A new report assessing the plight and future of America’s older industrial cities has found that Baltimore, while beset by daunting social ills, is better-placed than many of its peers to rebuild its economic prosperity.
The report from the nonpartisan Brookings Institute, “Renewing America’s economic promise through older industrial cities,” examined 70 older industrial cities, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, which collectively account for one-eighth of the U.S. economy and population.
“There are a lot of other cities that had a similar industrial heritage to Baltimore’s that are much less well off today economically,” said Alan Berube, a senior fellow at Brookings, deputy director of its metropolitan policy program and the report’s co-author. “Baltimore today has a pretty diversified economy. It’s not too reliant on any one sector and it has a few different sectors that are contributing to growth, including sciences, health care, technology and financial services. So that’s putting some wind to its sails.”
The report placed Baltimore among 16 of the 70 older industrial cities that it found had a relatively “strong” economic profile. Among others in that category were Philadelphia, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
Baltimore’s major challenge, as is the case in many older industrial cities, Berube said, is to rectify the deep racial disparities within its economy.
“For all the good stuff going on there are severe divides in Baltimore, probably at least as severe as in any other city we looked at in the report,” he said.
Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said the report was spot-on in its assessment, both in its findings that the city has strong assets, such as major research institutions, as well as serious drawbacks.
“A challenge – and opportunity – going forward is for Baltimore to invest in the neighborhoods that have not been able to participate fully in the technology-based economy and its rising tide,” Fry said. “As the GBC has been saying for a decade, Baltimore must invest in modern, efficient, rapid transportation that connects these areas and their residents with new and emerging job hubs, as well as the proper training and education so they can fully participate in the new economy driving Baltimore’s job growth and prosperity.”
Berube also said Baltimore’s underdeveloped transportation network and the state’s decision to pull the plug on the Red Line light-rail project – which would have connected the city’s east and west sides – hamper the ability of residents in poorer neighborhoods to travel to jobs.
The 76-page report urges public policy leaders to embrace the goal of inclusive economic growth as a shared responsibility and to develop approaches that strengthen job training, job access and job growth.
Berube said the city needs to develop more programs similar to Thread, a nonprofit that provides underperforming high school students in Baltimore with a “family” of volunteers and mentors and access to community resources.
Since 2004, Thread has served more than 300 young people, with 87 percent of those who stayed in the program for at least five years earning high school diplomas, the report noted.
“It’s not just about hard skills,” Berube said. “It’s about helping young people in precarious circumstance navigate the broader social networks they need to succeed. Every city needs something like that.”