President Donald Trump’s tweets over the weekend calling Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings’ district a “rat and rodent infested disaster,” have sparked a conversation about poverty and the policies that have failed to alleviate it.
The district, which includes most of Baltimore, is majority black and heavily Democratic, voting overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016. According to the Census Bureau, nearly 17 percent of residents have incomes below the poverty level, about 5 percentage points higher than the national average.
"Instead of bad-mouthing Baltimore, and instead of engaging in these racist diatribes, the president could help us with the challenges we face in the city," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat.
Both Van Hollen and Sen. Ben Cardin, also a Maryland Democrat, pointed to infrastructure projects as a way direct federal spending can work toward alleviating poverty in Baltimore.
Cardin highlighted plans to expand the Howard Street tunnel as one such project to increase economic opportunity. The tunnel, which carries freight to the Port of Baltimore, is in Cummings’ district and was approved for $125 million in federal funding last week.
But in the big picture, transportation and other infrastructure projects won’t have much impact on alleviating poverty, said Leah Brooks, a professor who specializes in urban economics at George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration.
“Those are a small share of overall federal spending in a given area," Brooks said.
While one-time projects and hand-outs may relieve poverty in the short term, she said, on the federal level it’s policies that survive over the longer term, like the earned income tax credit, that make a difference. Low-income families can qualify for the tax credit, which varies based on income and the number of children in the household.
But Brooks said there’s one way the federal government could make the biggest impact toward reducing poverty.
"I think if you ask almost any economist,” Brooks said, “they'll tell you that the best return on your investment for making people less poor in the long run is to invest in education."
Relative to the size of its budget as a whole, the federal government does not invest much in primary education. But Van Hollen wants to boost that funding. He said it’s among several of his legislative proposals that aim to help raise Baltimore residents out of poverty.
"I've introduced a bill that would dramatically boost federal investment in Title I schools. These are schools in lower income neighborhoods throughout Baltimore,” Van Hollen said.
Van Hollen suggested that Trump could back the effort.
“He could announce that today,” he said.
Schools qualify for Title I funding if at least 40% of students come from low-income households. Last year, Baltimore City schools, which enroll just under 80,000 students, received almost $63 million in Title I funds. But support to expand the program isn’t likely, as Republicans and Democrats continue to spar over most policy proposals on Capitol Hill.
Cardin said he blames Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for the chamber not approving more assistance to high-poverty districts like Cummings’ slice of Baltimore.
"One person determines the agenda here,” Cardin said. “And that's Leader McConnell, and he won't bring these issues up."
It’s unlikely any of these issues will come up before lawmakers return to Washington after Labor Day. When they get back, they'll be in full-swing negotiations over federal spending for the next fiscal year.