Turning Point for Baltimore City

October 19, 1992

Some highlights are easily observed in the history of Baltimore City. Such as the first charter in 1796. A number of annexations that expanded the city to its current borders. The great fire of 1904. The exodus of the middle class that began after World War II and continues unabated.

Baltimore has now reached another turning point. For the first time in its recorded history, the wealth contributed by residents through income taxes has declined. While statewide taxable income edged up from $55.4 billion to $56.4 billion between 1990 and 1991, city residents' taxable income fell from $4.86 billion to $4.85 billion, according to data from the state comptroller's office. This trend is expected to continue.

What has long been predicted has thus come to pass. With the departure first of much of the white middle class and later the black middle class, Baltimore has become a city of poor people, with a narrow and eroding middle class and a sprinkling of very rich. Indeed, much of the city's population survives only with the help of public aid.

Baltimore is one of many American cities with a disproportionate concentration of poverty as well as the fiscal and social needs and consequences that flow from it. But that is of scant consolation. When financial and social trends turn against a city as decisively as they are now turning against Baltimore, no easy turnaround is likely. Some cities manage to improve their image over the long haul, but it is extremely difficult.

Baltimore's decline did not occur overnight. The trend has been evident since the 1950s, even though it was not always recognized and some mayors -- William Donald Schaefer above all -- succeeded in diverting attention to more positive phenomena. (If the Inner Harbor redevelopment had not happened, along with much-advertised revitalization of such historic neighborhoods as Fells Point and Federal Hill, the decline in wealth simply would have occurred earlier).

So far, prudent fiscal policies by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke have averted a major crisis in day-to-day finances. But as state and federal governments cut their aid to localities, Baltimore faces an uncertain future. The municipality can keep on trimming its work force and services but in the end even those measures will not be enough when a city's tax base and its residents' incomes erode. Unless this systemic crisis is recognized by Maryland's counties, as well as Annapolis and Washington, this city's problems will be felt way beyond its borders.

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