Put the surplus to work in Baltimore.

Earlier this month Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said that the increase in crime in Baltimore was “atrocious” and that the murder rate was “out of control.” He stated that it was “horrible situation” to which a solution must be found.  Solving all of the problems that are behind the cycle of poverty and violence in the city will take a long time, but there is one problem for which something can and should be done with some of the state’s estimated $500 million budget surplus.  There are programs in the city that keep at-risk children in school, off the streets, and out of trouble, and these programs need to be expanded as soon as possible.

These programs address the following problem:  There are too many children in Baltimore who, by the time they are teenagers, are lost to life on the streets where recourse to violence is second nature.  Gang and drug-related violence is appalling but no phenomenon in Baltimore is a more alarming sign than the vicious attacks by groups of young people on victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The brutal assault on a 70 year old retired police officer is just the latest example.  Something has gone seriously wrong with the value systems of these young men and women.  Why?

One theory that tends to polarize reactions along racial lines is the absentee-father theory.  The theory is that the absence of fathers from the lives of their children, particularly their sons, makes it less likely that children will have the type of moral upbringing that helps keep them in school and out of trouble.  According to a survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013, more than 19 million children across the country — 26% — are living without a father in the home.  Among African-American children in Baltimore the rate is 69%.

Critics of the theory complain that it fails to acknowledge how institutional racism and wrong-headed social and economic policies have contributed to the plight of poor black families.  We need to put that debate aside because, regardless of how we have gotten to this point, the situation is dire:  As confirmed by a landmark 30 year study by Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander released last year 49 percent of black men from low-income backgrounds in Baltimore had a criminal conviction by age 28.

People working in the trenches in Baltimore aren’t wasting time debating.  They are doing something about the problem.  Joe Jones founded the Center for Urban Families (CFUF) in 1999.  In a 2013 interview with CNN he stated that most men come in the door looking for help getting jobs.  But Jones believes that jobs are just the first step, and that the key to creating real change in Baltimore’s troubled communities is ending what he calls “the cycle of father absence.”  “If we don’t crack the code of men having babies for whom they’re not responsible for, all of our efforts to build a better Baltimore will be limited.”  CFUF runs a program called Responsible Fatherhood.  [“A Fresh Start for Absentee Fathers,” CNN, September 19, 2013.]

Last spring, Renaissance Academy Principal Nikkia Rowe hired four men to mentor 20 students each based on her “strong belief that human beings change their behavior based on deep, interpersonal relationships.”  She added:  “Ultimately, it’s about our children not necessarily having the benefit of relationships.”  Grades are up and suspensions are down since the program began and Principal Rowe is looking for the money to hire more mentors.  [“For At-Risk Kids, Mentors Provide Far More Than Just Homework Help,” NPR, October 29, 2015.]

Baltimore’s recreation centers have been another source of support for at-risk children.  Earlier this year Brandi Murphy, director of the Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center, told NPR:  “We are mom, dad, aunt, cousin. They come here to get what they don’t have at home.  There are some parents that even to this day, I’ve had some kids for two years and still haven’t met them.”  [“In Baltimore, Rec Centers Provide So Much More Than Just Fun,” NPR, June 23, 2015.]

Programs like these work.  They keep more of Baltimore’s children in school, out of gangs, and off the streets.  The little voice in our heads that tells us the difference between right and wrong started as the voice of someone who cared about us and whose approval was important to us.  For many children from Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods that someone will have to be a person from outside the home.  If Governor Hogan wants to address the cycle of violence in the city he should consider spending some of the state’s estimated $500 million budget surplus on services to Baltimore’s at-risk children using these programs as a model.

November 5, 2015

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