Mikulski’s Red Line

Originally published in the Herald-Mail

Thomas A. Firey Dec 14, 2016

This January 3rd, for the first time in 40 years, Barbara Mikulski will not be a member of the U.S. Congress. The 80-year-old announced last year that she would not seek a sixth term in the Senate, bringing a close to the longest tenure of a woman lawmaker on Capitol Hill.

Following her announcement, Mikulski was lauded by her Democratic and Republican senatorial colleagues and by Maryland newspaper editorial pages. That was appropriate; she has distinguished herself as hardworking and dedicated to improving her constituents’ welfare as she conceives it.

That does not mean all of her decisions in office have been laudable. One particular decision stands out, one that cannot be explained as an understandable error borne of faulty information, flawed thinking, complexity or moral uncertainty. To make a full assessment of her career requires that we consider the decision she made concerning the Moving to Opportunity program.

Mikulski joined the Senate in 1987 and soon landed a plum assignment on the Appropriations Committee, which writes the legislation allocating federal funds to various government agencies and other organizations. She then became chair of the subcommittee overseeing appropriations for housing and urban development programs. This was an important position from which the East Baltimore native could deliver federal largesse to her troubled hometown.

Today, America’s major cities typically are centers of growing affluence. Their condition was very different in the late 20th century. Many cities were still heavily scarred from the race riots of the late 1960s. “White flight” had reduced inner cities to segregated zones of poverty and desperation. The crack cocaine epidemic spread addiction and black market violence. And far too often, financially irresponsible city governments incompetently managed important public services. American cities, it was often said, were dying.

Fortunately, reformers on both the political left and right were willing to try new policies to improve the cities and the lives of their residents. One effort was to blow up—in some cases, literally—public housing projects built in the mid-20th century, which in many cases had become blighted and crime-ridden. The projects were to be replaced with different forms of housing assistance that were intended not only to provide shelter for the poor, but give them other opportunities to improve their lives.

One such effort was the Moving To Opportunity (MTO) program. Instead of building public housing for the poor, MTO gave them vouchers to help cover rent for market-provided housing. Innovatively, the program required beneficiaries to move out of impoverished neighborhoods and into communities with low poverty levels, and only a few MTO households could locate to any particular neighborhood. Program designers hoped this would weaken the social dynamics that contributed to poverty.

Early research suggested the program had positive effects on the children of MTO households. They appeared to do better in school after an initial adjustment period,[1] and subsequent research indicates they have higher incomes when they become young adults.[2] Another important finding was that MTO didn’t reduce property values in the receiving neighborhoods, indicating that the presence of a few MTO households didn’t hurt the communities’ quality of life.[3] The program does not magically transform poor households into middle-class households,[4] but MTO does seem to help the children of poor families without harming their middle-class neighbors.

Encouraged by two enthusiastic and wonkish housing secretaries, Republican Jack Kemp and Democrat Henry Cisneros, federal lawmakers decided to fund several pilot MTO programs nationwide. One was slated for Baltimore, a city that has long struggled with high levels of racial segregation and poverty.[5]

Unfortunately, Baltimore’s suburban neighbors weren’t enthused. When, in late 1993, word of the impending program reached such blue-collar communities as Dundalk and Essex, the residents rebelled. They worried that MTO would hurt their property values (which is understandable because their homes were typically their major source of wealth), weaken local schools and raise crime rates. Led by Louis DePazzo, an out-of-office Democratic politician who was eyeing a Baltimore County Council seat, residents angrily protested MTO to political leaders and community assistance organizations.

The next year, 1994, was an election year. Mikulski’s seat was not up, but several other important offices were, including the governorship, all U.S. House of Representative seats, and all state legislature seats. Baltimore-area politicians—Democrats and Republicans alike—used opposition to MTO as a way to attract votes. Apparently to help the Democratic cause, Mikulski used her subcommittee chairmanship to kill the Baltimore MTO program, reallocating the money to a different housing program.

It would be grossly unfair to claim that she acted out of racism or malevolence to Baltimore’s disadvantaged. Indeed, Mikulski has regularly used her position on the Appropriations Committee to deliver federal assistance to her low-income constituents.

However, it is fair to say that when she had the opportunity to bring to Baltimore a program that appeared to be especially promising for addressing one of the city’s most serious and painful problems, she instead chose political expedience. This shows the corrupting power of election-year politics.

Thomas A. Firey is a senior fellow with the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a Washington County native.

[1] David Moberg. “No Vacancy! Denial, Fear and the Rumor Mill Waged a War Against Moving to Opportunity in Baltimore’s Suburbs.” Shelterforce (National Housing Institute) 79, January/February 1995.

[2] Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence F. Katz. “The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children: New Evidence from the Moving To Opportunity Experiment.” American Economic Review 106(4): 855-902 (2016).

[3] George C. Galster, Peter Tatian, and Robin Smith. “The Impact of Neighbors Who Use Section 8 Certificates on Property Values.” Housing Policy Debate 10(4): 879-916 (1999).

[4] Jeffrey Kling, Jeffrey Liebman, and Lawrence Katz. “Experimental Analysis of Neighborhood Effects.” Econometrica 75(1): 83-119 (2007).

[5] Information on the Baltimore experience with MTO is taken from the following sources: Michael A. Fletcher, “Mikulski, Champion of Liberal Causes, Led Fight to Kill MTO,” Baltimore Sun, Sept. 25, 1994; Karen DeWitt, “Housing Voucher Test in Maryland Is Scuttled by a Political Firestorm,” New York Times, March 28, 1995; Dan Rodricks, “Time for Leaders to Do Right Thing for Baltimore’s Poorest Kids,” Baltimore Sun, May 24, 2015.