Government First: Why the Rusk Plan Cannot Save Baltimore

To understand the effort to revitalize Baltimore City, one needs an analogy – perhaps the Allied landing on D-Day. About 15 years ago, the yuppies landed on the beaches of Baltimore. On that thin strip of land called the Inner Harbor, they built their camp, and the fashionable and gleaming Brooks Brothers, Williams-Sonoma, and Crabtree and Evelyn stores stood in stark contrast to the housing projects and poverty-stricken neighborhoods that filled the hinterland.
Soon, like the Allied forces in Normandy, the forces of revitalization in Baltimore attempted a breakout. The attack was carried forward up streets like Charles, St. Paul, Howard and Calvert. With affluent neighborhoods like Homeland, Guilford and Roland Park providing cover from the north, it seemed as if Baltimore was trapped in a classic pincer movement and that the operation would be successful. But unlike the Allies, the yuppies never achieved a complete breakout. They remain pinned down on their small beachhead to this day. The effort to liberate Baltimore City from crime, poverty, a declining retail sector and a shrinking tax base has failed.

Now a new general has entered the fray. David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque and an urban-policy theorist, has outlined a new grand strategy for Baltimore as well as an explanation for why the earlier effort failed. In Baltimore Unbound,1 Rusk explains that the high concentration of poor minorities living in Baltimore City’s neighborhoods creates “social dynamite – high crime rates, drug addiction, family disintegration, welfare dependency, and illegitimacy.” Combined with the city’s fiscal crisis, caused by middle-class flight to the suburbs, Baltimore has, along with 34 other American cities, reached a point of no return, says Rusk. When cities like Baltimore possess a critical mass of poor minority neighborhoods and a low average income relative to the inhabitants of suburban communities, conventional strategies to rebuild them cannot work (and have never worked). To continue simply with empowerment and enterprise zones, downtown development efforts, and urban renewal projects like the Inner Harbor is futile, Rusk argues, because it does not address the core problem, which is that Baltimore City has become the “poorhouse for the region’s minority poor.”

At the same time, Rusk honors those earlier efforts. His book is littered with short pep-pieces about how projects like Harborplace, the Civic Center, the Beltway, the Bay Bridge and the National Aquarium initially met with considerable resistance, but ultimately proved to make positive contributions to the region. By showing how the popular fears expressed over each of these projects later proved unfounded, Rusk is laying the psychological groundwork for the acceptance of a far more radical plan for Baltimore, one that he knows will generate more controversy (and more fear among the public) than the effort to build a freeway or an aquarium.

Rusk’s plan is as follows: Because the central problem in Baltimore City is the high concentration of minorities living in poor neighborhoods and the income disparity between the city and the suburbs, an effort must be made to correct these two deficiencies. Rusk supports breaking up the poor neighborhoods by giving people living in them the “opportunity” to relocate to safer, cleaner and wealthier suburban neighborhoods, for example, through subsidized housing or rent vouchers. The income disparity between the city and the suburbs would be eased through a revenue-sharing plan. Both the city and the suburbs would be absorbed, to some degree, by a newly created, more all-encompassing, level of government, called “Metro,” which would direct the effort towards “diversity, balance, and stability” in the region.

Part of Rusk’s plan has been realized in outcome of the recent settlement of the suit brought against the city and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU claimed that public-housing policy in Baltimore consciously segregated blacks from whites. The settlement arrived at involves the transfer of 1,342 black families from inner-city Baltimore to neighboring suburban communities in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. Because Rusk’s book provides the theoretical underpinning of the HUD settlement, a review of Baltimore Unbound is more than just an academic exercise.

A first criticism is that Rusk’s idea of creating a new, regional layer of government borders on the banal. Rusk’s Metro government is to be elected by both city and suburban districts and, empowered with the monies generated by a “modest” tax increase, is to determine the appropriate housing strategy for the region. Metro will focus its efforts on development and housing but, at the same time, is to be given a broad array of “policy responsibilities and, potentially, service delivery responsibilities.” Perhaps if this were 1966, instead of 1996, there might be a sufficient reservoir of trust in government to go along with such a plan. But this is not 1966. After three decades, Americans have received an education in the arrogance of government – how it will raise taxes almost at will and expand a bureaucracy’s activity far beyond its original intent and scope, all in the name of good intentions.

What Baltimore does not need is a new layer of government or a new mechanism by which to levy taxes. Does anyone doubt what Metro would become over time if allowed to come into existence? Fortunately, this aspect of Rusk’s plan is not part of the current HUD effort.

Second, Rusk’s plan would demoralize those who have recently gained entrance into safe, suburban communities. Both black and white, these people have toiled at their jobs and scrimped and saved for years so that they might move from crime-infested neighborhoods into a world of safe streets and relatively decent schools. They are now told by Rusk that their hard work was a waste of time, that there was always a short cut. One simply had to wait for the “voucher fairy” to come by and give them access to the neighborhood of their choice. Rusk’s plan is insulting to those who have worked dutifully and diligently to achieve a modicum of peace, order and stability in their lives. The long-term psychological consequences of the plan are corrosive, for they devalue the hard work and perseverance necessary to the functioning of a capitalist society.

Third, there is some sleight of hand in Rusk’s argument – and in the arguments made by HUD – that moving poor inner-city dwellers into suburban communities will produce an economic benefit to the city without risk to the suburban communities receiving them. The economic benefit is derived from breaking up poor, black neighborhoods in Baltimore. But this would require the transfer of a large population of individuals, not just 1,342 families. Yet, when Rusk tries to assuage suburbanites by saying they face little risk from the economically-healing transfer of population, he presents statistics based on the movement of only small numbers.

The Gautreaux Project in Chicago, which Rusk cites, involves the movement of only 3,000 households from the projects to the suburbs. In two other case studies cited by Rusk, Connecticut and Montgomery County, the populations involved are not even the same as those covered in Rusk’s (or HUD’s) plan. The Connecticut “poor” given the opportunity to buy or rent in suburban areas must have an income of at least 80 percent of the area’s median income (about $29,000 for the average family in Connecticut in 1990), reports Rusk. This makes them really lower middle-class, not poor. In the two Montgomery County housing plans described by Rusk, one involves people with moderate incomes (average household income, $26,497) and, in the county’s deep-subsidy public housing program, over one-third of the participants are elderly. The culture of the elderly poor is very different from the “culture of poverty” that plagues many neighborhoods in the inner-city and creates great dysfunction, perhaps explaining why the impact of the “poor” on the suburban communities studied was negligible. A better comparison would be the absorption by Montgomery County of the poor in Washington, D.C. through vouchers, an idea that has never been entertained.

Thus, the economic effect of transferring small numbers of inner-city dwellers to the suburbs is probably negligible, while the cultural effect of transferring large numbers remains unknown. For this reason, the argument that supports the transfer of 1,342 poor black families from Baltimore to the suburbs, envisioned by HUD, cannot be an economic one. It must be an ideological one, which leads to a fourth criticism. The ultimate goal of Rusk’s and the HUD plan is “diversity.” But it is a sign of incredible arrogance to value diversity more than individual choice, to insist upon what the appropriate racial mixture of a community must be before its members can call themselves “fulfilled.” To treat men and women as little more than mice in an airpump, to experiment with their lives, to move them about the region according to the whim of a social engineer, and to brand alternative views as demagogic or emblematic of naive false-consciousness is dictatorial.

Most irritating about Rusk’s book is the complete failure to analyze how cities like Baltimore got into such a mess in the first place. The reason for this omission is obvious, for there is much evidence to suggest that it is an end result of three decades of activist government that tried to build Utopia. Rusk wants to eliminate the “culture of poverty” in Baltimore. But culture is behavior, and probably far more can be achieved in the 1990s by role models in poor inner-city neighborhoods who preach continence and personal responsibility than by urban theorists who map out grand strategies by calculating the demographics of racial mixing.

Dr. Dworkin is the co-director and CFO of the Calvert Institute. He lives in Baltimore City.

End Notes

[Top] 1. David Rusk, Baltimore Unbound: A Strategy for Urban Renewal (Baltimore, Md.: Abell Foundation, 1996).

Posted in: News Series, Urban Affairs