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Here’s what the American Rescue Plan could mean for Baltimore | COMMENTARY

U.S. President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan on March 11, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C..
U.S. President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan on March 11, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C.. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/TNS)

I was not yet 4-years-old when my dad died from a rare, but treatable virus. He had just been sent home from the hospital hours earlier with instructions to get some rest, and with doctors asking my mom if he was prone to exaggeration. My family has long felt that race played a role in his care — or lack of it.

Even beyond the emotional trauma, the economic damage to my family was severe. Thrust into single motherhood, my mom worked multiple hourly jobs to support my sisters and me. She couldn’t find full-time employment that included benefits until I was 13-years-old.

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I’ve seen the harsh effects of disparities in health care and economic opportunity since as long as I can remember. I have also seen the impact a good job cannot only have on the employed, but how it can change the trajectory of a family. Because that job my mother received, from the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, changed all of our lives.

The American Rescue Plan passed last month presents more than a path out of this pandemic. It enshrines into policy what it means when President Biden says that we must “build back better” and provides us the tools and materials to do that. In Baltimore, where I live, that’s a steep challenge, and one we must address with a laser focus on getting people back to work in jobs that provide not only living wages, but dignity and advancement as well.

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Baltimore is slated to receive an unprecedented influx of capital. The $1.9 trillion relief measure includes critical investments for local governments to the tune of $350 billion in payments to U.S. territories, states and local and tribal governments. Baltimore is estimated to receive roughly $670 million in direct support.

This is a landscape-altering investment, not just because of the amount of money, but because of the latitude and flexibility city officials have in how to invest it. We must capitalize on it by focusing on meaningfully getting people back to work and into jobs that can change their lives, the way my mother’s job saved our fortunes all those years ago.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott has said the measure “offers a real lifeline for Baltimore families and small businesses struggling to navigate the challenges of COVID.” I applaud his vision and his leadership; and I urge him, and every leader from all sectors in Baltimore, to bring dignity of labor and economic opportunity to the people of this city through jobs.

We have to get people back to work, and in a city that pre-pandemic saw 12% unemployment for Black residents compared to 4% for white residents, we have to get people to work who did not have a place in the economy before the pandemic.

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We must focus on jobs because a significant segment of Baltimore City’s working population is effectively unemployable due to lack of a high school diploma or advanced degree, low or no job skills, unaffordable and inaccessible transportation options, and a criminal record — often a result of policies that criminalize poverty and race.

We must focus on jobs because Baltimore’s poverty rate is 21.2%, and the population has dwindled by nearly 5% over the last decade. The unemployment rate in Baltimore nearly doubled between December 2019 and December 2020, going from 4.2% to 7.9%.

And we must focus on jobs because so many of those city workers we’ve come to know as “essential” amid the pandemic — in roles as home health aides, grocery store clerks and nursing assistants — make less than $15 per hour.

How do we do it? By directing more money to community-based organizations that have a proven record of successful job-training, placement and retention. Even a relatively modest $5 million investment in the front line nonprofits that already do this work in Baltimore could increase the number of residents receiving training, support and job placement by 1,000 people per year, according to a 2019 report from the Abell Foundation.

By focusing on getting people dignity and economic empowerment through good jobs, we can draw a clear line through every issue we face — crime, health, education, tourism, small business support, infrastructure — and chart a path to a brighter future for our community.

Wes Moore (wes@wesmoore.com) is a nonprofit CEO, a bestselling author, combat veteran and resident of Baltimore, where he lives with his wife and two children. His book with former Sun reporter Erica Green, “Five Days,” exploring the uprisings that followed Freddie Gray’s death from a kaleidoscope of perspectives, is out in paperback on April 13.

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