Elijah Cummings

As legal proceedings move forward in the wake of the death of Mr. Freddie Gray, we must also seize this moment in our history to better understand and respond to the underlying social and economic conditions that contributed to the unrest and violence that have endangered the future of our community.

In recent weeks, the acts of kindness shown by our neighbors toward each other have been inspiring, efforts by our city’s elected and social leaders to bring about healing have been promising, and serious consideration of policing reform has proceeded at all levels of government.

Yet, this also must be a time for all of us to work for broader reforms that extend beyond the interactions of citizens with our police and speak to the daily struggles of people’s lives.

We must respond to the struggle of too many of our neighbors to educate themselves and their families, their struggle to achieve skills that justify a living wage, their struggle to gain safe, affordable housing, and their struggle to get to and from work quickly and affordably.

Meeting these most basic challenges was the subject of an investigative forum in Baltimore by the combined forces of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Joint Economic Committee. Our objective at the University of Baltimore was constructive, achievable change that will speak directly to those challenges that are at the center of people’s lives — and the ways in which the federal government can work more effectively and efficiently with state and local stakeholders to bring about that change.

In Baltimore and other major cities, too many Black families continue to suffer from disinvestment and poverty. Black Americans are almost three times more likely to live in poverty than our white countrymen and women.

As documented in the April 14, 2015 report by the Democratic staff of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee , the current unemployment rate for Black Americans is more than double the jobless rate for Caucasians; the average income of African American households is nearly $24,000 less; and the average net worth of white households is 13 times that of African American families.

Here in Maryland, these dramatic disparities are why we all should welcome the well-reasoned and achievable blueprint for change released this month by the Opportunity Collaborative of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

Funded by a $3.5 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the “Baltimore Regional Plan for Sustainable Development” offers a menu of serious, practical and effective steps to reduce the extensive pockets of generational poverty that beleaguer our region.

While noting and building upon our region’s many economic strengths, the planners also acknowledge the challenges that we must face squarely and overcome — including the historic loss of living wage jobs as Baltimore’s manufacturing base diminished, the continuing limitations within our public transportation network and the lack of safe, affordable housing near employment centers.

Taken together, these forces have trapped far too many of our neighbors in pockets of extreme, multi-generational poverty.

Research by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren has ranked Baltimore among the weakest of 2,478 U.S. jurisdictions in empowering poor children to achieve better lives as adults. That is a devastating social and economic failure that we must work together to change.

We have a moral obligation to fight for reform. Yet, I readily acknowledge my preference for initiatives that are both practical and achievable.

In my view, the Metropolitan Council’s Baltimore Regional Plan is both — and I strongly encourage everyone concerned about the future of our community to review its prescriptions for change at opportunitycollaborative.org.

The Council and its Collaborative of leaders argue that we can more effectively reduce the poverty that is limiting our community’s potential by focusing squarely upon “mid-skilled jobs that pay a family-supporting wage.”

That prescription appears reasonable to me.

Although current job opportunities that pay a living wage in the Baltimore Region typically require a college degree, a number of industries do offer that level of employment to high school graduates with certified, targeted skills.

The Collaborative has identified healthcare, construction, information technology, transportation and logistics, business services and manufacturing as industries that offer at least 39 occupations in which workers can progress into mid-skilled, family-supporting jobs.

According to the planners, these industries are projected to hire nearly 36,000 mid-skilled employees in the Baltimore Region by the year 2020.

It follows, then, that government and the private sector should work together to provide workforce training that will qualify more of our neighbors for those positions.

We also should expand public transit services that will better connect workers with jobs and training opportunities in suburban job centers.

Finally, to the extent possible, we should encourage more affordable housing near existing and planned job centers.

The planners working with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council are under no illusion that these reforms will be easily achieved. Yet, with sustained political will, we can get this job done.

By pursuing concrete steps that reduce the pockets of poverty in our region, we can assure that everyone gains. They are a practical prescription for reform.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives