Baltimore’s unemployment problem | COMMENTARY

Baltimore has an incessant and unacceptable problem with unemployment.

It’s a new year and our city continues to struggle with crushing poverty and heart-breaking homicide rates. Nearly everyone agrees that an important way forward is to increase Baltimore residents’ access to good-paying jobs. Agreement on the need for jobs, however, isn’t enough. With mayoral and City Council campaigns underway, now is the time for a concrete plan.

The good news is that the city’s official unemployment rate has fallen dramatically since the Great Recession. In October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate was close to 5%, compared to close to 12% in February 2010.


The bad news is that employment opportunity is unevenly distributed. Tens of thousands of our fellow city residents remain locked out of a growing economy. The country’s stock market may be prospering, but the lives of many Baltimoreans are not. The result is incessant poverty, which leads to other problems, such as crime, to which people will turn in order to survive.

The most recent U.S. Census/American Community Survey estimated the unemployment rate for white residents of Baltimore City at 4.4% (averaging over five years from 2013 to 2017). For African American residents, the average is 13.9%, nearly 10 points higher.


In our information-based economy, those who don’t get a good education are limited to low-skilled and low paying jobs later in life. The estimated five-year average unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher in Baltimore is 2.9%. That number climbs to 19.4% for those without a high school diploma. The difference is stark and can have life-long consequences for employment opportunities.

Even a high school diploma alone is no longer sufficient to get a job to support a family. We applaud the city’s rising high school graduation rate, but more needs to be done to prepare students for the work world. Unfortunately, some 73% of Baltimore’s high school students do not meet Maryland’s College and Career Readiness standard in English Language Arts; 88% do not meet the standard in math.

Limited literacy and math skills lead to limited employment and earnings opportunities. An analysis of Maryland wage data completed by the Baltimore Educational Research Consortium found that six years after graduation, members of Baltimore’s class of 2009 had average median earnings of only $15,000. This makes it hard to pay for the most basic life necessities, such as food and rent.

How we got to the point where few residents qualify for well paying jobs is no mystery. The city has suffered from decades of segregation and disinvestment, persistent racial bias in the labor market, failing schools that are just now beginning to improve and high incarceration rates. In addition, the transition from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy, the migration of jobs to the suburbs and an inadequate public transportation system, all have contributed to the under employment and unemployment of city residents.

We know the problems; now we need solutions.

If we had our way, Baltimore’s next Mayor and Council would make substantial investments in adult education and occupational skills training, as recommended by recent reports from The Abell Foundation. They would fully fund the city’s portion of the Kirwan Commission recommendations and act with urgency to increase academic achievement and work experiences of current high school students, including internships and apprenticeships. They would secure specific commitments from city-based employers to hire, train, raise wages and support the advancement of Baltimore residents because everyone needs to be a part of the solution. And that is just for starters. There’s so much more that can be done.

In the weeks leading up the primary election on April 28, please join us in asking every candidate what specifically they will do to increase the education, skills, employment and earnings of city residents. Rising incomes stabilize families and neighborhoods and yield returns for all of us through increased tax revenue, greater safety and lowered cost of services. Let’s elect a mayor and City Council members who understand the urgency and make this their priority.

We all share best wishes for greater prosperity in the new year. What we need now is a plan.


Mara Braverman ( is a retired attorney and college instructor. Martha Holleman ( is an independent social policy analyst.