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The Nation’s Most Segregated City

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John Roman

Much has been written about the decline in crime in the United States over the past twenty years. The violent crime rate in 1980 was almost five times 1960s’ rate and it remained depressingly high for a decade. But in the early 1990s, crime began its decline and rates of violence dropped by a third by 2000. The consensus among researchers was that big macro trends that effected every city — mainly mass incarceration and the end of the crack epidemic — were responsible.

In 2007, crime rates fell again and by 2011, violent crime was down another 20 percent. But this second crime decline was different and only some cities experienced large reductions in violence. In New York City homicides declined more than 15 percent in five years while homicide in Chicago increased more than 10 percent. Chicago’s homicide rate is now about triple NYC’s.

Old explanations don’t hold up today; New York has steadily reduced its prison population, and crack use in both New York and Chicago is far below peak rates in the 90s. This suggests that this second crime decline is not due to big macro trends but instead is about the nature of communities within cities.

So, why hasn’t Chicago replicated New York’s success? I believe the answer lies in economic segregation. Chicago is the most racially segregated big city in America, and among the most economically segregated. Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson has written extensively about cumulative disadvantage, which is the idea that all sorts of health and economic problems tend to cluster in places that are segregated by race. Structural features of those places — poverty, density, isolation — put them at great risk of higher rates of crime and violence. Reducing those risks leads to safer cities.

Crime policy has long been primarily about security and control of these segregated places. But the United States has never been able to arrest its way out of its crime problem. A much better strategy is to unleash market forces through tax credits enticing businesses to move into non-traditional business districts, taxing blighted properties at draconian rates, and changing zoning laws to promote gentrification (but encourage poorer residents to stay). In short, our policy should be to actively juxtapose prosperity with poverty to vaccinate the crime-infected places and stop the epidemic. In the short-term, this strategy will cost a lot in dollars and political capital, but in the long-term, it is the most promising means of reducing violence and de-segregating neighborhoods.


John Roman is a Senior Fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he focuses on evaluations of innovative crime-control policies and justice programs. He is the coeditor of Juvenile Drug Courts and Teen Substance Abuse and Cost-Benefit Analysis and Crime Control, and serves as a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and an affiliated professor at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @johnkroman.

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  • Anonymous

    My my, John, you really ARE that young! No one can thus blame you for not realizing that you solution was tried extensively in cities, especially during the 60s and 70s. As always, this is interesting analysis, with poor solutions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1269016216 Terry Keith

    Try? Is not good enough. The reason it didn’t work is because just like he said. Lack of support.

  • Kat

    I agree about the cumulative disadvantage point, the closer your economy is to third world the more third world issues will present. Violence is a huge follower of poverty. Why can’t Chicago get more help to establish a better economic base? This is what we could use a more effective Federal Government for, if we had one. Ugh. I wish Chicago could be a model of sustainability. That would be such a boost to our entire Nation. I love Chicago.

  • Richard Blumberg

    It’s fascinating that the very first comment is “We tried that once and it didn’t work.” No. Whatever was tried may have had elements of the proposals offered here, but it wasn’t the same. And if we tried something once that did, indeed, attempt to address economic and racial segregation, and those evils persist, then we should be working to understand what happened, instead of wearing ideological, stupidly reductionist blinders and drawing lessons that the very complex events at issue don’t justify. Perhaps we should be looking, instead, at cities that have made some progress here, e.g. NYC, and seeking our lessons there.

  • LaGumbo

    Poverty breeds contempt, survival contests, lack of parenting etc. Where dp we begin? First and foremost is the question of parenting-this means both mom and dad.
    Unless this happens and these children are given good school opportunities, nothing will change.

  • Timbo

    Desegregation practices…used extensively…in the 60s and 70s? What alternate universe are you talking about? Certainly not the American 1960s and 70s of concentrated public housing, redlining, and the proliferation of the suburbs.

  • Anonymous

    Ok, well, as I have a tendency to go on and on, my comment – which at the time was the first one here – was designed to be terse. Apparently too terse, as most responders to it (I was surprised that there would be any!) interpreted it in almost 180 degrees from my intent.

    That being the case, I was reacting first and foremost to this:

    “A much better strategy is to unleash market forces through tax credits
    enticing businesses to move into non-traditional business districts,
    taxing blighted properties at draconian rates, and changing zoning laws
    to promote gentrification (but encourage poorer residents to stay).”

    I meant to suggest that his incentives strategy had failed. It’s oh so hip in post-Reagan America to look to and promote incentives to private business and capital as our saviors, hip even in the last days of the 60s, continuing into the 70s, when “The Great Society” was bashed and we were encouraged to look to the private sector as our saviors.

    It was THAT that I was decrying. NOT the Great Society and/or other attempts to do the right things to address poverty. I believed then, and i believe now, that the problem was and still is massive – so large that the private sector cannot really even put a dent in it.

    Head Start was only a start. Urban Renewal had good motivation but implementation had unexpected consequences. Medicare’s big fault lay in that it was not allowed to become what it logically should have – universal single payer.

    Things that were working – that would have worked had they been allowed to continue – were hamstrung, bad mouthed, bashed and ultimately bagged, in favor of these beloved private sector and incentive “solutions”. THEY ultimately failed – and are failing, even in NYC – because 1) they were attempts to shunt energies into side pockets and 2) THEIR SCALE WAS WOEFULLY INADEQUATE. And, I should say, 3) their missions differed. Private enterprise is about maximizing shareholder value and rich individuals’ ideosyncratic interests. The public interest is in commonweal, which many times is against the interests of the commonweal at large.

    John presents to me as quite young, as if the private sector incentivization dream has sprung newly formed from the earth. It hasn’t. It’s an old scam.

    That was my point.

    Now, fire away if you disagree with that. At least you’ll be hammering me for what I really did intend to say, not what it appeared I might have.

  • Anonymous

    Geez, I keep screwing it up! Correction: “The public interest is in commonweal, [AS OPPOSED TO THE MISSION OF THE PRIVATE SECTOR] which many times is against the interests of the commonweal at large.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cynthia-Faisst/754258940 Cynthia Faisst

    Some how we don’t fully appreciate how much the success of the private sector depends on a healthy foundation of non-profit and social entrepreneurial activity. Our communities need spiritual, educational, environmental, nutritional, medical as well as physical infrastructures. These institutions and local organizations do more than we realize to make a community sustainable so that it is possible for private enterprise to even think about making a profit. We need a richer ecosystem of economic opportunities that are not necesarily profit driven so that more people can participate in a meaningful way to serve the needs of a community.

  • http://twitter.com/AriannaEditrix Arianna

    Actually, St. Louis, MO is the most segregated city in America. Drop me a line sometime and I’ll show you how “developers” are killing neighborhoods and whole communities here, all on the taxpayers dime too.