One city, one social compact

Douglas I. Miles

July 14, 1993|By Douglas I. Miles

OVER the past 30 years, Baltimore has become virtually two cities -- one upscale in development, the other falling behind in the effort to stay afloat.

As the city lost its manufacturing base, city leaders made the conscious decision that the service industry and tourism would be its future. To that end, billions of dollars in public subsidies of all kinds were poured into downtown redevelopment. New projects took shape, from Charles Center a generation ago to the gem of the '90s, Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

But what's been the history of redevelopment? It's been 30 years of broken promises to Baltimore citizens -- promises of jobs that would be plentiful enough and of such caliber that people would be able to make a decent living in the service industry. Those promises haven't been fulfilled. The job market in Baltimore is such that many people lead a Third-World existence.

Downtown service workers hold jobs that don't pay enough to support families. Many are locked into seasonal or dead-end jobs that don't pay living wages. Others have fallen victim to the current trend among employers who have turned full-time, permanent jobs with benefits into part-time and temporary jobs without benefits. This trend has created what one of the pastors in Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) calls "urban share-cropping" -- a job market in which workers labor long hours for few benefits.

There's a mother of three who worked for 17 years in the hotel industry and never made more than $5.50 an hour. There's a Nehemiah homeowner who works full-time as a clerk and must hold two part-time jobs to pay a modest mortgage. There's a state worker who's been employed by three different temporary agencies in order to keep the same job -- and with each change of employer he has found himself making less money. All have fallen victim to the same broken promises. All are living in that other Baltimore that is just barely surviving.

Many of the downtown workers find themselves dependent on government assistance or private charity efforts. BUILD members know about this because these people approach our soup kitchens and food pantries. Our city's social fabric is unraveling with the rise in crime, escalating violence and the growth of an incredible social service bureaucracy necessitated by the low-wage service economy. Meanwhile, we hear the cries that people ought to get off welfare and get a job!

We now have a choice. Will we spend billions of dollars to expand the safety net to keep people off the streets? Will we continue to fuel the creation of an infrastructure of churches and other private agencies struggling to help families stay together and to meet the ever-growing needs of the homeless and hungry? Will we continue practices that make it worthwhile not to work, practices that assist in the escalation of the drug culture and drug-related violence?

Or will we create the kind of wage economy in which work pays?

BUILD is saying that the first choices are no options at all. We are calling for a social compact, one that ties our investment of public money in downtown redevelopment to obligations from those businesses that benefit from the subsidies.

First, there must be the creation of more full-time jobs that pay living wages with benefits, jobs that enable a family to participate equally in public life without dependence on charity or government assistance. To those who say people ought to get off welfare and get jobs, we say that the jobs must allow their holders to live and support families. In other words, work has to pay.

Second, the city must make a commitment to increase the percentage of African-Americans in mid- and upper-level management jobs downtown. It's unconscionable that in a city in which African-Americans comprise the majority, less than 5 percent of mid- and upper-level management jobs are held by African-Americans.

Finally, those businesses that have benefited from public subsidy must create a pool of money to provide training and upward mobility for those workers currently stuck in dead-end jobs.

As "investors" in downtown redevelopment, as those being asked through city government to put up $50 million for expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center, as those who foot the bill for other city subsidies downtown, BUILD members have both the right and the obligation to assure that our investment yields a substantial return for our communities. The church community has an obligation to help restore the sanctity of work.

We are at a crossroads. As Baltimoreans who love our city, we have an obligation to help it choose a sane course into the 21st century. The social compact calls for one city in which all residents share in prosperity.

The Rev. Douglas I. Miles is senior pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church and a member of the clergy caucus of BUILD.

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