Research from Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren this year showed what happens when you grow up poor in Baltimore City, and it's not good. They measured what impact growing up in a particular county (or, in Baltimore's case, county equivalent) had on one's expected income as an adult. They found that a child who grew up in a low-income family in Baltimore could expect to earn 17.2 percent less as an adult than someone who lived in an average county. That was the worst among the 100 largest counties in the nation, and it wasn't even close. The next worst, Mecklenburg County, N.C., was 3.4 percentage points better.

What happens when parents move their children from low-income neighborhoods in the city to better ones in the suburbs? Messrs. Chetty and Hendren measured that, too, and found that the earlier children moved, the better they did as adults.


The reasons that's true were evident in Sun reporter Doug Donovan's extensive investigation into Baltimore's legacy of segregation and the housing policies officials have pursued in an effort to overcome it. He interviewed families who had gotten the chance to move out of public or subsidized housing in the city and into apartments or even single-family homes in the suburbs. Although many of them maintained ties to their old city neighborhoods, at least initially, they found safety and opportunity in their new environments. The children were often able to attend better and less racially and economically segregated schools, and the parents (and in these cases, we're talking almost exclusively single mothers) were often able to take advantage of the stability to advance themselves and their careers.

Despite the demagoguery that sank the 1990s Moving to Opportunity program that sought to help the inner city poor find new homes in the suburbs, Baltimore housing officials have found quieter ways in recent years to achieve the same thing. Mr. Donovan found that about 3,100 families have taken advantage of special housing subsidies that allow them to afford higher suburban rents, with another 1,300 families due to benefit from the program within the next three years. Meanwhile, the housing agency has, through intermediaries, bought about 50 homes in the suburbs for needy families, with 110 more due to move into houses in stable city neighborhoods.

The trouble is that, laudable as those efforts may be, they represent just a tiny fraction of what would be needed to make a dent in the entrenched segregation that defines neighborhoods like the one where Freddie Gray lived. The city sends nearly as many people to prison (about 7,800, or a third of the state-wide prison total) as it does to homes in good neighborhoods in the suburbs. More than 100,000 people are on waiting lists for subsidized housing in the region, and that likely understates the problem.

The Obama administration's effort to use the Fair Housing Act to actively encourage communities to pursue desegregation is certainly a positive development, but absent a major infusion of money — unlikely under current political circumstances — there is only so much more the Baltimore Housing Authority can do to provide more opportunities for residents to move to more prosperous communities. Ultimately, the story of segregation is more about the suburbs than the city.

Baltimore's suburbs may no longer be the "white noose" around the city that the 1974 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights described — Baltimore County is now more than one-third minority, and Howard County is even more diverse — but they nonetheless present relatively few opportunities for the development of low-income housing. The two obvious steps that could help — a law prohibiting landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants who rely on federal housing vouchers and a law requiring developers to include affordable units in their projects — are likely to be political non-starters throughout much of the region.

Fortunately, there is some hope. Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, a Republican, teamed up Sen. Barbara Mikulski this year to stave off a federal policy change that would have crippled efforts to help low-income renters afford to live in Columbia. And Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has expressed interest in boosting affordable housing efforts in the county and has begun to set aside millions in an incentive program for developers to build more of it. The county has long been in conversations with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development about how to settle issues related to a landmark fair housing case from 2012, and it's likely that the county could for the first time put numbers to its commitments.

We urge Mr. Kamenetz to go one step farther and introduce source of income non-discrimination legislation in the County Council. Montgomery, Howard and Frederick counties and Baltimore City have versions of the non-discrimination legislation, and advocates pushed several times for a state level bill but were never able to get a vote on the floor of either the House or the Senate. It wasn't introduced this year and isn't expected to return in 2016. Enacting a local version in Baltimore County would almost certainly change the dynamics, as landlords there have been some of the most effective opposing voices to the idea in the legislature.

Given the County Council's shameful rejection of an affordable housing project in Rosedale two years ago, it would be a tremendous accomplishment for Mr. Kamenetz to get a non-discrimination bill enacted. But sooner or later, Baltimore County and its neighbors are going to have to realize that the legacy of segregation isn't just a Baltimore City problem and it demands a regional solution.