For most Baltimoreans, the riots that broke out earlier this month started at a place immediately familiar — Mondawmin Mall on the city’s west side. I personally know the shopping center by its nickname “Murder Mall,” a widely used shorthand that references its proximity to violent neighborhoods in a city where a person is killed at least every other day.
Tourists rarely venture to Mondawmin and its environs, but longtime residents know the area well for a mundane reason: For 40 years, the shopping complex included a surprisingly efficient motor vehicle administration office. So the boarded-up homes, the carry-outs, the liquor stores that served as a backdrop to the unrest were nothing new to Baltimoreans.
For the rest of the country, the extent of the urban decay was shocking. Hillary Rodham Clinton took to Twitter two days after a CVS burned, declaring, “We have to take on broader inequities in society.” The Washington Post presented maps that purported to show the “shocking inequality” within Baltimore. MSNBC offered a segment entitled “Tale of Two Baltimores,” proclaiming the city split between haves and have-nots. Baltimore and its upset citizenry seemed to fit perfectly into a prevailing narrative of a country divided by wealth.
If only. There are not “Two Baltimores.” There is only one Baltimore — and it looks a lot like the one the nation saw on display at Murder Mall.
Baltimore is poor — a third of households live on less than $25,000 each year, according to a report by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance. Poor children in Baltimore are likely to stay that way, their neighborhoods rate as the worst place in the country for economic mobility. If they make it to adulthood at all: Baltimore is also one of the deadliest cities in America. The past four years have seen nearly 900 murders, most victims shot to death.
If you’re in the thick of it, as Freddie Gray was before he had his tragically fatal encounter with the police, the blight is obvious and unmistakable. It’s also unavoidable — the poverty is so widespread that it touches the daily lives of the middle classes and elites as well.
“You live with it. You see it. It’s all around you,” said Matt Gallagher, president of the Goldseker Foundation in Baltimore and onetime chief of staff to former governor and mayor Martin O’Malley. Pimlico Race Track, where the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown will be run next weekend, sits in the middle of a community where nearly 45 percent of children live below the poverty line. Even in the wealthier neighborhoods near the water, where I rented an apartment, the sounds of gunshots blended with the foghorns at night.
The notion of Two Baltimores suggests there is a rich Baltimore. A Baltimore that could somehow, perhaps through better policies, reach down and help up that other Baltimore. That is not the case. The problem with Baltimore isn’t some yawning gap between the rich and the poor. It’s the absence of wealth.
Booming cities like Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., or San Francisco have deep-seated poverty as well. But they also have thriving economies, robust tax coffers, strong political leadership, and a healthy citizenry that can be mobilized towards urban improvement. Baltimore’s mayor and city council have none of those backstops. Baltimore has become a city too poor to lift itself out of poverty.
Income inequality has become so ingrained in academia that it’s become hard for scholars not to see it as the root of Baltimore’s problems. Often this means that those who study poverty and disparities in income will talk about the region, rather than the city proper. “It’s a wealthy region,” said Alan Berube, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. He ranks Baltimore as among America’s most unequal cities — its poorest 20 percent of residents earn just under $14,000 annually versus top earners who take home about $167,000. In truth, both of those figures are remarkably low. The $167,000 is a healthy income, but nothing compared to what wealthy residents earn in other major cities like Boston. “Rich households in Baltimore are kind of average for rich households nationally,” Berube said. “Poor households are poor compared to households elsewhere.”
Persistently low wages are devastating to the families trying to live on them. But they also translate into an anemic tax base for funding city operations. “There is a certain incrementalism to what you can do as mayor,” said Gallagher, who also worked under O’Malley at City Hall.
That leaves a limited amount that the city can squeeze out of its citizens. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will have around $1.7 billion in general fund revenues to run the city — compare that to Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, whose general fund budget will be about $2.8 billion. (Baltimore’s figure only includes a slice of the cost for running the Baltimore’s public school system, which is largely financed by the state.)
Baltimore has suffered from a long line of poor fiscal stewards. For instance, until 2010, a poorly contrived pension system enacted in the 1970s, gave city retirees cost-of-living increases based on pension fund investment returns — but didn’t clawback those raises when performance fell short. The funds never had a chance to replenish. By 2013, the city faced an estimated $1.5 billion deficit in its ability to meet pension obligations to city retirees, with more than half going to police and fire retirees alone. Rawlings-Blake has made strides toward fixing this, but about $200 million of the city’s budget still goes toward pension obligations.
What’s more, a disproportionate chunk of the money that the city has goes to its most pressing need: public safety. While cities like Boston and New York capitalized on dramatic declines in crime to fuel urban renaissances over the past three decades, Baltimore continues to suffer from chronically high levels of violence. In 2016, Baltimore will spend about $130 million more than Boston will on policing. This makes sense and it doesn’t — Baltimore had 235 homicides in 2013. Boston had 40 that year.
While public safety spending makes residents safer and cities more attractive, it also comes with serious long-term costs. It can increase the pension obligations for public safety workers, it means bigger bills for patrols, the courts, and prisons, and it deprives cities of social capital by ensnaring residents in the criminal justice system.
The crime rate does little to attract new residents, of course. But there’s also a strong financial reason for people who work in Baltimore to live on the outskirts: the property tax rate. Like many big cities, Baltimore leans heavily on property tax revenues. But since the tax base is low, generations of city leaders raised money by jacking up the rate or keeping it high. It’s left Baltimore City with a property tax rate that’s nearly twice as high as Boston’s, but which brings in only about half the revenue.
More significantly for Baltimore, the city’s property tax rate is also twice as high as the rates in surrounding counties. This gives middle-class earners who work in bustling downtown Baltimore an incentive to live just across the city line. Drive through downtown Baltimore at 5 p.m., and you’ll see the cars lined up on I-83 heading to their suburban homes.
This is a well-known problem that never gets traction. In 2011, one candidate ran for mayor of Baltimore on the sole plank that he would lower the city’s property tax rate. He won a mere 5,089 votes.
All of this adds up to city officials not just treading water, but desperately trying not to drown. The public policy implications are massive. Baltimore has little need for a conversation on affordable housing, a problem in richer cities. It must also tread carefully around the idea of raising the minimum wage — such proposals may genuinely scare off the much-needed new businesses. “I’m not sure Baltimore could afford a $15 minimum wage,” said Berube from Brookings.
It also means that, when it comes to repairing neighborhoods and erasing blight, Baltimore mayors must be opportunistic, leaving little room for long-term urban planning. The city is often forced to accept development proposals in the places where developers want to invest, or approving proposals where so-called anchor institutions already exist. Perhaps the best example is Johns Hopkins University, which is pouring money into an improvised corridor far across town from Freddie Gray’s neighborhood.
A more proactive approach — with city identified development zones — would cost money the city doesn’t have. “We have to start off with an honest conversation about what it takes to bring change in these places with concentrated poverty,” said Gallagher, who sees the need for more federal intervention in addition to the state, philanthropic, and private support that already exists.
Nonetheless, until the most recent unrest, there were signs of hope in Baltimore. Rawlings-Blake’s tough stance toward public-employee unions and the city’s improving fiscal health earned Baltimore an AA bond rating from Standard & Poors last year, at the time the same rating as New York City and better than Philadelphia or Los Angeles. Frank H. Shafroth, the director for the State and Local Government Leadership Center at George Mason University, told The Baltimore Sun that the new score “signaled the city is a ‘very safe’ place to invest.” The fiscal year 2016 budget was likewise optimistic, forecasting revenue growth of $62.7 million thanks to rising property values.
Today’s high concentration of poverty was fueled by decades of flight. The exodus began with whites in the 1950s, but continues even today for residents of all stripes who have the resources to leave. Growing the population is a key goal and a steep climb — and one that battles a six-decade trend in the other direction. Rawlings-Blake has been pushing a modest goal of 10,000 new residents over 10 years. That is, until the riots. “The first thing I thought was, ‘There goes the 10,000 new people,’ ” said Todd Cherkis, an organizer with United Workers.
On the west side of Baltimore, Murder Mall counts as an anchor institution. There’s a cut-rate grocery store. And a Target now. And not too long ago, the mall contained a kiosk that specialized in so-called R.I.P. T-shirts. These are a staple at funerals for young murder victims the city. They typically include a photo of the deceased emblazoned on the front accompanied by a slogan like “Another soldier down.”
Annie Linskey can be reached at Annie.Linskey@Globe.com. Prior to working at the Globe, she worked for The Baltimore Sun, where her beats included crime and city government.