Civic leaders target expansion of the black middle class

The Baltimore Sun

Seeking to erase the stark economic disparities between black and white Baltimore residents, a group of civic leaders unveiled a plan yesterday to expand the city's black middle class, saying doing so is vital to the city's economic health.

Called "More in the Middle," the project, spearheaded by Associated Black Charities, is the culmination of 2 1/2 years of research among business and nonprofit leaders. Through public and private partnerships, the program aims to take on the large task of closing the black-white wealth gap, while trying to reverse decades of black flight and help low-income residents climb to the ranks of the middle class.

"Our role is to be the catalyst," said Diane Bell-McCoy, Associated Black Charities' president and chief executive officer, during a kickoff event yesterday at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture. "We are trying to be the broker and the impetus, because there's no way we could do something like this on our own. This is huge."

The statistics are bleak, according to an analysis of the city's black and white middle class residents, also released yesterday:

While 65 percent of the city's population is African-American, 48 percent of its middle class is black. Middle income is defined as earning between $35,000 and $75,000.

About 17 percent of black middle-income residents have a bachelor's degree, compared to 28 percent for middle-income whites.

White households, on average, have 10 times higher net worth than black households.

The last figure is striking, said experts, because home equity represents nearly 80 percent of net worth for African-Americans, leaving them vulnerable to wealth loss, especially in today's fragile housing market.

The Baltimore Neighborhoods Indicators Alliance compiled the data examining topics such as income, education, home ownership and employment. The figures were gleaned from the 2000 U.S. Census, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

"The statistics are scary," said Ann Breihan, associate professor of nonprofit management at the College of Notre Dame, who said the discussion was a thought-provoking look at a complex issue. "But the steps toward solutions seem practical and inviting."

Organizers are still gathering ideas and devising the project's long-term strategy. Participants suggested business mentorship and home-ownership programs coupled with financial training.

Increasing home ownership, graduation rates and growing businesses are not new approaches when it comes to trying to lure residents to Baltimore. But organizers -- from nonprofits that include the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Abell Foundation and the Urban League -- said never before has a widespread effort targeted African-Americans.

Nevertheless, attracting such residents will be a challenge. Of the 60,000 blacks who left Baltimore between 1995 and 2000, 42 percent were middle-income, according to the report.

Organizers stressed the project will also encourage economic mobility.

"We are not doing this at the expense of the lower classes," said Lenneal J. Henderson, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Public Affairs. "So many jurisdictions strictly export the poor -- gentrification always leads to deportation. We are really asking how do we bring those at the lowest rungs up to the middle class."

The strategy can benefit the entire city, said participants, who highlighted a 2006 report from the Sage Policy Group saying that a black middle-class renaissance would "utterly transform the city's economic, social and government landscape."

Since Baltimore's African-Americans have lower average incomes than those statewide, the study examined how the city's economy would change if its black spending power were on par with that of blacks in the rest of the state. Higher incomes would boost purchasing power, job creation and tax revenue, benefiting the city as a whole, the report stated.

"It tells us how significant the returns would be to any effort that would in fact help raise African-American incomes in Baltimore city," said Anirban Basu, the Sage Policy Group's chief executive.

The More in the Middle project represented an attempt to answer a puzzling question: Why isn't Baltimore's economy and quality of life improving at a more rapid rate? The answer was clear to McCoy: race and the reluctance of many to acknowledge racial disparities.

"It's the elephant that always sits in the room in this town and it doesn't make any sense," she said. "In my work on the city's empowerment zone program, I have seen white men and black citizens working together to make a difference. I know it can happen."

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