Feeding the cups of the beggars at the edge of town


December 08, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

Out at the edge of the city, at the ramp that leads to the Land of Pleasant Living, this little woman in a blue bandanna holds out a shivering hand to collect a commuter tax. She carries a cardboard sign so worn and wrinkled the words are almost unreadable: "Homeless Will Work For Food. Thank You God Bless."

"I don't want no publicity," she says as the wind cracked her face. "This is embarrassing for me and my family."

Maybe thousands know her anyway. If she had a dollar for every car, truck, bus and van that went by, she could rent an apartment. She and her homeless brethren regularly work the intersection of West Conway Street and Interstate 395, right by the B&O Warehouse at Camden Yards. They get there in the early afternoon and stay into the night past rush hour. It's a perfect place to try to collect the commuter tax -- at the last traffic light before the big highway into the suburbs.

On the other side of downtown, more homeless sign-holders approach commuters headed north along President Street, where it becomes the long, wide entrance ramp to the Jones Falls Expressway. In the rain on Friday night on Lombard Street, a young woman held a sign that announced that she was "prenant" and needed food. In her left arm she cradled a balled-up receiving blanket that was supposed to represent a baby in swaddling.

As pathetic as that is, and as detached from the mainstream as these panhandlers may be, they certainly know where to take positions.

About 200,000 people commute into the city every day to work in private-sector jobs, according to the Greater Baltimore Committee. Many of them spend the day downtown. Then they drive up ramps to highways and go home to suburbs. They live in places that have twice the median incomes and half the property taxes of Baltimore. They leave behind a city with the highest concentration of Maryland's poor, and all the fierce social problems that go with it.

Go to Annapolis and suggest a deal -- to have, for instance, Baltimore's suburban neighbors share more equitably in Baltimore's future, or to get more funds for the city schools -- and you might as well be talking to the marble floor.

The city is the beggar at the edge of town, always with its hand out.

Until yesterday, the mayor wanted to raise the piggyback tax. That's a local income tax, a percentage of your state income tax. In Baltimore, the piggyback tax is 50 percent. The mayor wanted to raise it to 55 percent.

Some city taxpayers screamed, the City Council balked, and the mayor withdrew his proposal. Too bad.

He wanted to use money raised from the piggyback tax increase to pay for more cops and firefighters. That was a good idea. If homeowners in Guilford can hire additional cops to patrol their neighborhood, so can the rest of us.

What city taxpayers should be complaining about is the state government -- and people in the legislature who don't care diddly about the city and spend their entire careers eating jumbo shrimp on lobbyists' expense accounts while children in Baltimore get substandard educations, or drop out of school.

What the city needs is leaner government, a leaner education bureaucracy and more money for schools. It needs lower class sizes and more textbooks. It needs a small army of social workers, counselors and tutors to help poor kids get through the obstacle course of the lives they were born into.

It isn't high taxes alone that contributes to the middle class hemorrhage in Baltimore. Schools can't be trusted to educate kids, and there's too much crime.

Kurt Schmoke wanted to hire more cops. Good.

So I would have paid a higher piggyback tax to make the streets a little safer and put four men, instead of three, on each fire truck.

But the rest of the city's needs can only be met with political leadership -- and a willingness of taxpayers in the suburbs to contribute to Baltimore's survival.

You want to work here? You want to come downtown and park your car and walk to the National Aquarium or Harborplace or some restaurant with some assurance of safety? You want to get kids educated so they end up at Penn State instead of the State Pen? Fine.

Pay up. Make an investment in this city. Put some coin in the cup.

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