As economists and researchers, when we make comparisons between countries, counties, or cities, we typically focus on measures of economic development, including output, employment levels, and growth rates. However, these metrics don’t always tell the full story, as they don’t account for the opportunities, freedoms, or living environments that individuals within communities experience on a daily basis. Understanding human development is important not just to be able to measure and compare data, but to uncover inequalities and understand how they manifest over time. This knowledge can lead to better understanding of how policies can make a difference on individual and community wellbeing.
In 1990, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) introduced the Human Development Index (HDI), which serves as a comprehensive metric that measures community freedoms, the richness of human wellbeing, and the capabilities of individuals within societies. In particular, the HDI considers three dimensions of human wellbeing: health, measured by life expectancy; education, measured by mean years of schooling and expected years of schooling; and standards of living, measured by income per capita. In the UNDP’s most recent calculations of the HDI in 2016, the United States of America received a score of 0.920, which ranked as the tenth-highest score in the world. Yet, even within highly developed countries such as the United States, vast inequalities exist.
In fact, inequalities reflected by national indicators are often exacerbated when examined on a local level. Baltimore City is a perfect microcosm of the disparate levels of human development within the United States. By traveling from the northwest end of Baltimore to the west side of the inner city, the visible transition from affluence to poverty, opportunity to hardship, and health to suffering is palpable. To quantitatively estimate these inequalities, we applied the UNDP’s methodology for calculating the HDI at the neighborhood level in Baltimore City. The disparities that these calculations uncovered were shocking, and our research about their histories and consequences led to an in-depth whitepaper about human development in Baltimore City. The results of this research show that in Baltimore City, children raised in two different neighborhoods separated by a single street could be living in environments that are worlds apart.
Some neighborhoods, such as Greater Roland Park/Poplar Hill—which outperformed the United States’ national HDI with an index score of 0.979—have levels of health, education, and standards of living that are on par with countries with the highest levels of human development in the world, such as Singapore and Australia. By contrast, the neighborhood of Upton/Druid Heights has the lowest HDI across Baltimore City with an index score of 0.725; which falls outside the top 90 countries in the world, and ranks lower than countries such as Thailand and Colombia. These inequalities are a reflection of stark disparities within the health, education, and standards of living components of the HDI. For example, life expectancy ranges by 20.2 years across Baltimore City, as children born in Cross-Country/Cheswolde can expect to live until they are 87.1 years of age, whereas children born in Clifton-Berea have a life expectancy of only 66.9 years.
Disparities in HDIs across Baltimore City also have strong connections to social issues of the city’s past and present. As a result of Baltimore City’s deeply ingrained history of racial segregation and discrimination, neighborhoods that are predominately black/African-American are disproportionately impacted by low HDIs. In a city with a resident population that is 27.7 percent white and 62.4 percent black or African-American, white residents account for over 60 percent of the population in the ten neighborhoods with the highest HDIs. By contrast, seven of the ten neighborhoods with the lowest HDIs have a population that is over 90 percent black or African-American. These realities are perpetuated by systemic forces and unequal access to essential health, education, and economic resources that work to restrict inclusive human development in Baltimore City.
Furthermore, this research sheds new light on Baltimore City’s homicide epidemic. Recent studies in the field of social sciences, such as research published by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, have suggested that social and material inequalities exacerbate homicide rates and chronic violence in urban settings. Given Baltimore City’s 343 homicides in 2017, which set a citywide record-high homicide rate at 55.8 killings per 100,000 people, research about the impacts of inequality in Baltimore City is ever more imperative.
In Human Development Index Disparities in Baltimore City, the Regional Economic Studies Institute discusses these issues in detail, and identifies three strategies for working towards inclusive human development growth in Baltimore City, including expanding access to a healthy lifestyle, matching school resources to specific student needs, and reducing inequalities in economic opportunity. Encompassed in these strategies are discussions of specific policy priorities for Baltimore City, such as increasing the availability of healthy food in distressed neighborhoods, ensuring access to infant and maternal healthcare resources, creating safe and student-centered school environments, and expanding access to higher education. By adopting an inclusive approach to human development through investing in social policies that benefit neighborhoods that have been systemically excluded, Baltimore City as a whole can become more equitable and prosperous.