Baltimore’s Plight Shows Why A Good Jobs Policy Is Way Overdue

Isaiah J. Poole

The nation is now seeing that there is a broader story to be told about the roots of the violence that broke out in Baltimore this week. In addition to the mistreatment of African Americans by police, there is also the story of extreme economic deprivation – the consignment of entire communities to virtual jails of joblessness, poverty and neglect.

The fact that such large expanses of poverty could exist in Baltimore and in other major cities across the country is a consequence of economic policies that are constrained by conservative austerity ideology and that fail to address institutional racism and structural poverty.

The struggles of central Baltimore communities that are now part of the national conversation highlight the urgency of an initiative that will be launched today by the Center for Community Change. The Good Jobs for All campaign, to be announced in Washington, “is a national economic justice initiative built on a simple, audacious idea: everyone who wants a job should have assured access to a good job that provides dignity, a voice on the job, fair wages, good benefits, and is consistent with family and personal needs and responsibilities.”

“We are talking about very, very important issues … the most important of which is good jobs,” said Gustavo Torres of CASA of Maryland, an organization that has done work in Baltimore on economic justice issues affecting Latino and African-American communities.

One measure Torres uses for “good jobs” is the goal set forth by the “Fight for $15” movement for a minimum wage that is actually a living wage that lifts people out of poverty and into a measure of self-sufficiency. “Fifteen dollars an hour is going to help tremendously,” he said.

The Good Jobs for All campaign calls for “investing resources on a large scale to restart the economy in places where racial bias and sustained disinvestment have produced communities of concentrated poverty.” And the communities of Sandtown and Winchester in Baltimore – the home of Freddie Gray, the man whose spine was severed inexplicably while in police custody and who died as a result – perfectly exemplify why such a campaign is needed.

Michael A. Fletcher of The Washington Post, a Baltimore resident, laid out the statistics in an article on the paper’s website Tuesday. More than 50 percent of the people between the ages of 16 and 64 were not working. The median household income, unsurprisingly, was less than $25,000 (compared to the citywide median of more than $40,000). More than 30 percent of the homes in the community were vacant or abandoned. More than a third of the residents did not have a high school diploma. Interestingly, the percentage of children under age 6 with elevated blood levels was seven times the citywide average – and elevated lead levels have been linked to violent behavior.

“It’s very difficult for people who live in the neighborhood,” Torres said, because of the combination of lack of good paying jobs, poor quality education, substandard housing, and the lack of social services. These, he said, are the product of “historical racism going back many, many decades.”

Unless you were a fan of HBO’s “The Wire,” chances are the Baltimore you know is the Baltimore of Camden Yards – the home of the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens – and the adjacent Inner Harbor, where tourists and convention-goers can enjoy restaurants and attractions without having to even be aware of the devastating conditions just a mile or so away.

Those conditions aren’t new. Many millions of dollars were poured into redeveloping downtown Baltimore in the 1970s and 1980s, with the promise that the benefits of a revitalized downtown would trickle out to those struggling residential neighborhoods. That trickle never really happened; what residents got was a chance to claw for some low-wage retail and restaurant jobs. Some, like Torres, believe that the trickle was never actually intended.

It was “economic development that doesn’t affect the majority of the people,” he said.

Meanwhile, conservatives in Washington launched a constant attack on national programs that helped cities create jobs, affordable housing and community services. The Reagan administration dramatically cut housing and community development funding in the early 1980s, and those programs have been constrained since – even more so since Republicans took control of the House in 2011 and brought us the “sequester,” across-the-board cuts in domestic program spending. In a 2012 National League of Cities report, 51 percent of city fiscal leaders reported that decreases in available federal aid were a contributing factor in their cities’ fiscal struggles.

It is critical that Baltimore’s elected leadership – and the leadership of other cities around the country – address a police culture that communities of color view as designed not to “serve and protect” them but to “seize and detain” them. But, as Torres points out, “You can pass a police ‘bill of rights'” to curb police abuses, “but if you don’t have clear economic development opportunities, that situation is going to keep continuing.”

The Jobs for All initiative complements elements of the Populism2015 platform drafted by the Campaign for America’s Future, National People’s Action, USAction and Alliance for a Just Society. That platform also calls for creating “jobs for all,” and it calls for raising wages, empowering workers and “ending systemic racial disparities.” Both the Populism2015 platform and the Jobs for All initiative call for building a clean energy economy that can generate millions of quality jobs for people in distressed communities. They also insist that corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes so that governments have the resources to repair and rebuild the damage done by a combination of neglect and wrong-headed economic policies.

“Our wealth has increased tremendously” in the overall economy, Torres said, but “we can call for a better distribution of wealth. That is absolutely necessary.”

At a news conference Tuesday evening, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan emphasized in his opening statement bringing order to a still seething city. He was flanked by the director of the state National Guard and his state emergency management director, who boasted of the tactics they were using to prevent further destruction. As important as it is to restore the peace, state and national leaders have to take to heart the chant of the streets: “No justice, no peace.” Peace will always be fleeting and illusory as long as we as a nation fail to ensure that there is full justice, including economic justice and equity, for all of our citizens. Good jobs for all is essential to that goal. That’s where the national conversation must turn.

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