By DAN RUSSO, MAGGIE DEBLASIS, and LEXIE SCHAPITL
Capital News Service
WASHINGTON — When Freddie Gray, 25, was pronounced dead on April 19 of last year, the news angered and frustrated the mourning citizens of Baltimore, causing some neighborhoods to spill onto the streets in protest.
The chaos and riots that enveloped the city catapulted Gray’s death to national prominence and exposed longstanding issues of chronic unemployment and lack of economic opportunity that exist in the city, according to state Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore.
“One community can’t be wealthy and the other community poor and you feel that justice prevails,” Pugh said of conditions in Baltimore. “It just doesn’t work that way.” She is a candidate for mayor in the April 26 primary.
Among Democratic voters in Tuesday’s presidential primary, income inequality has emerged as a central issue. And it is a regular debating point between the party’s two White House hopefuls, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Benjamin Orr, executive director of the Maryland Center for Economic Policy, said income inequality has received more attention this election cycle because the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in the state and across the country has gotten worse.
“There are still two Marylands: one high-income and one living in poverty,” Orr said.
Sanders has made similar observations about the United States dating to the 1980s and has made income inequality one of the primary themes of his campaign.
“Let’s be clear: the United States is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world,” Sanders said in a speech last June, “but the vast majority of our people don’t sense that, don’t feel that, because almost all of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few.”
Orr said income inequality “certainly seems to be one of the issues that voters are paying attention to.”
No wonder: income inequality is the highest it has been in the United States since the Great Depression, according to a study cited by the Pew Research Center,.
The study, conducted by Emmanuel Saez, a University of California-Berkeley economics professor, showed that the income disparity between the wealthy “1 percent” and the stagnated middle and working classes has steadily increased since the 1970s.
About 1 in 10 Marylanders – nearly 600,000 people – live in poverty, while more than 250,000 live in deep poverty, with incomes less than half of the poverty line, Orr said. Currently the poverty line is set at $11,880 for a single person.
Maryland has both one of the wealthiest counties in the country in Howard County, with a median income of $107,490, and one of the poorest cities in the country in Baltimore, with an average income of $42,655, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Such disparities have profound implications for public health, education and social justice.
The research of Kathryn Edin, a Johns Hopkins University sociology professor, supports the idea that income affects the trajectory of a child’s life.
At a Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing last week, Edin explained that Baltimore children who were moved from public housing into slightly better subsidized housing were more successful in life and “all [Edin and her team] did is give them a slightly better address.”
Some Maryland voters are well aware of the income inequality that exists not just in the state, but throughout the United States.
“Income inequality is very important,” said Takoma Park resident Larry Fischel, 64, who voted early for Sanders.
“It starts at the job and ends at the tax form,” he said, “so it really is mammoth and no one really talks about the inequality at the tax end. But two people working side by side and come home with tens of thousands of dollars of different income, that’s just totally unfair.”
Income inequality also was a deciding factor for Kerry Cesareo, 40, who voted for Hillary Clinton.
“I think she’s been particularly outspoken on the issue of income inequality – that matters a lot to me,” Cesareo said.
At a rally in Baltimore April 10, Clinton promised to do “everything in [her] power” to destroy the economic barriers not only in the country, but in Baltimore as well.
The former secretary of state currently leads Sanders in a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll 55 percent to 40 percent.
“We need to be focusing on how we can bring investment to places that need it,” she said in Baltimore. “As part of my [presidential] plan, I will direct hundreds of billions of dollars in new investments to places like West and East Baltimore, including 20 billion dollars aimed specifically at helping to create jobs for young people.”
Lessening the economic gap between classes might prove more difficult than simply reallocating money. Though the median income in Baltimore City was over $40,000, the per capita income for 2014 was $25,062. The Census Bureau also reported that around 24 percent of city residents lived in poverty.
“Those 600,000 Marylanders that live in poverty, many of whom are working, really struggle to pay their bills and put food on their tables and keep a roof over their heads,” Orr said.
“There’s a lot of missed economic activity that, if we were to reduce poverty and average Marylanders had a little bit more in their pockets for basic necessities, you would actually see more economic activity in the state’s economy,” he said.
(CNS reporters Connor Glowacki and Alexandra Pamias contributed to this story.)