More than 300,000 American workers have gone on strike since the beginning of the year, asserting their right to a living wage, good benefits, safe working conditions amid steadily rising temperatures, and so much more.
Workers are feeling empowered in a way that they haven’t in decades, recognizing that every American deserves to live with dignity — but millions in our country are considered the working poor, individuals who dedicate 27-plus hours each week to work but nonetheless live in poverty.
Approximately one-fifth of Baltimore residents live in poverty, and the city’s wealth gap falls along racial lines; the median net worth for Black households was reported as $0 in 2021, compared to $59,430 for white households.
Solving this systemic social stratification, which contributes to dismal health outcomes and reduced life expectancies for the poorest among us, takes more than just worker empowerment. Uplifting low-income people will require our leaders to shift their focus to community wealth building.
Such an effort, as defined by the organization Community Wealth Builders, “creates an inclusive, sustainable economy built on locally rooted and broadly held ownership.” This kind of economic development centers equity and inclusion and aims to address chronic disinvestment in Black neighborhoods.
Black Baltimore residents are less likely to receive loans to purchase houses and to invest in small businesses and commercial real estate. Between 2004 and 2016, white residents received three times the number of loans as their Black neighbors. Creating a community wealth fund will allow the city to invest in Black Baltimoreans and others living in communities within our city that face historic disinvestment. Low-income people would be given an opportunity to flourish, and it would be good for our city’s general economic development.
With such a community wealth fund, Baltimore’s economy can grow to include more worker and housing cooperatives, community land trusts and community investment vehicles. Our city can look to Chicago as an example. The Chicago Mayor’s Office of Equity and Racial Justice invested $15 million into a two-year community wealth building fund.
Baltimore’s government could play the central role in building this type of fund and to explain what its purpose is. The hope is that if the city government were to commit to a community wealth fund, a conversation could be had about policy specifics and about how funds could be accessed.
Chicago’s approach is instructive. The city granted $4.7 million to organizations able to provide free technical assistance to businesses that follow community wealth building models.
Where can Baltimore raise the money for its very own community wealth building fund? Possible sources include the revenue generated by hospitals and universities. A 2010 agreement allows them to pay just $6 million, or 5%, of the more than $110 million in property taxes they would owe were they considered for-profit institutions. This deal, called a payment in lieu of taxes, was renewed for another 10 years in 2016.
And 2026 is looming, which means that Baltimore’s leadership can reevaluate the terms of the payment in lieu of taxes. Doing so responsibly can create new tax revenue, which may be used to uplift some of our city’s most vulnerable communities.
The city’s hospitals and universities, sometimes referred to as “anchor institutions,” justify their low property tax contributions by noting that they contribute positively to the Baltimore community. But paying a larger amount in taxes — contributing to the city’s revenue and making way for community wealth building, investment in housing and social services and more — would show that leaders of these institutions truly care about their low-income neighbors and are invested in their success.
Lisa Brown is executive vice president for 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East in Maryland and Washington, D.C.