A Social Compact That Would Attack Poverty


Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD) has, in its 16 years of organizing, come to understand that the central issue facing our city is poverty. Pundits try in many ways to explain the physical and spiritual decay and increased violence we face in Baltimore. We see poverty as its root cause.

That is why we have proposed a new ''Social Compact.'' We recognize that the old social contract that promised a decent life in return for hard work and thrift is dead. BUILD church leaders can no longer stand by and witness the growing numbers of families among us who are working for their poverty.

We believe in work and the dignity of work -- the old concept of a decent day's wages for a decent day's work. We believe in families, and that if you work, you should have the ability to sustain a family. We believe in accountability, not just for individuals but for government and corporate institutions. BUILD's new Social Compact proposes: that jobs in the heavily subsidized downtown service sector pay a living family wage; that they have a career track, thus increasing the numbers of African-Americans in mid- and upper-level management; and that a pool of funds for benefits and training for downtown workers be created.

For the last nine months BUILD leaders have met with public officials at the state and city level. We have met with the Building Owners and Managers Association, the Baltimore Arena, the Baltimore Convention Center, owners and operators of temporary employment agencies, as well as the leadership of the Hotel Motel Association. We have not singled out the hotels for special treatment; they single themselves out by their unwillingness to deal with us in good faith.

BUILD stands ready and willing to meet with any corporate sector that is willing in return to discuss the problems and alternatives to working for poverty. The downtown hoteliers have insisted that their industry does not sustain poverty. No other group has had that audacity. Just as these corporations count on and count the subsidy dollars they receive, the public which supports them must be able to measure the benefit.

Yet when we have asked for basic information on wages and benefits for particular job categories, in order to propose reasonable benchmarks to measure improvement, we are told the information is ''proprietary,'' that the hotels will never share that information. We ask: When private entrepreneurs take public money in the name of the public good should the public not expect accountability rather than arrogance?

zTC Even our mayor is at best given unsubstantiated average salary figures, and from only three of the 20 downtown hotels. Still city officials cough up another $2 million in public assistance for a Harrison's Pier V and swallow a million-dollar tax debit. Loans are not gifts, yet city officials continue to justify such bail-outs as ''important.'' And what about our citizens who work downtown? Are they not just as important? When was the last time the city acted as aggressively on their behalf?

It is left to the churches, to BUILD, to speak ''in their name,'' to strip away the veil that hides the thousands of men and women, invisible in the bustling downtown, who arrive early to prepare for those valuable tourists, and who clean up after the business executives go home. Each week we meet more of the women who clean office buildings and hotels for $4.25 and $5.50 an hour and cannot afford the benefits the company ''offers,'' more of the men who show up for temp jobs or irregular seasonal work and still live in homeless shelters.

Those who would question our witness need look no further than the pages of The Baltimore Sun, where in April 1991 we read of Rose Fletcher who, making only $5.80 an hour as a housekeeper at the Sheraton Inner Harbor and getting only three days work a week, was unable to stay off public assistance.

What is at all unclear about BUILD's demand? We simply demand that all corporations requesting and enjoying public assistance through subsidy must in turn provide jobs that pull people of poverty. We have described that as a living family wage. We have publicly stated that we are willing to accept the government's own figures: According to both the federal and city definition, a family of four must earn over $14,900 to be out of poverty. Thus an annual income of $16,000-$20,000 could support a family or allow a worker to create one. BUILD has also been clear on what we mean by subsidy: loans, grants, budget line items, special services, all of which allow the downtown service economy to flourish. The expansion of the convention center, use of federal funds for downtown improvements and loan bail-outs, assistance through the Baltimore Development corporation, the funding of downtown attractions: All are examples of the subsidy stream.

Low wages and poverty are a national problem. But Baltimore poverty and Baltimore despair are a Baltimore problem. BUILD churches will not stand by while the taxpayers of our city and state subsidize and encourage more Baltimore poverty. We believe the proper goal of investment in economic development is to assure that the jobs created are the kind that end poverty in our city.

Rose Butler, the Rev. Roger Gench, the Rev. Arnold Howard and Delores Moore are co-chairs of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.

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