decade, and the state has been forced to pick up the slack.
Ten years ago, state and federal assistance accounted for 35 percent of the city's operating budget. This fiscal year such aid is 42 percent of the total.
With the highest property tax rate and one of the higher income tax rates in Maryland, the city finds it difficult to raise funds by increasing taxes - though Mayor Martin O'Malley is now considering higher fees to avoid cutting hundreds of city government jobs.
Baltimore's best hope for the future is finding more jobs for residents and helping them remain employed, economists say.
"When people work in a city, a city works," said Karen L. Sitnick, director of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development. "I don't think there's any question that work force development and opportunities to get people into the work force is a critical component of our economic development plan to make Baltimore a livable and desirable city."
Multitude of troubles
That goal faces major hurdles because the city's small work force is a symptom of other problems - a tragic combination of individual missteps, poverty and unhelpful public policy.
Crime: Tens of thousands of city residents have criminal records, and a single arrest can knock someone out of contention for a job.
Education: Nearly a third of city adults don't have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Almost half of the public high-school students drop out before finishing. Their job options are few.
Child support: Eighty percent of Baltimore child support cases have unpaid, often hefty, balances. The low-income fathers - and occasionally mothers - would need years to pay off the past-due amounts.
Jobs mismatch: There are about as many jobs as working-age adults in Baltimore, but many require high school or college degrees. While lower-skill employment has swelled in the suburbs, from Aberdeen to Columbia, those jobs are difficult - or impossible - to get to without a car. One out of three city households has no vehicle.
"Transportation," said John Bugg, vice president of the Greater Baltimore Urban League, "is just a major disaster."
These difficulties can cause people to drift into and out of the work force, keeping jobs for a while before some problem catches up with them.
"We as employers will ofttimes see folks present who don't have the fundamental understanding of what just the basic expectations are - how to dress, how to act, how to present even the most basic resume," said Ronald R. Peterson, president of the Johns Hopkins Health System. "So job readiness training is important, particularly for the entry-level jobs."
Gene Bracken, spokesman for the Greater Baltimore Committee, a regional group of business and civic leaders, said the suburbs can't afford to ignore the city's difficulties because such chronic labor problems affect the entire metro area. Companies looking to relocate invariably look at regional statistics.
"Available work force directly and very significantly impacts economic development and economic growth," he said.
Employment troubles are magnified by five decades of population loss, making it more difficult for the city to reverse this slow-motion crisis. It's not seeing the waves of immigration that have energized other old cities. And the loss of industrial jobs has been swifter here than in many other urban areas.
Though losses have slowed, Baltimore has shed nearly 80,000 jobs since 1990.
Overall, about 57 percent of Baltimore adults were working or looking for work in 2000 - the crest of the most recent economic boom - compared with 70 percent in the remainder of the state, according to the census. Only one out of two city residents actually had a job.
Since then, state estimates suggest, the city's labor force has dropped by an additional 2,000 people.
"It's a double drain," said Deborah Povich, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force in Baltimore. "Loss of taxes because people are not employed, and often they require more public resources because of lack of income. ... If they were all retired, it would be different. But they're not."
Crime and jobs
Job-assistance experts say a large part of the problem is directly linked to the city's other major headache, crime.
Though no one knows exactly how many Baltimore residents have criminal backgrounds, every year about 8,000 of the people released from Maryland prisons settle in the city. Somewhere between one-half and three-quarters of the 18- to 35-year-olds in Baltimore have a criminal history, said Faye S. Taxman, director of the University of Maryland's Bureau of Governmental Research.
That's a "formidable" barrier to gainful work because many employers are worried about repeat offenses and liability, while some are barred by law from hiring ex-offenders, said J. Peter Sabonis, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore.
It was different when the area had a strong manufacturing base, he said. Warehouses and factories are more willing to overlook a rap sheet than employers in the service industry.
"It just becomes a nightmare, really, in terms of the labor market," Sabonis said. "Employment is a key factor in reducing recidivism."
The Job Opportunities Task Force tried to win support for bills this legislative session designed to erase some black marks from people's records.
Legislators killed a bill that would have permitted clearing records of convictions for nuisance crimes such as loitering, but the House has passed legislation allowing people convicted of a crime to expunge any charges that don't lead to a conviction and aren't for violent offenses or child abuse.
The Mayor's Office of Employment Development has been reaching out to employers to persuade them to hire ex-offenders, and honored those that do at a breakfast in December. Since June a state parole and probation employee has worked at the city's one-stop job center in Northwest Baltimore, helping about 100 people a month look for employment.
Nonprofit job assistance services in the city see hundreds of former offenders as well.
"It's a lot of recovering addicts and ex-convicts that are trying to better their lives," said Clinton Hackett, 38, who lived for months in a Southwest Baltimore residential recovery program after being released from jail at the end of 2002. "The wreckage that we've done with our past - our criminal history - is something that follows us. It's a Catch-22. ... We have so much against us."
Seretha Smith, 37, is hoping for the best as she waits for the results of job interviews. A wrong turn into drugs and alcohol a few years ago landed her with a felony charge, but she's living in transitional housing in East Baltimore now. She has spent four months in a Catholic Charities transitional work program, splitting her time between personal-skills training and a custodial crew.
"It's a good start," she said, sweeping a room in St. John's of Hamilton United Methodist Church.
Drugs and crime
Hackett said he graduated from a Philadelphia fashion design school and did some work in the field before he became addicted to drugs. He financed his habit with bad checks, theft and credit card fraud.
He knows he doesn't have anybody to blame but himself, but he said that getting his life back on track is not easy. Hackett figures his record is the reason he was turned down for a job with MCI last fall, even though he has six years of telemarketing experience.
Former offenders often do better going through one of the nonprofit organizations in the city that offer training and can vouch for graduates. With help from Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, Hackett found work packing, scanning and doing similar activities in an Aberdeen warehouse.
Sitting in Goodwill's offices last October during free time, he said it was a step in the right direction. "I feel like the hard work is my way of paying my dues," he said.
But he would later lose the job, move and disappear from Goodwill's radar.
Phil Holmes, vice president of career development there, called this the reality of work force development in Baltimore.
"If we bat 50 percent - or .500 - we are thrilled because so many of the men and women we serve have so many other things pressing down on them," he said.
For Braggil Barnes, 25, a job - one she can keep - has been more of a dream than a reality.
She earned a high school equivalency six years ago and followed it up with a certificate in early childhood education. She is literate and articulate.
She has also been out of work since July. Her savings have long run out. After a family crisis a few weeks ago, she fled her Southwest Baltimore apartment to live with her sister in Baltimore County and had to drop out of a computer skills course in the city designed to make her more employable.
Last month, having applied unsuccessfully for various jobs, the cheerful woman was temporarily weary and dejected. She wants a decent life for herself and her son, who is nearly 3.
"I just don't have a solid resume," Barnes said then. "On paper, I wouldn't hire me. I haven't ever stayed at a job for more than six months, so that doesn't look good to an employer. ... They don't even give you a chance to talk to them."
She has worked as a child-care instructor and an aide to an elderly resident, but neither paid well enough. Daycare costs her $125 a week.
Have to go on
In her last job, a four-month stint at a Catonsville party supply store, she said, she spent long hours at work and in an extended commute by bus and on foot that took her up to an hour and a half each way.
The effort wore her down, she said. After an illness, she quit.
Now, she's hoping to return to the computer skills class and believes her common sense would serve an employer well.
"I can't just lay down and die," Barnes said matter-of-factly. "I just have to go on."
Parents on the other side of the fence - the ones not caring for the children - can end up just as stuck.
The Legal Aid Bureau Inc., a nonprofit that helps low-income Marylanders, sees many cases in which more than half of a non-custodial parent's take-home pay is garnisheed for child support. That discourages low-income workers from sticking to a legitimate job because they're not left with enough to cover basic needs, job assistance experts say.
Worse, many Baltimore parents end up in arrears immediately because judges can order retroactive payments when a support order is signed, said Dan Hatcher of the Legal Aid Bureau. The amount of money owed also mounts while a parent is in jail.
The average owed in Baltimore's past-due cases is more than $10,000. To pressure people to pay up, the state suspends the driver's licenses of non-custodial parents who are 60 days out of compliance with the last court order - and that has cost some employed residents their jobs, Hatcher said.
"These low-income, dead-broke men are being forced further and further underground," said Joe Jones, president of the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development/STRIVE in Northwest Baltimore.
Several bills before the General Assembly this session aim to help. Legislation to suspend payments for jailed residents died in committee, but both the Senate and House have passed bills giving parents a greater chance of keeping a driver's license if it's needed to work.
The Maryland Child Support Enforcement Administration wants to have discretion in license suspensions.
"Most of the arrearages owed in the state of Maryland are owed by people who earn $25,000 or less, so there definitely is some cause for concern," said Brian D. Shea, executive director of the enforcement administration.
Being ready to work
Economists and local leaders are convinced that the city would have an easier time putting residents to work if more were ready to step into skilled jobs.
A substantial number of Baltimore jobs are filled by degreed suburbanites, and nearly 40 percent of employed city residents work outside the city, compared with slightly more than 25 percent of Washington residents.
Baltimoreans end up in about half the positions the Baltimore Development Corp. has a hand in creating each year.
The BDC doesn't track the number of city jobs requiring college degrees, though M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the economic development agency, knows it's increasing. But he's convinced that average city residents can compete for many of the new jobs if they have a good attitude, strong work ethic and willingness to learn, attributes that employers tell him are in short supply everywhere.
"There are jobs at different levels even in high-tech," said Brodie. Of "a hundred people working at a biotech company, a third of them could have the beginning jobs with a high-school degree and some training."
Job training is critical for Baltimore residents because the labor market is more demanding than in earlier generations.
"Thirty years ago, the largest private employer in this area was Bethlehem Steel," said Marion W. Pines, a senior fellow in the Institute for Policy Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. "Today the largest employer is Johns Hopkins," with more than 50,000 employees between the university and health system.
But money available for training is shrinking rather than growing. Three federal training and placement programs now provide about $28 million a year to help Baltimore residents find work. But within two years, two-thirds of that money will be gone as two programs expire, and funding for the third has been dropping.
And the city school system, which can make or break a child's future employability, is sinking under a multimillion-dollar deficit and a multimillion-dollar cash-flow problem.
"There's often a feeling that the lower end of the work force can fend for itself or deserve to be there," said Richard P. Clinch, an economic researcher at the University of Baltimore. "We under-invest in training these people."
In this gray picture, bright spots can be found.
Some employers, such as the Johns Hopkins University and health system, help their entry-level workers earn high-school equivalency diplomas and train for better jobs.
"We can't just stand by and assume that folks will be able to come to us completely prepared," said Peterson, the health system president.
And, hoping to directly link education to work, the Johns Hopkins policy studies institute and the Mayor's Office of Employment Development have teamed up to create one of the education system's "innovation" high schools.
When it opens this fall on Northern Parkway, the Academy for College and Career Exploration will provide job shadowing, internships and work experience for students in addition to academic classes. School will run 9 to 5, year-round.
"We want to simulate the workplace, and we want to get these young people ready," said Sitnick, director of the office of employment development.
Sitnick's office sees the range of Baltimore's jobless - the professionals laid off from the school system, the former offenders looking for a break, the mothers getting off welfare. Its four one-stop career centers placed more than 5,700 adults in jobs in the last fiscal year, at an average wage of $9.13 an hour.
But for a city with bottom-line troubles, the bottom line is: That's a drop in the bucket.
Here are some of the dozens of job-preparation services offered in Baltimore:
Baltimore City Community College: Skills training, from hospitality management to cable installation, through the Business and Continuing Education Center. Contact: 410-986-3200.
Bon Secours of Maryland Foundation: Four-week career planning, job readiness training and financial counseling for West Baltimore residents, followed by continued one-on-one help. Contact: 410-362-3560.
Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development/STRIVE: Three-week job readiness training and job placement with follow-up for two years, plus separate wage advancement training. Contact: 410-367-5691.
Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake: Basic skills training, including computers and geriatric nursing assistance, and job placement. Contact: 410-837-1800.
Empower Baltimore: Job skills training and placement, plus economic development activities. Contact: 410-783-4400.
Marian House. Transitional housing for homeless women, with job readiness training and placement help. Contact: 410-467-4121.
Maryland Center for Arts and Technology. Customized job training based on local employers' hiring needs, including health care and manufacturing. Contact: 410-234-4490.
Mayor's Office of Employment Development: Four "one-stop career centers" where people can update resumes, search the job databank, learn how to use a computer, apply for skills training scholarships and get other career help. Contact: 410-396-3009.
St. Jude's Employment Center: Transitional work training and job-search support through Catholic Charities. Contact: 410-659-4023.
Second Chance Project: Connects ex-offenders to job services and employers while working on community building and financial literacy. Contact: 410-669-3200.