An opportune move for the poor. . .

October 03, 1994|By Barbara Samuels and Susan Goering

THE CONTROVERSY surrounding the Moving to Opportunit program, reminds us that racial fears are never far below the surface in the still segregated and increasingly stratified communities of the Baltimore area.

Predictably, MTO opponents have used the usual code words for race (e.g. "welfare mothers", "crime", "low-income housing") and integration (e.g. "social engineering") to detract attention from real problems like unemployment and unchecked suburban sprawl that have destabilized city and older suburban communities inside the beltway.

Ironically, MTO -- a program begun under President George Bush -- is one of those rare win-win opportunities for both city and county stakeholders. The chance that everyone wins is increased by two features of MTO: counseling for every poor family granted a federal Section 8 certificate and the fact that certificates can't be used in neighborhoods already burdened with poverty. The track record of similar housing mobility programs in Chicago, as well as Cincinnati, Dallas and Memphis, Tenn., proves our case that everyone wins. A look at the winners:

* Inner-city families who move to the suburbs. In looking at over 20 years' experience in the Chicago mobility program, sociologist James E. Rosenbaum found that children whose families moved from the city to the suburbs were more likely than those who stayed to do well in school, go on to college and fewer landed in trouble. Also, a higher percentage of the parents -- who had no additional services -- ended up working once they lived in neighborhoods where jobs were plentiful.

Just by moving people and without providing additional services, the Chicago mobility program has uncovered capabilities of low-income people that were not evident in the city. A recent study by Johns Hopkins sociologist Sandra Newman takes note of the mounting evidence that neighborhoods (rather than housing, job training or other services) are the key to upward mobility and economic independence.

* Inner-city residents who stay and their neighborhoods: MTO is not for everyone. Some public housing residents, like more affluent city residents who could live anywhere but prefer the cultural advantages of the city, are staying to rebuild their urban neighborhoods. MTO is as important for urban rebuilding efforts as it is for individual mobility. Many inner-city neighborhoods are doomed to failure by government policies that clustered 67 percent of the region's poor in a few city neighborhoods, and helped the middle class move to insulated suburban communities by building interstate highways and insuring three out of every five homes purchased in the suburbs between 1930 and 1960 (fewer than 2 percent were bought by blacks). Only by reducing levels of concentrated poverty in city neighborhoods, like Sandtown-Winchester and Jonestown where poverty rates have exceeded 40 percent, will many city dwellers have a chance to transform their neighborhoods into viable communities.

* Older suburbs: Under MTO, older suburbs like Essex and Dundalk actually benefit since many neighborhoods in such areas will be off-limits to MTO certificate holders if they already have a large number of poor people.

Instead the MTO program seeks out willing landlords in the more affluent outer suburbs, and carefully monitors to be sure that its participants do not become clustered. If Baltimore County Executive Roger Hayden cares about the future of the older, pTC inside-the beltway communities in his county, he should start an MTO housing counseling program for Essex and Dundalk -- not jump on the anti-MTO bandwagon.

* The suburban business community: MTO is an economic development tool for area businesses as well as an upward mobility boost for poor workers. The manufacturing plants of the city and older suburbs have shut down or moved away. Most employers who depend on lower skilled, blue-collar workers are now located in white-collar suburbs outside the beltway where they sometimes find it hard to recruit and maintain a steady workforce of adult entry-level workers and experience costly turnover and higher labor costs. MTO allows city residents, eager to take advantage of these job opportunities, to live near suburban job sites and supplies employers with access to lower wage workers.

* The taxpayers: Measured against the uncertain results of welfare reform experiments and the even steeper costs of doing nothing about inner-city poverty, the proven results of MTO-type mobility programs are one of the better investments taxpayers can make. It costs about $1,000 per family to help them make the move to opportunity. It costs more to maintain a family on welfare in the ghetto, and more still to operate a welfare reform program, than to allow single parents to move to the suburbs where jobs are more available and schools are better. The most costly option of all? Let those children be sucked into the vortex of ghetto rage.

The anti-MTO position may work well as a campaign strategy, but it is short-sighted and disserves the citizens of the Baltimore region who stand to win from its success.

Barbara Samuels is the managing attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland's housing project. Susan Goering is the group's legal director.

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