If You Haven't Got a Ha'penny Blessing Alone Won't Do Enough for Baltimore's Poor

December 17, 1990|By Tim Baker

"CHRISTMAS IS COMING. The goose is getting fat. Please put a penny in the old man's hat. If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do. If you haven't got a ha'penny, then God bless you.''

In this festive holiday season, Baltimore's charities groan. The growing national economic recession grinds away at them at both ends of their operations. It pushes more and more people on the margin out of work and into urban poverty. At the same time, it cuts away at the financial substance and the generous spirit essential to charitable giving.

The lines grow longer every day at Our Daily Bread's soup kitchen on West Franklin Street, but the organization cannot raise the money it needs to renovate its new building.

The need for low- and moderate-income housing has reached record levels in Baltimore, but the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center has had to cut its budget and close two of its programs because of reduced funding. It used to raise $200,000 a year from Baltimore foundations and corporations. This year, it doesn't expect its fund raising to reach $80,000.

Applicants with advanced degrees now join the high school dropouts in the job-placement interviews at Jubilee Jobs' office on East Lombard Street. While Jubilee's board desperately tries to raise money, the organization has been forced to restrict admission to its orientation sessions.

Baltimore's charities need help. The recession follows a decade in which federal funds dried up while poverty in the city became more widespread, more entrenched, more concentrated and more persistent. Meanwhile, the number of people escaping poverty has decreased. According to a report prepared by the National League of Cities, 32 percent of urban poor people in America succeeded in climbing out of poverty in the 1960s. In the 1970s, the figure rose to 37 percent. In the 1980s, it fell to 23 percent.

High tech is partially responsible. As we race forward into the economy of the future, low-skilled and poorly-educated people drop farther and farther behind. The glittering world of high technology is mercilessly unforgiving to the illiterate. They used to find low-paying but steady jobs in Baltimore's blue-collar manufacturing industries. But their opportunities shrink and disappear as the city transforms itself into a business-services, biomedical and information-processing center. That's why a city that can't read is a city that's going to die.

Growing unemployment presents the immediate threat. Baltimore has 200,000 adults who are functionally illiterate. Many of them hold the kinds of jobs that are vulnerable in an economic downturn.

The growing strain comes at a time when the recession has already weakened the city's business community. Earnings and stock prices have dropped precipitously. Two of the region's most generous contributors, USF&G and Maryland National Bank, are on the ropes. Others have sold out. Some have moved away. As Baltimore magazine pointed out this month, the city's base of charitable giving has eroded.

This situation presents an extraordinary opportunity to the newly formed and generously endowed foundation created by the late Harry Weinberg, Baltimore's expatriate and eccentric billionaire. He bequeathed his fortune, estimated at between $900 million and $1 billion, to help the poor. The five trustees he appointed must design and build an organization to achieve that purpose.

Their opportunity is to create here in Baltimore a foundation which will play the same role in support of this city that the Andrew Mellon Foundation plays in Pittsburgh, the Lilly Foundation in Indianapolis, the Pew Foundation in Philadelphia and the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. Each of those extraordinary organizations has assumed a special responsibility for its home city.

It is to be hoped that the trustees will use the financial resources of the Weinberg Foundation to make sure that organizations like Our Daily Bread, St. Ambrose Housing and Jubilee Jobs do not have to cut back during rough times. But the larger challenge which confronts the Weinberg trustees is to deploy the foundation's financial power to attack the persistent causes of urban poverty in Baltimore and America.

The book ''The Golden Donors'' lays out the characteristics of America's few truly outstanding philanthropic institutions: clear and ambitious purposes and goals, the intellectual power to shape and govern strategy and grant making, the creativity, social sensitivity and political skill to develop promising programs and the management ability to run them effectively.

The Weinberg Foundation cannot hope to make any lasting difference for the poor unless it follows a program of strategic investment. It must focus on Baltimore's crumbling infrastructure systems, such as the public schools, nutritional programs and adult literacy.

If only those systems worked effectively, they could put the poor on the road out of poverty. But those failing systems now actually generate more poor people: 25 percent of the people who call the Baltimore City Literacy Corporation to seek remedial training have somehow graduated from high school.

The Weinberg Foundation will never achieve its bright promise unless it develops an expert, experienced and professional staff to plan and execute a strategic program. Building that staff is the trustees' most immediate task. Otherwise, the foundation's exciting potential may be squandered in years of indiscriminate, unsystematic and ultimately ineffective grants.

Here it is in a nutshell. More and more of the urban poor are children. If they grow up uneducated, illiterate and increasingly unemployable, a ha'penny in the old man's hat won't be just too little. It'll be too late.

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