As an editorial in the Boston Globe put it: "No one really pays much attention to the daily one-by-one carnage, since the shooters are disproportionately young black men.” But more than the race of the individuals involved is the geography where the crime is located.
As a society we seem to accept as natural or inevitable that there will be a higher level of crime and violence in areas of concentrated poverty. But we rarely stop to consider why this happens. Conservatives offer victim-blaming theories about how welfare and single mothers are to blame. But what explanations do progressives offer? Sometimes community leaders reach for minor variations on the lax morals arguments of right-wingers by talking about self-respect and dignity as the antidotes to crime. Or sometimes we hear heartfelt appeals to “just put the guns down,” as if life is simply a negotiation with a hostage-taker.
We rarely hear people talking about the economic root of crime in our communities. But as an editorial by Michael Shank points out, “violence is directly and strongly correlated with socio-economic data.” We already know this at a gut level, but don’t take the time to consider how economic inequality, mass unemployment and systematic disinvestment aren’t just correlated with crime but actually are the root cause.
Nearly a century ago, it seems that it wasn’t such a radical idea to see economics at the root of crime. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt cast the New Deal as a crime-prevention program, saying “through a broad program of social welfare, we struck at the very roots of crime itself … Our citizens who have been out of work in the last six years have not needed to steal in order to keep from starving.”
But today, budget cuts to social welfare programs ensure that too many people living in communities that are essentially job desserts have very limited legal means for providing for themselves and their families. Furthermore, large segments of our communities are effectively barred from employment in law-abiding industry because of the boxes on employment applications that enable discrimination against formerly-incarcerated people who happen to constitute a large portion of the working age population in communities of color. In the face of such dire circumstances, too often the rational economic decision is to make money outside of the legally sanctioned avenues, and not because drug-dealers make huge profits either but just to survive(as anyone who read Freakonomics knows, drug dealers earn the minimum wage in a high-risk job).
What would it look like today if we took a page out of the New Deal and saw job creation as crime prevention? It surely wouldn’t have prevented the shootings in Colorado, but might have prevented any of the drug related shootings that happened across this country but never made national headlines (two in LaCrosse Wisconsin over the weekend, another two in Houston last week).