The road through Baltimore

How would you revive Baltimore's poorest, most dysfunctional neighborhoods? The president should know.

In the growing field of presidential contenders, Martin O'Malley has been treated often as a punch line — even President Barack Obama recently got into the act joking that the former Maryland governor could go undetected at his own fundraiser. But Mr. O'Malley said something Sunday that ought to reverberate beyond the usual 24-hour news cycle. Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," he said the riots should be a "wake-up call for the entire country."

"We have deep problems as a country and we need deeper understanding if we're going to give our children a better future," he told host Chuck Todd.

That's a pretty bold statement coming from a former mayor whose own "zero tolerance" law enforcement policy — the predecessor to the chase-after-averting-eye-contact approach by police in the illegal arrest of Freddie Gray, perhaps — is often cited as one of the underlying contributors to the deep distrust between poor neighborhoods and law enforcement. Mr. O'Malley may not be the expert on Charm City justice that he believes himself to be, but he does have a point: Police brutality isn't the only issue that deserves to be on the national agenda; America's shameful neglect of urban centers like Baltimore ought to be front and center, too.

At least initially, the candidates haven't had much to say about recent events here, particularly within the Republican field. Jeb Bush at least had something intelligent to say, bemoaning the challenge of helping the poor without creating dependency. Sen. Ted Cruz found the occasion yet another opportunity to bash President Obama for frequently seeking "to turn us against each other." Sen. Rand Paul may have offered the most embarrassing comments, joking that he was glad his train hadn't stopped there during the rioting — a remark he later explained was "offhand" and misinterpreted by others.

Hillary Clinton demonstrated an interest in the broader topic, calling for "fresh thinking and bold action" on issues of poverty, violence, race and policing in a speech at Columbia University. She even offered some specifics — reducing the prison population by finding alternatives to incarceration, particularly for drug users and low-level offenders; better mental health coverage; drug courts and juvenile programs. All sensible but hardly revolutionary. No doubt most of those running for office endorse police body cameras as well.

That's all well and good, but someone needs to go to the heart of the issue — the manner in which cities like Baltimore are saddled with a seemingly inescapable cycle of concentrated poverty, racism, drug addiction, crime, poor educational outcomes and despair. As damning as television images of rioting, looting and arson may have been to this city's reputation, the reality is worse. The latest findings from the controversial "Moving to Opportunity" program of two decades ago that offered select families a chance to live in more affluent communities found that every year a child lives in one of America's disadvantaged neighborhoods significantly reduces his or her chances of success in later life.

What U.S. city or county fared the worst in the national study? That would be Baltimore, dead last among the 100 communities measured, with a 17.2 percent income gap between adults who stayed in their poor neighborhoods as children and those who moved to more affluent ones, thanks to a government voucher. Addressing police brutality directed at poor minority neighborhoods is crucial, but it is but one symptom of this gross inequity. This city's biggest problem is a lack of upward mobility, and no amount of prosecution of police or the addition of body cameras is going to change that underlying malady.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Gov. Larry Hogan may get criticized for the unrest that has taken place during their watch, but at least they've shown signs of recognizing the millstone around Baltimore's neck — they simply lack the resources to remove it. President Obama has offered some lip service — and a visit Tuesday from Attorney General Loretta Lynch to hear public concerns — but merely attempting to calm the populace isn't really solving the problem. What's needed is some serious federal investment — whether through direct spending or tax credits — to jump start opportunity, to create jobs, to rebuild schools, to provide affordable housing and child care. What exists of the so-called "social safety net" today is just enough to keep the poorest on life support and dependency, not give them a springboard to a better life.

Those who would seek to occupy the White House in 2016 ought to first occupy the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues and explain exactly how to create real opportunities for people whose biggest shortcoming is that they lack the resources to escape their dysfunctional neighborhoods. How could places like Sandtown-Winchester be remade? The usual talking points — the lower taxes and less government spending mantra of Republicans or the vague promises of criminal justice reform or better schools by the Democrats — won't do. The public deserves a specific plan of action and an acknowledgment that more-of-the-same doesn't cut it, nor can a real transformation be done on the cheap. Is there a contender who has something serious to say about solutions to recent events in Baltimore? We're waiting to hear, but patience is a luxury we can't afford either.

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