East Baltimore: Where the recession never ended

Amy Scott Aug 16, 2011

East Baltimore: Where the recession never ended

Amy Scott Aug 16, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: The problem with official government economic numbers is that the American economy is so big, there’s an inherent degree of uncertainty in any given measurement. That 9.2 percent unemployment rate is as good an example as any. Fine as a national average, but there are plenty of places where it’s a lot higher. And again, that’s just officially.

Millions of people have dropped out of the workforce altogether over the past couple of years. Marketplace’s Amy Scott spent some time in such a place this week.

Amy Scott: One thing Baltimore still has going for it is its public markets where stalls sell fresh produce, meat and fish.

At Northeast Market in East Baltimore, I found Dwayne Robertson eating clams off the shell with horseradish and a splash of hot sauce.

Dwayne Robertson: Yeah, I like hot, spicy stuff.

Robertson is 48. He supports a 3-year-old daughter with unemployment checks and odd jobs. He lives with his sister. He lost his job as a maintenance worker almost a year ago.

Robertson: Online, I may have like 200 to 300 applications. In the street, I may have about 75. And out of all the applications I’ve put in, I may have had four interviews.

In this neighborhood, unemployment is well over 20 percent. But most people older than 16 aren’t even in the workforce.

Robertson: Everybody is basically unemployed. Especially most of the males. There’s no work for them. They have a lot of programs, like job readiness programs, but they’re not helping ’em find jobs. Because I’ve been through maybe three of those, and still I’m unemployed.

Lucinda Brown has a job in a supermarket, part-time, making $7.50 an hour. But like a lot of people here, she never really noticed the recovery.

Lucinda Brown: Have you seen any improvement in the economy over the last couple years? Not one bit. Not one bit. It’s still the same, and if it ain’t the same, it’s getting worse.

Brown is 27. A single mom supporting two kids. She’d love to move to a better neighborhood but can’t afford to.

Brown: The crime rate goes up. Theft is basically the highest. I done seen somebody snatch money from an old lady and took off, so it’s bad.

Scott: Do you feel safe with your kids here?

Brown: No. I don’t feel safe at all. That’s why I stay in the house unless I’m going to work.

Scott: Do you feel safe at work?

Brown: No.

East Baltimore is struggling, not from the latest recession, but from decades of losing population and jobs.

Richard Clinch: When you’re talking about urban distressed neighborhoods you’re talking about areas that are only marginally attached to the national economy, so they can’t get much worse than 20-percent unemployment.

Richard Clinch is director of Economic Research at the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute.

He says what the recession did was halt some of the recovery that was underway here.

Clinch: And should we go into a double dip recession, which is looking somewhat likely now, you can see development activities that were starting to restart in some of these communities stop.

So what does long-term unemployment look like? Block after block of boarded up buildings. Crime, drugs, failing schools.

Harry Bennett: Ever look down the street? You see them open lots? This whole area is gonna crumble until somebody says okay we’ve got some jobs available. Let’s get back to work.

Harry Bennett is out of work. He’s eating lake trout, a Baltimore specialty. Bennett is an engineer trained to build computers, but his last job was selling paint Home Depot.

He’s 65 and finally started drawing social security after his unemployment benefits ran out

Bennett: That’s the only income I have right now. I feel like I’ve been robbed, because I have a lot of knowledge. I cannot use it, and I can’t give it away because nobody wants it.

And it’ll take a much stronger national recovery to put people like Bennett back to work.

In Baltimore, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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