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In aftermath of Baltimore unrest, a vow: no community left behind

The protests in Baltimore gave fresh urgency to an old question: Can the underlying challenges of poverty ever be fixed? In one neighborhood, many say that change begins by seeing the situation differently – by looking at the people differently.

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    Devonte Reed, age 5, looked over the shoulder of James Watson while attending a demonstration at City Hall May 2 in Baltimore.
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On a warm May evening, residents of a Baltimore neighborhood have gathered in their local elementary school auditorium for a community forum. Some of the topics that emerge sound ordinary enough – a community “wish list” and the needs of young people – but this meeting is really anything but.

It’s happening in a section of the city that’s been affected for years by challenges like drug-dealing, gangs, and poverty. An outsize share of the homes and buildings are vacant. Relations between the mostly black residents and police are strained.

And for this meeting, happening in the wake of recent protests over the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while in police custody, the stage is given to teens for a “youth and young adult speak-out.”

One 17-year-old speaks matter-of-factly about knowing more than half a dozen young people who have been lost to violent deaths. Later, when an audience member asks what the young speakers would like to see in a recreation center, the neighborhood association president interrupts:

“Most of these children in Baltimore City have never seen a real rec center,” Marvin Cheatham says. Referring to a structure up the street as aging and only three rooms large, he erupts: “How dare you call that a rec center!”

This is the world from which Mr. Gray – and the protests following his recent death – emerged. It’s a world replicated in poor neighborhoods across the United States. And from those protests, including a night of rioting that left some Baltimore storefronts aflame, an old question gained fresh urgency: Can the underlying challenges ever actually be fixed?

An urgent part of the problem involves police-community relations. On May 1, when the city prosecutor announced criminal charges against the six police officers who had arrested and transported Gray, relief and rejoicing swept through crowds congregated at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenues. To many here, it felt like justice.

But there’s clearly more at stake – a sense that whole communities in America are being largely left out of economic and social opportunities. President Obama, responding to the Baltimore news, called for national “soul-searching” to help young people in impoverished communities.

Although concentrated poverty encompasses people of all skin colors, African-Americans remain far more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods affected by it. And by some measures, the issue seems as intractable as ever. The official black poverty rate is still higher than the national average and has not gone down much since 1970. And African-Americans are far more likely than other Americans to grow up in a single-parent household, to live in a high-crime neighborhood or be in prison, to attend poorly performing schools, and to be unemployed.

To separate one problem from another, experts say, is to misunderstand the nature of the challenge. It’s not just about jobs, or drugs and gangs, or a breakdown of two-parent households. It’s all those things and more. And what’s needed are solutions that address those challenges as interconnected.

Doing that will take no small amount of time and government involvement, say analysts on the political left and right. But for those in West Baltimore, the first steps seem comparatively simple.

Change begins, many here say, with seeing the situation differently – with looking at the people of Gray’s West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown as assets to be developed, not social liabilities to be managed. When it comes to turning around this place, the words heard most often on street corners are “hope” and “love.”

“Start with love,” says Alexander Mitchell, a middle-aged black resident who is currently “between jobs” and who says he was recently subjected to a humiliating strip-search by police.

He says he sees a population with plenty of promise and talent, but who feel disenfranchised. “People don’t just wake up [being] drug addicts,” he says. “They just want you to give them a fair shake,” not handouts.

Sandtown as America

Damon Craig, one of the teens who took the stage at the community forum, says he and his friends are “just looking for stuff to do.”

This is one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, a largely black part of the city a couple of miles from the downtown’s trendy Inner Harbor, yet in some ways seemingly a world removed. It is not far from where Gray was arrested on April 12, and the site of some of the protests on the day of Gray’s funeral that were accompanied by looting, fires, and police being injured by thrown bricks.

But despite its portrayal in the aftermath of the violent Freddie Gray protests, this is hardly ground zero for poverty in the US. Citywide, Baltimore is notable for having higher than average incomes. And many cities from the Midwest (such as Minneapolis and Cleveland) to the South (Greenville, S.C.) have seen faster growth in poverty in recent years. Increasingly, inner-ring suburbs have joined cities in experiencing high rates of poverty.

Like those locations, however, Baltimore is emblematic of the challenges of “concentrated poverty” – areas where 20 percent or more of the residents are poor. Concentrated poverty has risen since 2000, erasing much of the progress made in the 1990s, according to analysis by the Brookings Institution in Washington. And it disproportionately affects black people.

For instance, Baltimore has a higher poverty rate (about 24 percent) than the national average (15.4 percent). In Sandtown, it’s 34 percent. Jump to Ferguson, Mo., another community that has seen protests and rioting over police-community relations, and the poverty rate is 25 percent. Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, is two-thirds black; Sandtown is almost entirely black.

So what are teenagers like Damon – simply “looking for stuff to do” – supposed to do? How does a community like Sandtown begin to change?

Path of peacemaking

For Erricka Bridgeford, that change has already started.

Across America, areas of concentrated poverty like West Baltimore share a dubious distinction: They tend to be areas with higher rates of crime, drug arrests, and gang activity. How much does poverty contribute to crime? How much does crime contribute to poverty? Focusing on chicken-or-egg causality can obscure a simpler truth: The challenges are intertwined.

If you want to bring more hope and opportunity to poor communities, experts and residents say, you can’t do it without addressing the basics of safety and health for the residents – not to mention the high rates of incarceration that can close off job opportunities for men at an early age. And if you want to reduce violence and incarceration, you can’t do it without improving economic, educational, and social opportunities. They are not two problems, but one with two halves. 

Ms. Bridgeford has seen the cycle of violence here firsthand. She was raised in West Baltimore. One of her brothers was wounded in a shooting on the city’s streets. Another was killed. She says the violence forced her down a path of peacemaking.

On Fridays, even before the Freddie Gray protests, she could be found waging a street-corner campaign with others to rally city residents against violence. She offers mediation services to defuse conflicts among gangs and others. And by publicizing her views of forgiveness toward her brother’s killer, she helped push successfully for a state law banning the death penalty in Maryland.

“It’s hard to find an offender who wasn’t first a victim,” she says.

Her message is not an easy one. In the wake of the Freddie Gray protests, Baltimore saw 43 homicides – its worst month in nearly 40 years. Media reports have noted that arrests went down in May, suggesting that police eased off on their duties as tensions with the community rose.

The honking car horns and hugs and smiles that met the announcement of criminal charges against the police officers in the Gray case May 1 speak to the frayed relations between police and the community – and the urgent need to fix them.

But ultimately, progress will come from something more than arresting criminals. It will come from efforts to change the culture of violence in the first place, helping people see the humanity in one another.

A changing picture

In some cases, each side is seeing only a narrow and distorted picture of the other. Sociologist Orlando Patterson of Harvard University recently argued that, although the large majority of inner-city residents are upstanding, a much smaller but significant number are caught in a “vicious tangle of concentrated poverty, disconnected youth and a culture of violence.” The problem is that policing tactics have correspondingly evolved – more through crime-fighting than through racism – to profiling of black youths as potential criminals, Mr. Patterson wrote in The New York Times.

The positive news is that violent crime has been generally trending down, even in the Sandtown area of Baltimore, according to one academic study that looked at the first decade of the 2000s. The coming challenge – bringing violence down still further to create the opportunity for change – requires trust. Simply starting a conversation is a first step.

Fatal police encounters in Baltimore, Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere led to an Obama administration commission recommending a revival of “community policing” in which cops are closer to the communities they serve. Meanwhile, overcrowded prisons have led policymakers in both parties to work to reduce the level of incarceration for nonviolent offenses – a pattern that can leave black men, disproportionately, with a rap-sheet blot on their résumés.

“Part of the solution is already under way, that people are talking about this, that people are aware that there’s a problem,” says Odis Johnson, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis.

At times, conversation can sound more like a scolding. When Baltimore was seized by rioting, many conservatives railed against a “fatherless” society, with Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, a presidential candidate, blaming “the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society.” In turn, many liberals bristled, seeing in such comments only a desire to wave a reproving finger.

But when a conference on poverty convened recently at Georgetown University, the two participants who spoke loudest and longest about the need to rebuild family structure were two liberals. One was the president of the United States.

“If I’m giving a commencement” at a historically black college, Mr. Obama said, “I will have a conversation with young black men about taking responsibility as fathers that I probably will not have with the women of Barnard. And I make no apologies for that. And the reason is, is because I am a black man who grew up without a father and I know the cost that I paid for that. And I also know that I have the capacity to break that cycle, and, as a consequence, I think my daughters are better off.”

It is a glimpse at how the optics of poverty are changing. As researchers get a fuller view of the variety of variables influencing poverty, the search for solutions is in some cases breaking down entrenched positions.

The issue is welling up in urban communities as well. In West Baltimore, Eric Bowman, a young father, helped organize a “Family First Cookout” at a local park to bring families together for fun and to support their role as a bedrock of neighborhood life.

The cookout may seem like a small effort, but a common refrain from residents here is that they want – and need – to be engaged if poverty-related challenges are to be truly tackled. “It’s the small things that really count,” Mr. Bowman says.

Although the decline of married-parent households in recent decades has been steepest among African-Americans, it’s a part of the poverty equation that goes beyond race. Robert Putnam, a Harvard sociologist who shared the stage with Obama, put it this way: “Even those of us on the more progressive side have to think, ‘How did we get into a state in which two-thirds of American kids coming from what we used to call the working class have only a single parent, and what can we do to fix that?’ ”

In a report last year, American University economist Robert Lerman and University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox gave some examples of how to address the issue. A key part of their solutions would involve efforts across civic organizations, state governments, and businesses to promote a “success sequence” for young people: schooling, then work, then marriage, then parenthood.

Such ideas point to an evolution in thinking about poverty on the conservative side, too.

Conservatives for government spending

A success sequence requires an education and nurturing to get kids to a good job, a healthy marriage, and parenthood. In poor neighborhoods, that support is too often lacking. In Sandtown, for example, about 1 in 5 of 16- to 19-year-olds is neither in school nor employed.

Sitting outside a Baltimore cafe, Tiffany Welch says the problem is first one of perception: A key starting point is the realization that residents of poor communities are “assets” to be developed.

Then again, Ms. Welch may be just the sort of person you would expect to say such things. She’s active in Democratic Party politics in the city, and she runs a nonprofit to keep boys from falling in with drug dealers and gangs.

Coming from Arthur Brooks, however, the sentiment is perhaps a bit more surprising.

Back at the Georgetown panel discussion, Mr. Brooks, president of the Republican-leaning American Enterprise Institute, made virtually the same point. Since the conference was organized by Roman Catholic and evangelical Christian groups, however, Brooks spoke in faith-based terms:

“When you talk about people as your brothers and sisters you don’t talk about them as liabilities to manage,” he said. “Every one of us made in God’s image is an asset to develop. That’s a completely different approach to poverty alleviation. That’s a human capital approach to poverty alleviation.”

It’s true that conservatives like Brooks generally want to keep closer tabs on federal pennies than Democrats do. But Brooks is arguing that creating better schools and more opportunities for the poor is the right kind of government spending – and that Republicans can’t afford to be stuck labeled as the party that doesn’t care about the poor.

The real issue is spending “right,” many agree. If it were easy just to transform poor communities by money alone, it would have happened already.

Sandtown itself has been the focus of a $130 million public-private transformation effort that began in the 1990s. That amounted to an influx equal to about $11,000 per resident, for things like home rebuilding and employment services. There were improvements (some decline in poverty, more high school graduates) but also a hard lesson in “the durability of social inequality and the persistence of overlapping social problems in high poverty and racially segregated neighborhoods,” a 2013 report by Baltimore’s Abell Foundation noted.

Still, some poverty experts say that, when done well and with persistence, investments in poor communities will pay off.

“Breaking the cycle of persistent, intergenerational poverty requires sustained interventions at many levels,” concludes a 2014 report by the Urban Institute.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, has experimented over the years with a variety of strategies, ranging from saturating an impoverished community with services to helping families move to places with more opportunity.

Recent research by Harvard University economist Raj Chetty finds that the upward mobility of poor people increases dramatically if they move from a low-opportunity county to a more typical one.

Spending more on early childhood education, meanwhile, could pay for itself by averting social costs down the road (such as fewer people ending up in prison), according to research by James Heckman at the University of Chicago.

And not all helpful policies need to cost big sums. One example could be changes to zoning laws so fewer poor people end up segregated in concentrated communities.

Ultimately, however, creating opportunity for America’s poor means creating a job, and efforts to help places like Sandtown face big problems if that final door is not open.

Damon, who spoke up at the community forum about needing “stuff to do,” is one of relatively few teens in the neighborhood who have paid work.

He’s part of a nonprofit program called Save a Dope Boy, designed to give constructive pathways to Baltimore boys who might otherwise end up carrying bags of dope to get their spending money.

In one sense, his work isn’t a typical job. Donations allow him to earn money by helping to set up events like youth concerts. But the responsibility is real. And what he’s doing is a bridge toward new destinations. Things look promising for him to be hired soon busing dishes in a local restaurant.

Welch, who runs Save a Dope Boy, wants to raise money to expand the program’s reach. The city government, too, is seeking donations to fund more summer jobs for teens.

For workers of all ages, finding good jobs in Sandtown and surrounding communities, like where Damon lives, is a challenge.

On one hand, a stronger economy would help. A booming late-1990s job market coincided with a meaningful decline in poverty, for example. Obama voiced the prevailing wisdom when he recently said: “The best antipoverty program is a job, which confers not just income, but structure and dignity and a sense of connection to community.”

But even when there is job growth, these communities are often the last to feel it.

Some options: Tax incentives could draw jobs in, and “human capital” investments to help give locals job skills could make them more attractive to businesses.

Another approach is funding more transportation networks to connect poor workers to jobs across town. Maybe firms could be allowed to hire at below the minimum wage, with a government subsidy to fill the pay gap.

‘We have to start from somewhere’

Part of the answer may be simply to nurture in young people a sense of the possibilities that already exist.

That’s what was going on one recent day at Morgan State University, a historically black college a few miles north of Sandtown. Middle- and high-schoolers from around the region gather for an entrepreneurship day, organized by a local nonprofit group. The idea was to help young people think of themselves as potential starters of a business.

In one room, kids brainstorm about how to turn their hobbies into small or big opportunities for employment. In another, kids work in groups to craft a business plan for a judged competition.

In a hall nearby, 20-year-old Gerard Pettiford is already trying to embark on a business even as he has his eye on attending Morgan State. He’s selling T-shirts (it’s a clothing business called Pride Society) to anyone who wants one – and sharing his own enthusiasm.

“It’s definitely difficult” in the job market right now, he says. Especially for young people like him who don’t have lots of experience. But “we have to start from somewhere.”

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