The Founders and Baltimore's woes The menace of growing inequality of wealth

March 10, 1996|By James M. Kramon

DAVID RUSK'S recently released book, "Baltimore Unbound: A Strategy for Regional Renewal," provides a lucid, well-reasoned and easy-to-understand wake-up call for Baltimoreans.

Anyone looking at Baltimore's soaring crime rate and other social problems would be hard pressed to argue with Mr. Rusk's conclusion that "Baltimore City is programmed for inexorable decline." Although Baltimore is hardly unique among declining American cities, the factors which Mr. Rusk identifies as being coincident with the degeneration of metropolitan areas are extreme in Baltimore. As "Baltimore Unbound" explains, the "severe racial and economic segregation that is isolating the City of Baltimore will ultimately drag the entire region down with it."

The central thesis of "Baltimore Unbound" is that the city bears an extraordinarily disproportionate burden of impoverished people, many of whom are black. Since the cost of addressing the needs of the poor increases exponentially with their population density, the city faces a no-win situation because "there is no feasible amount of money that can make a significant difference" in the outcome. In the book's introduction, Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which subsidized Mr. Rusk's work, describes the problem as virtually unsolvable "unless there is a dramatic alteration in the balance of wealth and poverty throughout the region."

The situation in Baltimore is exacerbated by the city's political and fiscal isolation from its neighboring counties. Baltimore City is, to use Mr. Rusk's term, "inelastic." It cannot expand its reach to neighboring political subdivisions in order to distribute more evenly the burdens associated with its poor residents. Standing alone, the city is powerless to pursue any regional possibilities for addressing its ills.

Baltimore County's opposition to a recent program to relocate a relatively small number of city public housing residents to the county is not encouraging. Mr. Rusk, a respected urban affairs expert, points out that the redistribution of Baltimore's poor is a key factor in reversing the city's slide.

The situation we are facing is a nearly perfect metaphor for a dilemma which is before all Americans, whether we can tolerate disparities of wealth and continue as the constitutional democracy we were formed to be.

Disparities of wealth in this country are becoming so extreme that it may no longer be possible for our governments to pursue policies reasonably attuned to the needs of all citizens.

This economic polarization is caused by the loss of hundreds of thousands of mid-level jobs in the public and private sectors. To make ends meet, members of the "vanishing middle class" have turned to part-time jobs that do not provide benefits -- including health insurance.

At the same time, a relatively small percentage of the population is raking in hundreds of millions or in some cases billions of dollars from corporate downsizing and other tactics which have resulted in the loss of jobs. The result: We may be pushing the limits of our system of government beyond its ability to reconcile the needs and aspirations of all of us. The writings of the framers of the Constitution express great concern about the possibility of such societal divisions.

In the Federalist Papers, surely the most important group of writings concerning the aspirations of the framers of the Constitution, there is much discussion about societal divisions that could generate "unfriendly passions" and "violent conflicts."

In one of the Federalist papers, James Madison expressed the belief that "the most common and durable source of factions has been the unequal distribution of property." Since property was wealth at the time of the Federalists, Madison's concern was precisely the concern Mr. Rusk addresses in this metropolitan area today.

The Federalists who conceived our Constitution would have had a hard time with what is going on around here. They envisioned neither an isolated, impoverished city at the core of a major metropolitan area nor the futile effort to confine poverty there. Meanwhile, what Mr. Rusk is recommending is in harmony with the most fundamental aspiration for the nation, the hope that all our citizens would be able to live together in a reasonably peaceful and happy manner. It would be useful if, in forthrightly addressing what Mr. Rusk and the Abell Foundation have brought to our attention, we would not lose sight of this objective.

James M. Kramon is a Baltimore lawyer.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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