Rising inequality in a crisis: The view from Baltimore
George Mitchell holds up a megaphone to amplify his words to the crowd waiting for boxes of free food. “If you can’t use it, don’t take it,” Mr. Mitchell says. Donations are gratefully accepted, but “if you don’t want to pay, that’s OK.”
The lines for this twice-weekly event in Baltimore have grown significantly longer since the coronavirus shuttered major segments of the economy and sidelined millions of workers.
On this recent Friday, one of the people lined up outside the red-brick former school is Cassandra Branch, who lost her job as a security worker at M&T Bank Stadium. Another is Elizabeth Rice, an aspiring young educator whose school employment dried up. A retail opportunity also fell through, and she hasn’t been able to access unemployment benefits.
And there’s Daniel, who asked that his last name not be used. He says he’s struggling to support his wife and two children with now-rarer home-improvement gigs.
“It’s just been too hard,” he says of the past several months.
Economic recessions tend to be especially rough on some of the very Americans who have few resources to begin with: people who are young, work in low-wage jobs, or have less education. And in a nation where African Americans have experienced deep and persistent inequalities from the era of slavery forward, times of economic hardship have historically expanded existing gaps.
The coronavirus downturn looks to be following that same pattern, and perhaps even amplifying it – in the process expanding already deep fault lines in a country that is now in the news more for social unrest than for being a model of shared prosperity.
During the pandemic, while many office-style jobs have been able to be done from home, many lower-paid jobs, such as those at restaurants and football stadiums, have not. The road to recovering those jobs may be slow as the economy gradually reopens. Meanwhile, as of early June, death rates attributed to COVID-19 have been more than twice as high for African Americans as for white Americans.
And now all this is being processed by many citizens through a different lens – one of deep indignation over a fatal instance of police brutality against George Floyd in Minneapolis. While policing and criminal justice issues are the main fuel behind the nationwide protests, vast racial gaps in incomes and opportunities are an inextricable part of the context.
“Now is the time to ask the tough questions. ... There are real windows for a radical significant policy change that open infrequently in the course of history, at least in this country,” says Kenan Fikri, research director at the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington think tank that tracks inequality and focuses on boosting economic growth.
“And I believe that we’re facing one right now.”
Mr. Mitchell, megaphone in hand, is doing his part to lift long-standing burdens. In this largely African American part of Baltimore, he’s working to shift the dynamics that have left so many in his community with little sense of hope or progress.
“Everybody ain’t doing it. But he’s doing it,” says Jeanette Snowden, who is also waiting for her number to be called to fill up a box of food. “This is definitely a five-star light, not only for this community but for people who come from other communities.”
Amid a deep economic downturn and a national election year, the United States is searching for economic hope. President Donald Trump has cut taxes, sought to use trade policy to revive U.S. manufacturing jobs, and this year supported pandemic relief for affected workers and businesses. Democrats are proposing even bigger emergency aid and are abuzz with long-term ideas to narrow the income divide, ranging from a wealth tax to a universal basic income and other bulwarks against poverty.
But on the ground here in a city that is home to some of this nation’s most distressed African American neighborhoods, many residents don’t see much point in waiting for a rescue from on high. That doesn’t mean help would be unwelcome. It’s just that hopes have been raised and dashed many times before.
“This virus has magnified the extreme disparities that exist, especially in our most impoverished neighborhoods,” Sharon Green Middleton, the City Council member for this part of Baltimore, said at a recent council meeting.
The virus is, in fact, giving fresh salience to an appeal made by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, just before his assassination prompted demonstrations of outrage and protest in Black communities nationwide.
“One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive,” Dr. King said. Today’s equivalent might be the grocery and delivery workers who are deemed essential and keeping the nation fed and supplied, generally at low wages and sometimes with few benefits or protections against the virus.
“The person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity,” Dr. King said as he lent his voice to the cause of striking Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, at the time.
Now, as then, for many people in hard economic circumstances the most visible path upward is local action. It’s efforts like those of Mr. Mitchell and his band of more than 70 fellow volunteers.
Four years ago, after an unsuccessful fight to keep Langston Hughes Elementary School from closing, Mr. Mitchell led a campaign to repurpose the building. Once a coordinator for after-school activities, he now heads the renamed facility – the Langston Hughes Community, Business and Resource Center.
It, too, has been adversely affected by COVID-19. Demand at the center’s food pantry is up, but various job skills classes are on hold (except for ones on nursing). In normal times, the center hosts everything from free hot meals to financial literacy training, Spanish classes, and “Black business Fridays.”
For Mr. Mitchell, it all fits together. When people learn life skills from balancing a checkbook to cooking a meal, it’s a step toward freedom from financial anxiety or debt. And by contrast, when worries about money or a contagious disease combine with not having enough to eat, “it provides a situation where it is hopeless.”
So every box of food counts.
“All we got to do is change one block at a time. It’s working, man,” Mr. Mitchell says.
But he’s far from naive about the magnitude of the challenge. “We’re running out of time.”
Whether complacency is close to his home or in affluent communities far away, “the culture has to change,” he says. “Somebody is making money off of our misery. ... How much money should you make off of people who are poor?”
“Things could be so different”
A couple of miles from the Langston Hughes center, Dion Thompson is wielding a video camera, documenting another local effort to give food to those in need.
He’s now jobless himself. The payment-processing firm he worked for suddenly found itself with fewer businesses that he could pitch as a telemarketing specialist. Mr. Thompson, who had been making $17 an hour, hopes it won’t be long before he can be rehired.
But what he really wants is something longer term, a career – and to put a criminal record behind him. The downturn is making that harder.
But like Mr. Mitchell, he’s also thinking about how to build up his community. This is the neighborhood that was devastated five years ago by protests after local resident Freddie Gray died of a spinal injury incurred during a police arrest. Promises of investment and jobs have largely bypassed the neighborhood for years.
Mr. Thompson would like to create a studio where people can perform rap or spoken-word poetry.
“I’m trying to change,” he says, and trying to help other young people avoid trouble in a city known for a high murder rate, and also for its packs of “squeegee boys” who seek cash from passing drivers in exchange for a window wash.
“Things could be so different,” Mr. Thompson says. “We should not be looking at skin. We should be looking at morals.”
He’s not seeking cash handouts. But he wonders why more money isn’t spent improving schools. He questions why a billionaire can send an automobile into outer space and yet there’s “not enough money to give to the community.”
The pandemic’s effects are also being felt, of course, in places that aren’t known as impoverished. But if the effects are widespread, the disparities are also very real. Even in good times, African Americans face delays in catching an updraft. Yet the long economic expansion that began in 2009 had brought some gains, with Black unemployment hitting a record low 5.4% last August.
Now the officially reported unemployment rate for white Americans has surged from 3.1% in February to 12.4% in May, according to Labor Department estimates. But unemployment for Black Americans has jumped from 5.8% to 16.8% in that same time. For Latino and Hispanic Americans, the rate went from 4.4% to 17.6%.
Pandemic-related gaps are also significant based on age, gender, and education, with higher joblessness among women, young workers, and those without a college degree.
All this comes after several decades of generally widening inequality between those at the top of the earnings scale and the rest of Americans. From 1979 to 2015, household income for the top 1% of earners grew five times faster (a total gain of 229%) than for the bottom 90% (with gains of 46%). And with costs for education and health care rising faster than wages, legions in middle or lower tiers have seen stagnation rather than meaningful gains in living standards.
As revealed in Baltimore or virtually any other U.S. city, the gaps are starkly geographic. In the new millennium, the gains of economic growth have increasingly been concentrated in “superstar cities” and college towns, while the overall number of counties or ZIP code areas in economic distress has actually been rising, according to Economic Innovation Group data.
With the coronavirus, “we see that distressed people and places are staring down a triple whammy,” says Mr. Fikri, the researcher. He refers to higher rates of poor health, weaker health care infrastructure, and now the risk that a depressed job market could persist “for a very long time.”
While places like West Baltimore are vastly different from struggling rural areas in Kentucky or New Mexico, their challenges can have some similar roots: a dearth of jobs or investment, education gaps, health burdens including drug addiction, and challenges maintaining strong community bonds.
From the urban Northeast to the rural South and beyond, the long-standing reach of racial discrimination adds its own weight.
“The legacy of slavery has not been resolved,” says economist Lisa Cook at Michigan State University in East Lansing. She sees this as the greatest among “a whole lot of other challenges” tied to economic inequality.
She calls for blue-sky thinking reminiscent of the New Deal. Fellow Black scholars, she notes, are proposing measures such as a federal jobs guarantee or “baby bonds” that create a nest egg for young people to use for college or other goals as they enter adulthood.
Many conservatives argue that policies aimed at redistribution could lead the nation into a future of higher taxes or reduced overall prosperity. The counterargument is that greater equity can enhance economic growth by broadening markets and talent pools. After all, recent years of high inequality – with chief executive salaries up 940% since 1978 – have coincided with a decrease in, rather than a blossoming of, new-business formation.
“We’re missing out on higher living standards if we’re not incorporating more women and African Americans into the process,” says Dr. Cook. And it has wider political implications, she adds. “If people don’t believe that they are participating in the shared prosperity of the country, they won’t believe in the system and they won’t believe in the social contract.”
Nourishing Black excellence
Here on the streets of West Baltimore, there’s no doubt about whether the community needs a boost. Richard Francis, an immigrant from Trinidad who goes by the name Farmer Chippy, is trying to do it from the ground up.
Fresh-grown food, after all, isn’t just a welcome form of emergency assistance during the pandemic. It’s also something residents worried about long before. Many residents live in “food deserts” – places without supermarkets let alone farm stands.
“Grow more food!” Farmer Chippy says, as he walks among rows of young corn plants, kale, and other vegetables in formerly vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. “We must be respected for the talents that exist in our community. We must manage our own resources.”
The vision is one of empowerment for the community; partnering with local groups, he tries to ignite interest in urban farming in young and old alike. Start these steps toward better health and food security, and he says a stronger neighborhood (he calls it an “agrihood”) will follow.
It’s not just that he’s stopped waiting for policymakers to help what he says is “the greatest city in America.” He is actively rejecting an economic system that he says has too long exploited Black workers.
“I have dynamic, excellent children” coming to learn in programs at the farm, he says. “We want to prepare children to lead organizations,” to promote “Black excellence.”
On a recent Saturday afternoon, some of the young people attracted by that vision are helping out at the farm.
“The whole system needs to be remodeled,” says Kamryn Washington, a political science major at Morgan State University, not far up the road. “This is America,” she explains. “You should be helping out everybody.”
Bria Morton-Lane, a biology major at Howard University in Washington, D.C., similarly wants to see new generations of young people growing up nourished, not just with food but with education.
“It’s not about moving away and making a better life for yourself. I want to make a better life for this community,” the lifelong Baltimore resident says, as she adds handfuls of topsoil to help kale plants thrive.
This is just one upstart project, but it’s not alone in seeing food as a building block toward wider progress. At the storefront of BeMore Green, where Mr. Thompson was doing his videography, the boxes of fresh produce bring smiles to grateful recipients – some of whom bite into crunchy apples.
One of the people growing and delivering the food, Dominic Nell, sees his work as blending physical and mental health in an area that needs more of both. “[We’ve been] left out of the wealth conversation,” he says. So instead of “40 acres and a mule” – the promise that formerly enslaved people hoped would come to fruition after the Civil War – he asks for “40 vacants and some tools,” referring to vacant lots.
“We’ve got to love each other a little more.”
Marvin “Doc” Cheatham is a community leader just a few blocks away – a longtime advocate of voting, of civil rights, and of taking kids to Orioles baseball games.
As he looks back to the tumultuous year of 1968, when he graduated from high school as unrest flared over the assassination of Dr. King, he says he sees some progress for Black Americans. His view is born out by evidence like rising incomes and education levels since then, and the election of a Black president in 2008.
But Mr. Cheatham also sees big gaps left to bridge, at a time when wealth of the average Black household is one-tenth that of white counterparts. In his neighborhood, the disparity is even greater than that.
“We don’t have a health clinic,” Mr. Cheatham says. “No laundromat. No bank.” Yes, no supermarket either. And with all this, he says, hope in some corners of his neighborhood has “almost disappeared.”
It’s possible that the exigencies of the current moment – an election-year economic crisis coupled with national outrage over racial injustice – will spur a push for new policies to address economic inequalities as well as police misconduct.
It’s notable that many white Americans are marching along with African Americans against racial injustice. And, separate from the question of enduring racism, political pressure in recent years has resulted in some state-level policies to support working-class Americans, such as a higher minimum wage, paid family leave, and higher taxes on rich people to help pay for such efforts.
People like Mr. Cheatham say local actions must also play a key role in moving distressed communities forward. When he sees vacant lots, his first thought is not of farms but of parks. He has already carved out one in his Easterwood neighborhood, where people can enjoy picnics and rosebushes. And now a more ambitious project – a skateboard park – is on the way.
“Baltimore is a city that’s not going to let itself be defined by its past,” says Stephanie Murdock, another community leader who’s helping to make it happen. She is white. Mr. Cheatham is Black. But they speak of each other as “brother” and “sister” in this effort to bring positivity, health, and excitement to young people.
America more broadly may need some of the same determination. Economic inequality rarely shows up in polls as a top voter priority. But that’s a bit misleading. The American penchant for economic freedom is matched by deep concerns over economic security. And 79% of U.S. adults called inequality a “top” or “important” priority in a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.
Even the long-stodgy U.S. Federal Reserve system, charged mainly with maintaining a stable banking network, now has a regional institute focused on inequality.
Some wonder if America can afford to address the rising income gap. Others wonder if this rich but highly stratified nation can afford not to. The debate will surely be part of this fall’s presidential race.
Back at the Langston Hughes center, George Mitchell flips some switches in a modest studio to go on air with his daily call-in show on local radio. On this day he’s partly soul-searching about how another African American man with his same first name (George Floyd) died after a police officer pressed a knee into his neck.
“Is that what my life is worth? A counterfeit $20 bill?” he asks, referring to the suspected crime for which Mr. Floyd was being arrested. “They want to label us: stupid, drug addicts ... lazy,” Mr. Mitchell says.
Even as he appeals for greater justice, he goads his listeners to lift their own lives higher through compassion and grit. “Take care of your kids. Respect Black women.”
Above all, he says, it’s time for a society with more love. Love among Black Americans themselves. Love that can span across racial boundaries. “Because I’m pro-Black, I’m not anti anything,” he says. “We’ve got to love each other a little more.”