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Fading Hope Among the Urban Poor

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Alex Kotlowitz

There’s been a lot of handwringing of late over the murder rate in Chicago. Everyone points out that last year’s number, 506, exceeded the previous year’s count by 16 percent. But if you look at the numbers over the past ten years, they tend to fluctuate, the rate hovering at various altitudes, all of them too high to be acceptable. There are probably a number of factors that account for this past year’s increase — warmer weather, a burglary ring that stole over 500 guns from suburban gun shops and then sold them on the streets in Chicago, the splintering of the city’s African-American gangs — but these just explain the fluctuation not the “Why.”

Let’s be honest, the vast majority of shootings in Chicago — and other cities — occur in deeply impoverished neighborhoods, and so it seems clear that the violence in our cities is tied to the fading hope among the urban poor, especially the young. There’s much we need to do — from making guns harder to come by to investing in mentoring programs (which have a surprisingly high impact on reducing violent behavior) to grappling with the trauma of those who have been victims and witnesses of the violence (there’s a remarkable program in Philadelphia, Healing Hurt People, which is doing just that). But in the end, we need to figure out a way to assure that if you’re growing up, say, in a neighborhood like Englewood on Chicago’s South Side that you have a solid future. Or at least a chance at a solid future. At the moment, that’s not a given. For many, it doesn’t even feel like a possibility. I remember when we were filming The Interrupters we had the opportunity to interview Paul Collier, a British economist who has written about poverty and what he calls the ‘conflict trap’ in the developing world, how economically stagnating countries tend to be also struggling with internal violence. Here’s what Collier observed about inner-city Chicago:

The one thing that’s worse than stagnation is knowing that you’re stagnating when everybody else is prospering. And that produces anger, right? Anger and frustration, and you don’t know who to blame. Sometimes you blame the foreigner, sometimes you blame people within your own society… And I guess that’s the same here; that the pockets of society that haven’t participated in the great post-war era of prosperity, they feel anger, they don’t know whether to turn inwards for recrimination, or to turn outwards for the blame.

So, where to begin? I would suggest a robust, serious, concerted effort to widen the window of opportunity for those growing up in our country’s poorest communities. This is not a new argument. This is not a new problem — the poverty or the violence. So I guess the real question is: How do we make this a part of the public conversation? How do we get the rest of us to sit up and take notice? How in the end do we provide what Collier calls ‘credible hope’ for those without?

Alex Kotlowitz is an award-winning journalist best known for his book There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America. Kotlowitz worked with documentary filmmaker Steve James to produce The Interrupters, a film inspired by Kotlowitz’s 2008 New York Times Magazine article “Blocking the Transmission of Violence.” Check out his recent This American Life segment comparing the effect of urban violence to the trauma of war.

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  • TheTransAtlanticRailroad

    If we’re going to play with psycho-social constructs, why not bring up Learned Helplessness? How much of the continuing carnage in the poor parts of Chicago results from a sense that we can talk (or write) all we want but nothing will change? Gun worshipers who support an absolutist and extremist interpretation of the 2nd Amendment have already admitted they will wait for the post-Newtown furor to fade as such furor always has faded in the past. In service of that notion we have pandering Congresspersons cautioning Americans against demanding rational gun legislation when feeling the passions stirred by Newtown and other tragedies. Meanwhile, we have gun worshipers overtly trying to evoke fear by testifying to Congress about the what-ifs of hypothetical mothers protecting their hypothetical babies against hypothetical crazed criminal home invaders. Maybe, along with Learned Helplessness, we need to insert our understanding of Paranoid Personality Disorder and Cognitive Dissonance Theory as well?

  • Cynthia Faisst

    I remember returning from Japan in 1992 when I was greeted with South Central LA going up in flames after a smaller economic down turn. As the poor observed the rest of the country moving forward while leaving them and their children behind. Will we add insult to injury by handling their frustration with brute force again or will we have learned something. I was gripped by the obligation to my teacher in Japan to make a difference. We can’t wait till children are 6 or 8 years old to protect children from the violence that poverty brings. We should be flooding these communities with access to music and the arts from birth if possible. All children and their parents need to be armed with resources that give them access to hope.

    Growing evidence appears to demonstrate that music plays a key role in helping children develop the impulse control which gives them enhanced access to educational environments. El Sistema is a growing movement planted here in the US which speaks to using music as an agent of social change.

    El Sistema, Music Education, and Executive Functioning

    Poverty Goes Straight to the Brain

    Play On, Philly!: Music for Social Change

    Its not enough to stop after we confront gun violence with the effective legislation. We have to do the proactive things that transform poverty in America. We have the tools to prepare our communities for the future, but we need to start planting them deep and early.

  • Texsbill Gran

    important content nicely dunn alex. usa spends smaller % of gdp on education & social programs than any other highly developed country. as for gun control…funny how U.S. government can pass laws to take away our privacy – to increase our safety – but cannot or will not pass laws to that reduce the number of guns & weapons across our country to increase our safety.

  • Anonymous

    This is the first message on here since the tragic murder of six-month old Jonylah Watkins occurred earlier this month. This was another story which received national attention, and no doubt more so had it not been for coinciding with both the election of a new Pope and the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war. This should be the tragedy to galvanize the entire communities but there is obviously a vicious circle at play here. One turn of the circle is indicative that the lack of opportunity created by lack of jobs is a core problem, but the other turn is that the primary urge of most shoppers and business owners alike is to steer clear of locations known for criminal involvement. Then the bottom line becomes that until the massive crime problem is solved no or at least very few business of any stripe will be willing to locate there. So we have to hope that in death Jonylah can be a modern day princess of peace.