How will Baltimore County cope with poverty?

Our view: At a time when economic stress is hitting the suburbs, decision to eliminate work force development, community conservation agencies is curious

December 16, 2010

For decades, Baltimore County was the place affluent families moved when they left the city, a place that boasted lower taxes, less crime, better schools and more stable neighborhoods. But what's been happening in Baltimore County during the last decade is something different: the spread of poverty from the city into the county.

The Census Bureau released figures this week showing a statistically significant increase in the poverty rate in Baltimore County since 2000 — a rise from 6.5 percent to about 8 percent. That may not sound like a lot, but it has strained the county's ability to provide services. The number of county households receiving food stamps, for example, has nearly quadrupled in the last decade to 36,000, with most of that increase coming during the last few years. The demand has been so great that the state Department of Human Resources was sued for taking too long to process applications in there. The county's Department of Social Services reports a significant increase in homelessness as well.

The county DSS has a variety of programs to help individuals who find themselves struggling with poverty. In addition to assistance to buy food, get health care and secure shelter, DSS, working with the county's Office of Workforce Development and other departments, offers extensive job training programs, job search assistance, adult education and other resources to help families reach a level of sustainability.

But the spread of poverty into the suburbs can have a broader, community-wide effect. Neighborhoods can deteriorate, commercial areas can languish, and a dip in prosperity can turn into a difficult-to-break cycle. Baltimore County has long recognized that risk and the need to address it broadly. That was the purpose of the Office of Community Conservation, which dates back to the Ruppersberger administration. But in a curious move, given the kinds of pressures Baltimore County now faces, one of the first acts of the new Kamenetz administration was to propose that the office be abolished and its functions be absorbed into other agencies.

The mission of the office is to "strengthen, enhance and stabilize the county's older, established communities" by focusing both on its "physical assets and social well-being." It has helped fund streetscape improvements, community centers, parks and housing developments. The office was front and center when the county demolished crime-ridden apartment complexes on the East Side, and it was instrumental in coordinating the efforts of former County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s "renaissance" initiatives in older communities across the county.

More than just tending to the physical preservation of the county's older neighborhoods, the office has served as a facilitator in fostering stronger interactions among neighbors and with the county government, a particularly important role in a place where residents often complained that they had little say in decisions about development and revitalization. At its best, it could help residents feel an ownership stake not just in their homes but in their communities, and that might be the best protection of all against seeing the cycle of poverty and disinvestment that has devastated so many city neighborhoods repeated in the county.

In a similarly curious move, Mr. Kamenetz is proposing that the county's work force development agency be abolished and its functions be absorbed elsewhere. At a time of high unemployment, an agency dedicated to helping workers acquire the kinds of skills local businesses need would seem more important than ever.

The cost reductions achieved by eliminating these agencies are minimal. Mr. Kamenetz plans to reassign the staff of these two agencies (and the Office of Sustainability), so that the budget savings amount to little more than the salaries of their directors. In theory, their work can go on under the umbrellas of the planning and economic development agencies. But the new executive has said little about how he will make sure their functions remain a priority in his administration. The County Council is set to vote on his reorganization plan Monday, and it is almost a foregone conclusion that it will be approved. But council members should be mindful of the changing pressures on the region's largest jurisdiction and should watch the new administration in Towson to make sure it is as dedicated to preventing the decline of the county's older neighborhoods as its predecessors were.

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