During this election cycle, it is increasingly popular in some circles to condemn government as wasteful, inefficient and incompetent. While there are thousands of federal, state and local government programs, each with its own index of success or failure, it might encourage those who believe government is a force for good to consider a number of interventions by the Baltimore City government (with federal and state assistance, in some instances) that markedly improved the lives of those involved by taking actions that only government could accomplish. A similar and much larger list could be assembled of successful Maryland and national government initiatives.
Consider the following examples — all focusing on public health — in which government has proved a force for good in this city:
•First, Baltimore has one of the highest AIDS infection rates in the country. One reason is the widespread use of heroin and the infection that comes from using dirty needles. Baltimore's pioneer needle exchange program reduced the infection rate by 70 percent for regular users of the program. When this program began, AIDS treatment cost $100,000 per patient. The cost of the program to prevent infection in total was $165,000 a year for all participants. Last year 2,100 separate people participated.
•Second is lead paint poisoning among children, which causes poor school performance and a proclivity to violent behavior. Because of city efforts, the number of lead-poisoned children has dropped 88 percent from 2000 levels. The number of children with elevated blood lead levels decreased from 2,189 to 258 in 2011. The connection of lead poisoning to violent behavior may partially explain Baltimore's high crime rate, and the reduction of lead poisoning may well have contributed to the city's declining crime rate. To achieve this, the city first began to prosecute landlords who did not remove lead paint. Then a KidStat program was established to follow every house where lead poisoning was found. Relocation houses were established for families temporarily displaced by the de-leading of their houses.
•Third, in 1997 Baltimore was cited as having the country's highest rate of syphilis infections. At that time, it had a rate of 107 cases per 100,000, or 5 percent of all the reported cases in the United States. Through various city treatment and educational interventions, by 2002 the city had dropped the rate to 19 cases per 100,000, an 84 percent decrease. Several strategies were employed to achieve this result. Disease trackers were hired to visit crack houses and test the occupants. Arrestees were tested at the city's central booking facility.
•Fourth, Baltimore suffered an outbreak of measles in 1990 primarily because of the low number of city children who had been vaccinated. By 1995, because of a city initiative, 99.8 percent of schoolchildren had been vaccinated, effectively eliminating mumps and measles. Children were not permitted to attend school if they were not vaccinated.
While many people contributed to the above successes, a common element was the leadership and energy of the city health commissioner, Dr. Peter Beilenson, who was subsequently voted America's outstanding local health commissioner.
While most Baltimoreans are probably unaware of the above successes, more are familiar with the crime data. Part I (serious) crimes have dropped from 66,000 in 2000 to 39,000 in 2011. Juvenile shootings have declined from 136 in 2000 to 42 in 2011.
Also better known is the school system's success in increasing the graduation rate from 43 percent in 1996 to 72 percent in 2011. Dropping out strongly correlates with criminal activity, and so, as is probably the case with lead poisoning, the increase in high school graduation may also have contributed to fewer crimes.
For those who believe in the efficacy of government, keep this article in your pocket to refute those who denounce government and the taxes needed for its support.
Robert C. Embry Jr. is president of the Abell Foundation. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.