The Baltimore disparity

December 26, 2006

At first it seemed like one of those what-do-you-know moments. A study of Census data by the Brookings Institution determined that since 2005 more poor people have been living in America's suburbs than its cities. The rate of poverty is still higher in the urban centers, but because the suburbs are so much more populous, and so much less stable than they once were, they are now home to more low-income people.

The study found that suburban poverty had increased the most in the low-wage metropolitan areas of the South and in the no-wage manufacturing centers of Ohio and Michigan, which have lost hundreds of thousands of jobs. The obvious implication is that the health of those suburban communities was irrevocably tied to the cities they surround.

But then you look at Baltimore.

Here is a city with one of the higher poverty rates in the nation. Yet Baltimore's suburbs have less poverty than those of just about any other metropolitan area. What can account for this stark, and long-entrenched, disparity? Why did Detroit's suburbs suffer with the collapse of their core city, but Baltimore's did not? The answer, we suspect, is rooted in part in the fact that, unlike eastern Michigan, Central Maryland remains one of the wealthiest areas in the country - and that choices and tradition and prejudice have served to isolate the city.

But then look a little deeper.

Other East Coast cities are thriving. New York, Washington and Richmond, Va., have reduced their poverty rates since 2000. Condo living and gentrification account for a lot of this, according to a study by the University of Virginia. And it turns out white Baltimoreans are in on this trend; their income, measured against the income of the whole metropolitan area, advanced considerably in the past five years and nearly caught up. The per capita income of black Baltimoreans, on the other hand, fell further behind, as middle-class blacks continued to move out of the city.

Look at housing prices. In New York, the median value of an owner-occupied dwelling is higher in the city than in the suburbs by about 7 percent (having been 4 percent lower just six years ago). In Baltimore, the median value of a city house fell from just 53 percent of one in the suburbs, in 2000, to an incredible, last-place-in-the-nation 42 percent in 2005.

This doesn't pertain, of course, in Canton or Federal Hill or Roland Park. White Baltimore largely enjoys the fruits of the urban renaissance - much less so, black Baltimore. The divide between the city's poverty-stricken residents and the rest of Maryland - always great - seems to be growing even more pronounced. This is both unfair and unsustainable. Two such different societies can't coexist indefinitely.

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