Raising the Md. minimum wage would stabilize families — and destabilize the underground economy

As Baltimore continues to mourn the loss of so many lives to senseless violence, we all continue to search for solutions to make our communities safer. With this in mind, several weeks ago I scheduled time to discuss solutions to ending violence with staff members from Safe Streets, one of the most effective, evidence-based violence reduction programs in Baltimore.

This organization trains returning citizens in conflict mediation and employs them to interrupt potential violent encounters in neighborhoods across Baltimore City, before there is an outbreak of violence. They not only work and live on the front lines, but are also experts in violence reduction, as they were once perpetrators of the same violent behavior that they now work tirelessly to put an end to.

We met in my office, and I asked them directly: From what you see every day on the streets, what do you think it will take to stop the violence in Baltimore City? I will never forget what the group told me. It went something like this:

You want me to be real with you? Folks are starving on the streets. People are doing whatever they can to make ends meet. I know teenagers that are the heads of their households, taking care of younger siblings, and these kids are being paid $20 a day to serve as lookouts for police — instead of being in school. Some of those kids get paid $150 a day to hold (illegal) guns and drugs for dealers. I know gang members who will kill someone for less than $500 and have heard stories of people using their tax return checks to order hits (commit murders). If you politicians want to end the violence, you have to change the economics in our neighborhoods. To heal our communities, we need to get back to work.

Their perspective on the economics of violence in our city shook me to the core. I pressed them on solutions, and their answer was simple: Pay young men and women more than they could make as entry level workers in the underground economy.

No one I know likes selling drugs, but everyone needs to eat; it’s as simple as that, they said.

They then continued to share ideas on ways they believed could divert young people from crime. Ideas like employing men and women to sweep up the streets and alleys, but overnight because many of our young people stay up late, and it’s easier for them to work in the evenings. Or training young men and women on how to deconstruct vacant and abandoned homes, helping to reduce blight in our city. With steady jobs and family-sustaining wages, people won't turn to selling drugs because they will make more on the straight and narrow, they said. All of these are good ideas rooted in the spirit of creating opportunity for our young people to support themselves and their families, and to give back to their neighborhoods.

Any effort to put a stop to the violence in our city must be holistic and include policy changes crafted through a lens of racial justice, equity and public health. We need to remove violent repeat-offenders from the communities they terrorize, and we also have to get serious about addressing barriers to employment and entrepreneurship for returning citizens. Too often men and women who are trying to turn their lives around are locked out of the workplace because they are unable to pass a background check due to the very limited amount of expungeable offenses, or the lengthy period of time expungement takes for those who are eligible. But in every conversation I’ve had with advocates about employment issues in our city, the issue of low-wages has continued to emerge.

Under President Obama, the White House Council of Economic Advisers produced a 2016 report entitled “Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System” and found that increasing the national minimum wage to $12 by 2020 would result in a decrease of 250,000 to 510,000 crimes and would produce a societal benefit by as much as $17 billion. As the wealthiest state in the country, I think we can go a step further here in Maryland and push for a statewide $15 minimum wage — a bold step to truly help lift families out of poverty and destabilize the underground economy.

If Baltimore City is going to get serious about saving lives, it has to start with improving economic outcomes for those at the bottom, and that starts with raising the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour in Maryland.

Kristerfer Burnett is a member of the Baltimore City Council; he can be reached at kristerfer.burnett@baltimorecity.gov.

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