Baltimore isn't working because its people don't

Inescapably tangled with the city's most basic troubles is that half of its residents have no jobs.

March 28, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Every workday, out-of-work people stream into the downtown Baltimore office of Goodwill Industries, looking for advice, for training, for anything that could help them land a job.

The gray marble building on East Redwood Street is always busy. This is a city filled with unemployed residents, even in good times.

But the full extent of the problem is more difficult to see: So many in Baltimore are not even looking for jobs that the city's labor force participation rate is one of the lowest among the nation's 100 largest cities, census data show.

For reasons as diverse as motherhood, criminal records, old age and simple hopelessness, half of Baltimore's adults are not working. That puts an extra burden on the half who are working and goes a long way toward explaining the strain on the city's finances.

This limited taxpayer base has eroded in recent decades even as participation swelled elsewhere, a bedrock problem for a city struggling to turn itself around.

Though the city is making well-publicized strides - with west-side redevelopment and ritzy waterside townhouses - it's being held back by the weight of about 200,000 residents 16 and older who don't have jobs.

"That should be a wake-up call," said Alan Berube, senior research associate for the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy in Washington, which studied Baltimore's demographics last year.

"If you want to improve the quality of life in a city over time, you need to have taxpaying residents who can support the fiscal base. ... It's hard to imagine where you're going to get those revenues if only half of adults are earners."

The cost of fighting crime and providing social services keeps growing even as the population drops, and it's no less expensive to maintain the roads, bridges and sewers crisscrossing the urban landscape, officials say.

"Garbage still has to be collected, crime has to be dealt with, fire demand is still there. The geographic boundaries and the infrastructure remains," said Edward Gallagher, Baltimore's deputy director of finance. "Not only the population is decreasing, but a large percentage of our population is poor."

And getting poorer.

The tens of thousands who moved out in the latter part of the 1990s had higher salaries than those who remained, according to federal tax data. The average Baltimore resident makes roughly half as much - and pays half as much in state and local income tax - as the average Marylander.

The flourishing suburbs that surround the struggling city also pay a price. Population loss and inflation have eroded Baltimore's tax and fee revenues by $250 million over the past decade, and the state has been forced to pick up the slack.

Ten years ago, state and federal assistance accounted for 35 percent of the city's operating budget. This fiscal year such aid is 42 percent of the total.

With the highest property tax rate and one of the higher income tax rates in Maryland, the city finds it difficult to raise funds by increasing taxes - though Mayor Martin O'Malley is now considering higher fees to avoid cutting hundreds of city government jobs.

Baltimore's best hope for the future is finding more jobs for residents and helping them remain employed, economists say.

"When people work in a city, a city works," said Karen L. Sitnick, director of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development. "I don't think there's any question that work force development and opportunities to get people into the work force is a critical component of our economic development plan to make Baltimore a livable and desirable city."

Multitude of troubles

That goal faces major hurdles because the city's small work force is a symptom of other problems - a tragic combination of individual missteps, poverty and unhelpful public policy.

Crime: Tens of thousands of city residents have criminal records, and a single arrest can knock someone out of contention for a job.

Education: Nearly a third of city adults don't have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Almost half of the public high-school students drop out before finishing. Their job options are few.

Child support: Eighty percent of Baltimore child support cases have unpaid, often hefty, balances. The low-income fathers - and occasionally mothers - would need years to pay off the past-due amounts.

Jobs mismatch: There are about as many jobs as working-age adults in Baltimore, but many require high school or college degrees. While lower-skill employment has swelled in the suburbs, from Aberdeen to Columbia, those jobs are difficult - or impossible - to get to without a car. One out of three city households has no vehicle.

"Transportation," said John Bugg, vice president of the Greater Baltimore Urban League, "is just a major disaster."

These difficulties can cause people to drift into and out of the work force, keeping jobs for a while before some problem catches up with them.

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