A survey of city's woes

Urban Chronicle

Census: By the numbers, Baltimore doesn't fare well in terms of education and poverty when compared with other big cities.

November 29, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

THE PORTRAIT OF Baltimore painted by data released this year by the U.S. Census Bureau has been less than flattering, and the latest numbers are no exception.

Earlier figures on population and vacant housing units demonstrated that the 1990s were a genuinely dismal decade for the city. They showed that the city lost a greater percentage of its population in those 10 years - 11.5 percent - than all but three other cities among the 243 with populations greater than 100,000, and that its housing vacancy rate of 14.1 percent was higher by far than that of any of the nation's other 20 largest cities.

Figures released last week, though not quite as devastating, showed that Baltimore does not match up well when measured against other large cities in terms of income and education.

Gathered last year, the latest batch of data is part of Census 2000 Supplementary Survey, a new sampling of 890,000 households nationwide. Unlike the previous numbers, these are not part of the official 2000 Census. As such, the Census Bureau cautions, the numbers are estimates.

Predictably, the new numbers show city dwellers lagging far behind residents of the state's largest suburban areas - Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties - in income and education.

However, using the figures to compare Baltimore with other cities is more of an apples-to-apples exercise - and a telling one at that.

Baltimore's median household income of $30,654 put it 50th among the country's 64 cities with populations over 250,000.

That placed Baltimore slightly ahead of Detroit ($30,383 and 51st); Atlanta ($30,189 and 52nd); and Philadelphia ($29,866 and 55th). But it put the city behind Milwaukee ($34,297 and 44th); Chicago ($38,213 and 31st); and Houston ($35,943 and 41).

For the record, San Jose, in the center of California's Silicon Valley, had the highest household income among major cities, at $72,268 (higher by $1,500 than Montgomery County, although that might have changed since the dot-com bust), while Miami had the lowest at $20,117 .

Another telling statistic was the percentage of people in poverty. Baltimore's poverty rate of 21.1 percent was 14th-highest among large cities.

Cities with higher rates of poverty include Philadelphia (22.8 percent and 8th); Cleveland (25.4 percent and seventh); and Atlanta (27.9 percent and third).

Those with lower rates include Washington (17.7 percent and 22nd); Chicago (17.6 percent and 23rd); and Boston (15.9 percent and 30th).

The city with the highest poverty rate was Miami, 31.9 percent. Aurora, Colo., had the lowest, 5.3 percent.

Perhaps the most disturbing rankings - and the ones that explain the city's dismal status on poverty and speak to its prospects about doing something about the problem soon - involve educational attainment.

Nearly a third of the city's residents - 31.3 percent, to be exact - older than 25 had not earned high school diplomas. That figure was the sixth-worst among large cities in the country.

It's worth noting the handful of cities where a greater of percentage of residents have less than a high school education: Santa Ana, Calif. (60 percent); Newark, N.J. (44.3 percent); Miami (42.5 percent); Anaheim, Calif. (33.1 percent); and Los Angeles (32.5 percent). All but one have large, impoverished immigrant populations. The exception, Newark, has long been regarded the most distressed big city in the nation.

It's also worth reflecting on the difficulty Baltimore will have showing appreciable improvement in its median household income and poverty rates, given the lack of education of such a large proportion of the city's population.

At the other end of the educational spectrum, Baltimore fares only slightly better.

In the category of adults 25 and older with bachelor's degrees or higher, Baltimore ranked 56th, ninth from the bottom, with 18.4 percent. That put the city ahead of Cleveland (11.8 percent and 61st) and Detroit (11 percent and 62nd), and roughly on a par with Philadelphia (18.5 percent and 55th).

As might be expected, when it comes to the percentage of college-educated adults, Baltimore is far behind such high-tech centers as Seattle (51.8 percent and first); San Francisco (47.6 percent and second); and Raleigh, N.C. (47 percent and third).

The city also lags significantly behind such similarly erstwhile industrial powerhouses as Chicago (25.9 percent and 39th) and Pittsburgh (26.7 percent and 34th).

Those figures suggest that if the city's economic development vision for a Digital Harbor is to become a reality, Baltimore might have to attract skilled workers as well as high-tech jobs. They also suggest that the pursuit and development of less high-tech jobs that city residents can hold might be at least as important.

So is there a silver lining to the latest data? Well, maybe.

Baltimore's median house value is $69,992, less than that of 56 large cities, greater than that of just seven.

That's not good news for the city's tax base but does speak to the city's relative affordability.

The median house value in the city is 2.3 times the median income. In Washington, it's 4.0 - a median house value of $164,787 divided by median income of $41,047.

Perhaps a new motto for Baltimore is in order: Bargain City.

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