Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren released in 2018 their groundbreaking research on the role that geography plays in shaping a child’s chances of future success. They collected a list of the 100 largest counties in America, and Baltimore ranked last in the nation for the social mobility of poor children.
Black children in Baltimore continue to face the worst odds of escaping poverty, and the outlook is especially bleak when it comes to social mobility for boys. I witnessed the effects on the Black boys for whom I provided services. I also witnessed their interactions with the criminal justice system.
Most are from Baltimore ZIP codes with high poverty rates and some of the worst conditions in the country. They are from neighborhoods where economic desperation is evident. They are in many ways cut off from resources and support that would bring them educational and employment opportunities.
The poorest communities in Baltimore have the highest percentages of Black residents. The community trends that contribute to high rates of violent crimes and property damage include persistently low incomes, such as those below the national poverty line, and low housing values that continue to fall. In Baltimore, there are nearly 15,000 vacant houses and 20,000 vacant lots, with thousands more at risk, the majority of which are found in the predominantly Black, low-income neighborhoods. This level of vacant and abandoned properties translates into an estimated $210 million each year in lost revenues and other costs. Neighborhoods with the largest shares of abandoned properties include Fairfield, Sandtown, Southwest Baltimore, and Greenmount East.
Since the 1980s, researchers have chronicled the steep decline of these neighborhoods. In the early 1990s, policymakers initiated an effort to address poverty through relocating families to higher-income communities.
The Baltimore region participated in the federal Moving to Opportunity program, under which randomly selected families living in high-poverty housing projects received housing vouchers to help them move to lower-poverty neighborhoods. Researchers found that moving to a lower-poverty neighborhood significantly improved college attendance rates and future earnings for children whose families moved when they were young (younger than 13). These children also went on to live in better neighborhoods themselves as adults and were less likely to become single parents.
Political backlash from some predominantly white suburbs around Baltimore ultimately led to the curtailment of the national program.
In 2006, Baltimore’s Department of Planning developed a new Comprehensive Master Plan for the city to direct economic growth and quality of life initiatives for the next 10 years.
But since then, efforts that could uplift distressed communities and improve the circumstances of people who live in them have not been implemented by Baltimore or Maryland. Instead, during the past 15 years, the city and state governments have embarked on such projects as Port Covington redevelopment, the CFG Bank Arena project, Harbor Point and the new Lexington Market. These projects are geared to stimulate the city’s economy, but they don’t help reverse the continuing decline of the city’s Black neighborhoods and the harm it does to so many, particularly to Black children.
Baltimore schools continually face funding challenges. But in 2017, a $30 million youth detention facility opened in one of the poorest communities in Baltimore (Oldtown). The federal government earmarked $900 million for the city to expand its public transit, which would’ve increased access to the region’s job opportunities. Instead, our former governor, Larry Hogan, moved more than $700 million to highway repair and expansion and other projects, many of them elsewhere in Maryland.
Baltimore, we know that our Black children are our future, so we must embark on a mission to invest in them and their communities. From state level to the city level, real money must be invested in these communities to stimulate economic growth and redevelopment and give them a chance to change their futures.
Kevin Mcleod is a doctoral candidate whose work is examining socio-economic challenges facing young people in Baltimore. He is also a retired director and manager of residential boarding schools for court-appointed youths.