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Washington's cuts come to the streets of Baltimore

05 August 11 00:02
Minister David Bordley
By Mark Gregory
BBC News

This gritty, former port city is less than an hour away from the US capital by train.

But it feels a world apart from the glitz and power of the White House and Capitol Hill.

After weeks of partisan wrangling, Congress approved a plan that lifts the ceiling on how much money the US government is allowed to borrow in return for a likely 2.4 trillion dollars (£1.47tn) of spending cuts over ten years.

The worry for Baltimore is the debt deal heralds an era of government austerity that could reduce the flow of Federal funds to an already struggling local economy.

The city is known to the world through the hit musical and movie Hairspray, which explores racial tensions in the early 1960s, the period of de-segregation and the civil rights movement.

More recently, the drug, gang and crime culture of its ghettos has become familiar to a new generation of viewers through The Wire, an acclaimed TV series.

Two thirds of Baltimore's 700,000 population is black. The city remains geographically divided on racial lines. Incomes are typically well below the US average.

But there have been some success stories.

The expensively renovated harbour area has become something of a Mecca for tourism.

A number of financial companies have sizeable offices in Baltimore, providing a badly needed source of relatively well paid jobs.

However, those jobs in the main do not go to the kind of people who do their shopping at Lexington Market, a large, colourful but scruffy looking indoor shopping centre in a low income, black neighbourhood.

There's hardly a white face in sight.

Not many of the shoppers seem to have studied the debt deal agreed by Congress in any great detail.

But there is widespread distrust of politicians and a general feeling that Federal government spending cuts are bound to hit people on low incomes.

"It doesn't matter if the policies are made by Democrats or Republicans, we're going to feel the effects anyway. We feel overlooked because we're the lower class", says Eddie, a Baltimore resident.

"Since they're not taxing a lot of stuff, someway down the line there's a lot of stuff they're going to cut", he continues, referring to the debt plan's emphasis on trimming the US government's budget deficit through spending reductions rather than tax hikes.


Gregory Shrubbs is a stall holder at the market. He runs a small business that makes and sells moisturising products. Not surprisingly, perhaps, his beef with the debt plan is Republican insistence that tax concessions for big businesses such as oil companies should be retained.

Small firms like his, he claims, "are doing all the work. They don't get no tax breaks".

He believes it is "unfair that big firms pay less tax as they're employing fewer and fewer people." It is small firms that are driving the economy, while large companies are, in his words, "fat cats getting all the benefits".

Mr Shrubbs does accept that the government must cut spending. However, he is worried the pain won't be evenly spread.

Those people who are "living from pay check to pay check, fighting to make ends meet", will suffer disproportionately from any cuts to Medicare and social security spending, he said.

A splendidly dressed man wearing a red hat turns out to be a minister in the Baptist Church, who works with ex-offenders among many other charitable causes.

Minister David Bordley worries about the possible erosion of federally financed social security and healthcare schemes.

"Government programmes are already being cut, especially for the elderly," he says.

Rage and frustration

The cuts are forcing senior citizens to "make difficult choices about paying for the medical treatments they need on a daily basis," he explains.

Many other people at Lexington market express similar concerns, though it is hard to tell how much is directly linked to the debate about the Federal budget deficit and how much is the general rage and frustration felt by those at the bottom of the pile.

The picture is much the same in another part of town: Franklin Square Park, in West Baltimore, seen as one of the city's most deprived areas.

But you wouldn't guess this from the look of some of the buildings. The park itself is an area of green surrounded by fine 19th century town houses built for wealthy people before they fled the inner city for the suburbs.

Brian Austin, a community worker, says areas like West Baltimore are unusually dependent on Federal largesse because they don't have the income from local property taxes that richer communities can rely on to fund spending.

He has an important sounding job title: director for community engagement at the Citizens Planning and Housing Association.

Brian's main concern is what could happen in future if sources of Federal funding continue to diminish.

"Two years down the line, four years down the line, eight years down the line it's going to be tough for people like myself to help maintain the community. It's already got worse in the last year," he said.

Baltimore's problems go back a long way, but many in this city fear that a solution to the US government's budget problems that relies on lower spending without raising more revenue from higher taxes could make an already bleak situation a whole lot worse.

Low income earners in Baltimore are sizing up what the eleventh hour debt deal agreed by the politicians in Washington earlier this week means for them.

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