Economic decline underpins Baltimore protests

It's not just about the law enforcement.

The rioting this week in Baltimore has been blamed on anger and frustration over the April 19 death of a 25-year-old African-American man in police custody.

But the source of the widespread unrest in the city—and other distressed urban neighborhoods—stems largely from decades of economic decline and the dearth of services and opportunities for those left behind, according to some economists, urban policy experts and local observers.

After a night of rioting and arson, residents of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in Baltimore began clearing debris Tuesday morning as National Guard members joined local police in sections of the city that had seen the worst of the protests.

Protesters continued to seek a fuller explanation for what happened to Freddie Gray, who died from a spinal injury a week after being arrested by Baltimore police, while city and state officials sought to maintain calm after violence flared after a week of peaceful protests. The public outcry echoed similar protests of police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.

As the violence subsided, some of that outcry turned to the economic forces that have thwarted efforts to widen opportunities for city residents. In neighborhoods hit hardest by Monday's rioting, more than a third of families live in poverty. Some sections have not been rebuilt since the 1968 rioting that followed the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Since then, Baltimore—like a number of other, older American cities—has seen its economic base hollowed out by the flight of wealthier residents to the suburbs and businesses sending high-wage jobs overseas.

"You had good-paying jobs in manufacturing that offered tremendous opportunities for African-Americans in the '50s and '60s and those began to dry up in the '70s and more rapidly in the '80s," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "So the avenues to a secure middle-class life have really been cut off."

Read More Baltimore smolders after riot over black man's police-custody death

As those jobs left, so did the tax base to pay for city services, including education and training to prepare residents for better economic opportunities, said Baker.

"For the ones left behind the cities are in pretty bad financial shape," he said.

Basic services like water, for example, are badly in need of repair. Most of the pipes under the city's streets were put there before Elvis Presley recorded his first album. Since then, years of deferred maintenance have left behind a vast, leaky network—roughly 20 percent of the 225 million gallons of water flowing into the city from three huge reservoirs never makes it to a water customer.

To help pay for a 10-year, $3 billion plan of capital improvements, the city has had to pass along big increases in water rates that some residents couldn't afford. This week, the city water department sent shut-off notices to 25,000 delinquent customers, giving them 10 days to pay overdue bills or lose water service.

Read MoreThe trickle-down effect of Baltimore's crumbling infrastructure

As services deteriorate, business investment becomes more difficult to attract and the tax burden falls more heavily on those left behind. Urban policy experts and economists point to a vicious cycle of decline, where shrinking job opportunities further widen income disparities and inequality.

"It is not just low wages themselves that explain why greater Baltimore has so many low-income residents," wrote Brookings Institution fellow Jennifer Vey in a 2012 study of the city's' economy. "The region has an economic structure that for years has been producing too few decent-paying jobs that too few low-income workers are able to access."