Dan Rodricks: Time for leaders to do right thing for Baltimore's poorest kids

Mikulski, O'Malley, Ehrlich should embrace regional plan they opposed in '90s

I posed a question to Barbara Mikulski: Does Maryland's long-serving senator, a Democrat and former social worker, regret playing a key role 20 years ago in killing the federal Moving To Opportunity project, given new research that shows Baltimore's poorest children face the worst prospects in the nation for the kind of upward mobility MTO was meant to foster?

The senator did not answer directly, avoiding reference to MTO and noting her support of funding for affordable child care and after-school programs.

"Most experts agree that no single program is determinative in a child's life," Mikulski said, a statement that proponents of MTO and the Harvard University economists who found it successful would gladly debate.

Of course, Mikulski was not alone on this issue in the 1990s. Bob Ehrlich, the Republican former congressman and Maryland governor, opposed a federal court settlement that provided poor black residents of the city's public housing projects rent-subsidy vouchers to move to better neighborhoods.

And then there's Martin O'Malley, the Democratic former governor with presidential aspirations. When he was mayor of Baltimore, O'Malley also criticized the settlement — in effect, a judicially mandated MTO project that required the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to stop segregating poor black families in decrepit inner-city public housing projects and allow them to move.

A new, comprehensive study by economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues at Harvard shows how wrong these politicians were. The widely reported study released this month supports MTO's original theory — that poor children whose families move them out of high-poverty areas early in life do better in terms of employment, income, marriage and education than those who remain in poor neighborhoods. And Baltimore, by the study's measure, is just about the worst place in the nation for poor children to escape poverty.

Decisions by people with power and influence matter; their choices have consequences.

Given all that has happened in Baltimore over the last six weeks, people with power and influence now have an opportunity to do the right thing: They should find the funds for housing vouchers for more than 7,000 low-income families on a waiting list to move to better places. It's not the total answer to what ails Baltimore, but it's a big piece — long advocated and now confirmed by groundbreaking research.

Some background:

In the early 1990s, HUD started MTO as an experiment, "a 10-year research demonstration that combines tenant-based rental assistance with housing counseling to help very low-income families move from poverty-stricken urban areas to low-poverty neighborhoods." The plan was to measure the influence of place on the employment, income, education and well-being of poor people, especially children.

Housing authorities in five cities, including Baltimore, would take part. The pilot project here would have allowed 285 families to move from high-poverty (more than 40 percent) areas to better neighborhoods in the city or suburbs. A key piece was the requirement that voucher recipients use them in neighborhoods with a poverty level of 10 percent or lower.

That requirement would have excluded large stretches of southeastern Baltimore County, but that did not keep MTO from becoming a flash point there in 1994, with a local politician generating the most heat by suggesting, wrongly, that thousands of poor black families were about to flood Dundalk and Essex. He said public housing tenants were "the worst of the worst" and would have to be "taught to bathe and how not to steal."

It was an ugly argument, and ugly won.

Mikulski, reputed champion of liberal causes, helped kill MTO, claiming the program had been poorly managed and suggesting agreement with the concerns about crime. She was chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee responsible for HUD at the time Congress rescinded $171 million earmarked for expanding MTO.

A year later, in 1995, tenants of public housing sued HUD for its decades-long policy of segregating poor black Baltimoreans in the now-demolished high-rise projects. Following years of litigation, a federal judge ruled that HUD had violated housing laws by treating Baltimore as "an island reservation for ... all of the poor of a contiguous region."

In the settlement that followed — the one Ehrlich and O'Malley criticized — the city and federal government agreed to help public housing residents find new places to live in middle-class areas of the city and the suburbs. Over the last decade, 2,800 families have benefited from the program, with another 7,100 families on the waiting list for vouchers. Many of those families include children under 7.

There is still too much concentrated poverty here, but still time for Mikulski to do something about it. Before her retirement from the Senate, the senator could lead a bipartisan effort to get additional state and federal funding for vouchers so that more families wishing to move out of the poorest Baltimore neighborhoods can do so soon. And Mikulski could push for more affordable housing throughout the metropolitan area so that each county can give more of Baltimore's poorest children hope for a better life.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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