We beef up law enforcement to attack crime, devote more funding to try and improve inadequate schools and tackle health disparities by getting more people to the doctor. But what if Baltimore could solve all of its persistent social problems by getting rid of poverty?
It’s not all that novel an idea, really. Plenty of research and data have long shown that low-income people fare worse in most lots of life and that pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps is not as easy as people make it sound. Remember the prominent Johns Hopkins study released in 2014 that followed the paths of nearly 800 Baltimore children and found that most of those who grew up poor were likely to end up at the lower end of the economic ladder as adults as well?
Yet no one has devised a way to lift mass scales of people out of poverty. The New York-based anti-poverty group Robin Hood Beginning wants to try to do that, and Baltimore is one of the cities where it is intervening with a strategy to identify and intervene at points in a person’s life that might influence if they get stuck in poverty.
As is true throughout the country, the city’s most insidious issues can likely be linked back to poverty. It is not really surprising that in Baltimore, where 22.1 percent of people lived in poverty in 2017, well above the state’s 9.4 percent, the crime rate is high, for instance. People will turn to burglary, shoplifting and other crimes to get through life if economic opportunities and jobs don’t exist. And there has been little investment in the areas of the city with some of the highest crime rates, according to research funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that came out this week. Low-poverty neighborhoods receive one and a half times the investment of high-poverty neighborhoods, the analysis found. Neighborhoods that are less than 50 percent African American received nearly four times the investment of neighborhoods that were more than 85 percent African American.
Baltimore city school's method of calculating school poverty rates undercounts many immigrant children, school leaders say. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
Perhaps in these neighborhoods, the risk of getting arrested for peddling drugs may seem better than that of going hungry. What would happen to crime numbers if people in poor neighborhoods had easy access to jobs that paid family-supporting wages?
With more investment, another side effect could be that people’s health outcomes might improve as well. The Baltimore City Health Department has documented the health disparities that exist because of poverty. People in low-income neighborhoods such as Upton Druid Heights consistently have more health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes, and die at a younger age than people in wealthier areas such as Roland Park. Beyond physical health, the stress of worrying about having enough food to eat or money to pay the bills can take a toll on people’s mental health as well. Families that earn less than $35,000 were four times as likely to report being nervous and fives times as likely to be sad all or most of the time, according to a recent report by the medical journal Health Affairs, which found strong evidence that policies that emphasize economic equity may also have broad health effects. Poor adults may turn to substance abuse or smoking to cope. The children of these families often struggle in school because they are also dealing with the ramifications of living impoverished. Maybe they can’t concentrate or are cranky because there wasn’t enough food for dinner the night before or they didn’t get enough sleep because of police activity outside. Or they can’t get comfortable in a bed they share with two other siblings.
We are glad that Robin Hood, headed by bestselling author and Baltimore resident Wes Moore, has chosen to include this city as part of its anti-poverty initiatives. It’s time for lawmakers to join Robin Hood in focusing more on economic equity to improve the plight of the city. How many dead-end plans have we seen to spur development in impoverished areas of the city, such as the Pennsylvania Avenue arts and business district? Why not work to bring more industry to neighborhoods where people need jobs so they don’t have to take multiple buses to get to work? Make daycare affordable so moms don’t have to quit their jobs because they don’t have the money to pay someone to watch their kids. Stop with the policies like tax sales for overdue water bills that further throw people into poverty. Give young people opportunities so they see a better way to support themselves than crime. None of this will be easy to accomplish. But we owe it to the city to try.