Living in a `stressed' city

Urban Chronicle

Study: A report shows that Baltimore's income distribution is one of the worst in the country.

August 19, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

STRESSED.

That's the one-word category in which a recent Brookings Institution report places Baltimore, based on a study of income distribution in the country's 100 largest cities.

It is the second study in two months that highlights the dismal economic situation of much of the city's population. The other, by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, shows that the Baltimore region is one of the worst nationally when it comes to differences in poverty rates between the city and its suburbs.

The reports, which rely on data from the 2000 census, serve as a reminder that, for all the glitzy developments going on around town, Baltimore began this decade at a very low economic base.

They also serve as an important backdrop for discussions about difficulties with crime, drugs and school performance -- problems closely associated with the kind of poverty that Baltimore has in abundance.

As the Brookings report says: "The incomes of city residents crucially affect the fiscal and social health of local jurisdictions."

The report -- "The Shape of the Curve: Household Income Distributions in U.S. Cities, 1979-1999" -- divides household incomes into five groups. They are: low (less than $18,320); lower-middle ($18,320 to $33,385); middle ($33,386 to $51,857); upper-middle ($51,858 to $79,356) and high (more than $79,356). And yes, the study adjusts for cost-of-living differences between regions.

It then divides the cities into six classifications, based on how many of its residents fit into each income category. In stressed cities, the most troubled category, the number of households in the two lowest income groups outnumber those in the two highest groups by 2-to-1.

Researchers Alan Berube and Thacher Tiffany identify 14 such stressed cities. Besides Baltimore, the others include Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia.

The findings

According to the report, 56 percent of Baltimore households have low or lower-middle incomes -- compared with 26 percent of households with upper-middle or high incomes. The figures pretty much mirror those of other stressed cities.

Baltimore's income picture worsened during the 1980s and 1990s. At the end of the 1970s, 52.5 percent of city households were low- or lower-middle income and 28.5 percent were upper-middle or high income. In the report's nomenclature, Baltimore was a low-moderate city in 1979, meaning the number of households dropped in each category from low income to high income, but the decline was not as steep as in the stressed cities. (Income data from the 10-year censuses are based on the previous year's income.)

What is striking is that the number of low-income households stayed about the same over the two decades while the number of households in every other income category fell. The largest decline was in the number of high-income households, which fell by 20 percent.

"Struggling Rust Belt cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Baltimore lost large numbers of middle- and higher-income households," the report said. "At the same time, their regions remained highly segregated, as economic and residential decentralization further isolated their central city minority populations from economic opportunity. As a result, such places changed from low-moderate cities in 1979 to stressed cities by 1999."

The wealth gap

One notion the Brookings report dispels is that cities have become home to only the very rich and the very poor. In only seven cities were there more households that were classified as low and high income than middle income.

That gap between the wealthiest and poorest in cities is the focus of the second report, by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

The major focus of the report was to compare the average income of households in the top fifth with the average income of households in the bottom fifth for cities in the country's 40 largest metropolitan areas. Based on this measure, it concluded that the income gap in the nation's capital was the greatest in any of the cities surveyed, with the average income of high-income households 31 times that of low-income ones.

By that measure, Baltimore ranked 11th : The average income of the city's wealthiest households was $107,139, while the average income of its poorest households was a paltry $5,078.

The report also compared the differences in poverty rates between cities and their suburbs.

With a poverty rate of 22.9 percent in the city and 5.4 percent in the suburbs, the Baltimore region had the third-greatest disparity in urban and suburban poverty among the country's top 40 metro areas. The only areas with greater differences were Milwaukee-Waukesha, Wis., and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., where the urban poverty rates were somewhat lower than in Baltimore but the suburban poverty rates of 3.6 percent were the lowest in the survey.

Is it any wonder that Baltimore so often has to look beyond its boundaries for help with its problems?

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