Robert Cherry
Author: The State of the Black Family

Baltimore is rat-infested and Cummings is culpable

The Jewish community was too quick to defend the Congressman, who seeks to move poor people on up instead of fixing their neighborhoods
A boy shoots a basketball into a makeshift basket made from a milk crate and attached to a vacant row house in Baltimore. In 2013, an estimated 16,000 buildings were vacant or abandoned in Baltimore. April 8, 2013 (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
A boy shoots a basketball into a makeshift basket made from a milk crate and attached to a vacant row house in Baltimore. In 2013, an estimated 16,000 buildings were vacant or abandoned in Baltimore. April 8, 2013 (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

President Trump strongly criticized Congressman Elijah Cummings for his lack of efforts to improve conditions in the West Baltimore section of his district. Specifically, Trump tweeted that Representative Elijah Cummings’ district “is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” a “very dangerous & filthy place.” The liberal reaction was swift, labeling his criticisms as racist, lumping them with his attacks on black congressional women a week earlier.

Trump’s comments drew an immediate response from the Baltimore Jewish community, 30,000 of whom live in the suburban section of Cummings’ district. Israel Patoka, a member of the Baltimore County Council, also praised Cummings and called him “a true ally of the Jewish community and a champion for the causes that we care about.” Patoka added that “broader trend of racism and spreading hate sadly are becoming normalized under this presidency.” They also pointed to the Elijah Cummings Youth Program, founded in the 1990s, that “has been sending students from the Baltimore area on visits to Israel for the past two decades.”

More broadly, virtually the entire liberal media also characterized Trump’s attack as racist. Typical was the New York Times columnist Charles Blow who noted: “Trump’s … attachment of criminality to populations is almost exclusively to black and brown people and to ‘inner cities,’ an urban euphemism for black and brown neighborhoods.”

What is striking, not one of the critics countered the specifics of Trump’s comments about Baltimore, which were based on a video circulated by Kimberly Klacik. Indeed, Vox dismissed her evidence by simply referring to her as a “conservative personality who appeared on Saturday morning’s Fox & Friends segment” rather than indicating she is a black Republican who is a Baltimore resident.

Data consistently show that poor black neighborhoods have dramatically higher crime rates than white neighborhoods even after adjusting for measures of poverty and unemployment. Moreover, Baltimore’s rat infestation numbers consistently rank it among the top ten cities. Indeed, this evidence was the backdrop of Senator Bernie Sanders’ December 2015 assessment of Baltimore: “America is the wealthiest country in the history of the world, but anyone who took the walk we took today around this neighborhood would not think you were in a wealthy nation, you would think you were in a third world country.” His views were echoed by Dr. Jamal Bryant, pastor and founder of Empowerment Temple church, who agreed: “We are 45 miles from the White House and it doesn’t even look like we are in America. It looks like we are in a third world country.”

Of interest is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ description of growing up in Baltimore. In The Beautiful Struggle, Coates stated:

5% of the young people living in Baltimore’s poorest sections (“1 in 21”) were killed annually. The violence was as meaningless as it was terrifying. “When bored, [the hoppers] brought the ruckus, snatching bus tickets and issuing beat downs at random….This was how they got down. This was the ritual.

Family dysfunction was rife: “Lexington Terrace was hot with gonorrhea. Teen pregnancy was the fashion. Husbands were outties. Fathers were ghosts.” In discussing the normalcy of violence, Coates noted, “Conflicts bloomed from a minor remark or misstep, and once in motion everyone stayed cocked and on alert.” Thus, the attacks on Trump’s remarks reflect not the falseness of his claims concerning poor Baltimore neighborhoods but his pinning responsibility on black politicians rather than on white supremacy.

Most troubling, liberals avoid seriously discussing policies that might improve these poverty-stricken black neighborhoods. Instead, they promote policies that might enable some families to move out to more affordable housing in white neighborhoods, just as Coates’ family did. Indeed, on the same day that the New York Times documented rat infestation in New York City public housing, it had an op-ed article that promoted changing federal regulations to combat housing segregation. In particular, Sara Bronin noted that the “housing plans released by the Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker, Julián Castro and Elizabeth Warren rightly recognize that only bold federal intervention can fix a problem as entrenched as housing segregation.”

The liberal justification for centering their initiatives on efforts to move families out of high poverty-concentrated neighborhoods is that it will improve the lifetime earnings of children. The evidence for this comes from recent studies led by Raj Chetty. They documented improvements among children who moved from high to low poverty-concentrated neighborhoods as part of the federal government’s Move to Opportunity (MTO) study. The problem is that the positive finding only holds for children younger than 13 years old. However, 30 percent of the children were 13 to 18 years old. For them, earnings: $204 for girls and $1,832 for boys. As a result, whereas for the younger children the average increased earnings for 2008–2012 was an impressive $1,624, for all children it was a statistically insignificant $302.

Moreover, the gains for younger children differed dramatically across the five cities studied. Earnings increased by $4,020 for younger white and Asian children and by $3,306 for younger Hispanic children. By contrast, the benefits were only $627 for younger black children. For black families, the average decline for older children was greater than the meager gains for young children. This was most striking for Chicago There, the gains for younger black children equaled $681 but the losses for older black children were $2,336.

The deleterious impact these programs had on black children is consistent with earlier observations by Robert Sampson in his seminal study of Chicago. He suggests that we should focus on efforts to improve high-poverty neighborhoods, not on efforts to move families out. Rather than requiring owners to set aside some units for low-income families in their newly constructed buildings in better neighborhoods, I would recommend that they should be expected to build a much greater number of these subsidized units in high-poverty neighborhoods. Without bettering disadvantaged neighborhoods, middle-class families will have no reason to stay, leading to an ever-increasing poverty concentration.

Finally, Sampson argues that high-poverty black neighborhoods can also be improved through social efficiency — advancing an environment in which individuals take community-related actions. The development of social efficiency can be aided by non-profit organizations. Expansion of fatherhood programs can also go a long way to improve the outcome for children, regardless of the neighborhoods in which they live.

It is fine to support fair housing, but if we want to improve the lives of all poor children, notwithstanding Trump’s rhetoric, we must focus on improving the deplorable conditions that afflict high poverty-concentrated black neighborhoods.

About the Author
Robert Cherry is a recently retired professor of economics at Brooklyn College. Author of Why the Jews? How Jewish Values Transformed Twentieth Century American Pop Culture (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021); and The State of the Black Family: The State of the Black Family: Sixty Years of Tragedies and Failures—and New Initiatives Offering Hope (Bombardier 2023).
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