Researching Public Law and Public Policy in the Public Interest

The Rough Ride from Baltimore to a Place Near You

Ten-year-old Robert Dunn uses a megaphone during a protest against police brutality and the death of Freddie Gray outside the Baltimore Police Western District station in Baltimore on April 22, 2015. Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images.

The death of Freddie Gray, a 25 year-old black man, in the custody of Baltimore police appeared to be just another suspicious death of an unarmed black person in what had become a litany.  It followed the deaths of Walter Scott in South Carolina, and before him Eric Davis in Mississippi and before him Akai Gurley, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Eric Garner going back to last summer.  The country was not numb to acts of apparent police brutality anymore—far from it.  But we had begun to study and protest its occurrences with the conviction of reformists, in a posture familiar to blacks fleeing serial lynchings during the early part of the Great Migration.

And then Baltimore exploded.  Large multiracial protest marches there demanded justice for a young man whose only basis for a police officer’s reasonable suspicion was making eye contact and running—both constitutionally protected activity—and whose violent death, a nearly severed spine and a crushed larynx while traveling facedown and unaided in the back of a police vehicle, reflected the continued dehumanization of black bodies at the hands of police, a ragdoll death of a human being by callous officers of the state.  Unless a factual investigation says otherwise, Gray was the apparent victim of what is known in some Baltimore neighborhoods as “a rough ride.”

But the violence and looting in Baltimore’s profoundly impoverished Sandtown neighborhood—the destruction of buildings and cars, the rock throwing at police by young men—expressed something even more systemic than frustration with police brutality.  It spoke in the loud, inarticulate and often self-defeating language of extreme marginalization.  A riot is always hard to read and impossible to condone.  But as a radio caller put it on WOLB:

“I’m 45 years old and my whole life has been a state of emergency.”

Translated into the terminology of structural inequality, what happened in Baltimore says a lot about the geography of opportunity—and the growing intolerance about its disparities.  Baltimore may be a largely Democratic city, with a black mayor, black state’s attorney and black police chief, but its poor black residents have experienced decades of high unemployment, segregation, weak schools, rampant crime and violence, drug (especially heroin) addiction and, indeed, a distrusted police department with a reputation for excessive force.  According to a Baltimore Sun investigation, the City of Baltimore has paid about 100 victims settlements totaling almost $6 million for police brutality claims since 2011, a figure subject to a statutory limit ($200,000) and not including legal fees.  

In contrast, Ferguson, MO’s local elected officials are majority white in a majority black city, indicating some of the transitional differences between inner-ring suburbs and central cities.  But where there are differences, there are real similarities in the lived experiences of African-American populations seeking both opportunity and justice.  In Ferguson, the Justice Department has already completed its report of both governmental and police abuses.  In Baltimore, Attorney General Loretta Lynch recently announced that the Justice Department will conduct a “pattern and practice” investigation.

What may lead to a sense of justice on the policing front, however, is far from a solution to problems of structural opportunity.  The connection between police abuse and structural inequality—what President Obama called a “slow-rolling crisis”—begins with place.  Indeed, one may know the connection by the disconnection.  The disconnect that many Americans feel from the problem of police brutality results from living in places where it is uncommon.  As is poverty.  As are weak and dangerous schools.  As is a sense of social and economic isolation.  The chronic “state of emergency” experienced by the caller quoted above is a combination of all of these things.  In the language of metropolitan equity, West Baltimore and parts of Ferguson both represent places in which the public institutions (and to a lesser extent private ones) most associated with facilitating opportunities do not adequately support them.  In fact, as the discussion of new research below demonstrates, growing up in the county of Baltimore, MD has significant depressive effects on the future income of children there—more than any other county in the nation’s list of 100 largest metro areas.

Why the focus on place-based institutions?  Because law enforcement is a public institution, perceived as a venal occupier in one area of town and a stabilizing presence in others.  Schools are public institutions, recognized as dangerous buildings in which preparedness is rare and relative in some neighborhoods, the jewel of mobility and property wealth in others.  The list of disparate institutional experiences goes on to include parks, infrastructure management, transportation and (subsidized) housing.  Public institutions affect economic markets, too.  The CVS that was burned during Baltimore’s Sandtown riot was one of the only stores around and a critical pharmacy for elderly residents.  Its loss will have devastating effects for vulnerable residents, an indication of how fragile isolated neighborhoods are.

Research available here on the CLiME website indicates how difficult it can be for residents of dispossessed communities to leave them for stronger institutions, information networks and economic opportunities (see, e.g., Sharkey, Stuck in Place).  However, two new studies by Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz, released within days of Baltimore’s riot, teach us a great deal about the importance of place in reversing the experience of resource scarcity.  In the first, “The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children: New Evidence from the Moving to Opportunity Experiment,” the authors re-examined data from the Clinton-era demonstration project that randomly assigned hundreds of poor families from public housing projects in five central cities through housing vouchers.  The experimental group of housing voucher holders moved from the control areas where over 40 percent of families with children lived in poverty to low-poverty areas where family poverty rates could not exceed 10 percent.  The results were significant for children below the age of 13.  Their incomes, high school graduation and college attendance rates all increased rather dramatically; young women were far less likely to get pregnant.

We estimate that moving a child out of public housing to a low-poverty area when young (at age 8 on average) using an MTO-type experimental voucher will increase the child’s total lifetime earnings by about $302,000. This is equivalent to a gain of $99,000 per child moved in present value at age 8, discounting future earnings at a 3% interest rate. The increased earnings of children ultimately leads to significant benefits to taxpayers as well. Children whose families took up experimental vouchers before they were 13 pay an extra $394 per year in federal income taxes during their mid-twenties. If these gains persist in subsequent years of adulthood, the additional tax revenue obtained from these children will itself offset the incremental cost of the experimental voucher treatment relative to providing public housing. Thus, our findings suggest that housing vouchers which (1) require families to move to lower-poverty areas and (2) are targeted at low-income families with young children can reduce the intergenerational persistence of poverty and ultimately save the government money.

The Moving to Opportunity study indicates that the gains expected from that HUD-sponsored experiment took longer to harvest than previously thought, but nonetheless underscored the importance of place in determining access to opportunity.  The societal costs are also significant.  Earlier studies had shown measurable improvements in the psychological health of families who moved to low-poverty areas, but had not yet registered direct economic benefits.

In the second study, “The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility: Childhood Exposure Effects and County-Level Estimates,” Chetty and Hendren examined tax return data on the parents of 5 million children whose families moved across counties from 1996 to 2012.  They found significant “childhood exposure effects” for every year a child spends in a better—or worse—neighborhood as measured by the outcomes of people already living there.  In fact, the results were “equal and opposite.”  Moving to a low-opportunity area produced the same gains as moving to low-opportunity areas produced disadvantages.  A child’s gender sometimes increased the effects.  “For example, every extra year of childhood exposure to Baltimore reduces earnings by 1.39% for low-income boys, but only 0.27% for girls. Areas with high crime rates and a large fraction of single parents generate particularly negative outcomes for boys relative to girls.”

Institutions matter, as the authors show, by singling out five primary causes in the higher rates of mobility by place: “less segregation by income and race, lower levels of income inequality, better schools, lower rates of violent crime, and a larger share of two-parent households.”  In addition to schools and law enforcement, we can understand the other three factors as dependent on institutional dynamics as well.  Segregation today is reproduced by racially neutral governmental decisions to circumscribe housing markets through zoning, barriers to affordability and other local government regulation.  Public and private institutions cooperate in producing income inequality by, for example, depressing wages and disfavoring unions.  These, in turn, affect markets.  Even the institution of marriage—reflected in shares of two-parent households—is influenced by institutional rules that affect the social and financial attractiveness of getting married and, in the case of very poor neighborhoods, the availability of non-incarcerated partners.

So the disconnect between those who question the prevalence of either police brutality or racial inequality and those who assert it remains oftentimes a question of where one lives.  Segregated attitudes sometimes reflect segregated living patterns, reinforced perhaps by the belief that proximity to people of a different race or class destabilizes opportunity where one comfortably lives.  In light of what Baltimore and Ferguson reveal, this deserves two responses.

First, opportunity secured may not be as fragile as in the places where it is absent.  According to Chetty:  “Areas that produce better outcomes for children in low-income families are, on average, no worse for those from high-income families. This finding suggests that the success of the poor need not come at the expense of the rich, implying that social mobility is not a ‘zero-sum game.’”

Second, the zero-sum mindset suggests the kind of opportunity hoarding that is rarely discussed in the discourse of social mobility.  New preliminary research from scholars at the University of Minnesota and chronicled in The Atlantic indicates that whites in the United States are re-segregating at rates higher than many might think, capturing wealth and enclosing it in racially and culturally homogenous enclaves.  Where we tend to focus on racially segregated areas of concentrated poverty to tell the story of marginalization, these researchers shift our gaze to the affluent correlates of these places.  (David Rusk and I are reaching similar conclusions in our ongoing study of fourteen Northern New Jersey counties.)

Ed Goetz, Tony Damiano, and Jason Hicks identified what they called racially concentrated areas of affluence (RCAA), census tracts that are both 90 percent white and have median incomes of four times the regional poverty rate.  These communities abound.  Metropolitan areas like Baltimore have more RCAA than they do racially concentrated areas of poverty (RCAP), 31 to 23.  They are also separated by great physical distance.  On average, RCAA are about 21 miles from the city’s downtown, while RCAP are 6.6 miles away (in Baltimore, most are much closer to the city’s core).  This research shows that the gulfs that typify conversations about widening inequality are not merely figurative.

Justice for the victims of police brutality is largely a matter of the criminal law.  In Freddie Gray’s case, the Baltimore state’s attorney has filed various charges, including murder, against the six officers in contact with him during his fatal ride in custody.  We will all learn from the trial.

But reaching the underlying causes of marginalization and a chronic lack of opportunity requires a different focus—and our collective attention to how opportunity is institutionally denied, sustained and divided in metropolitan America.  This is our work at CLiME, and we have lots to do.