CRIME AND POVERTY….In the Atlantic this month, Hannah Rosin writes about a mysterious increase in crime taking place not in the inner cities of New York or LA, but in the suburbs of medium sized cities across the country. Cities like Memphis:
Memphis has always been associated with some amount of violence. But why has Elvis’s hometown turned into America’s new South Bronx? [Lieutenant Doug] Barnes thinks he knows one big part of the answer, as does the city’s chief of police. A handful of local criminologists and social scientists think they can explain it, too. But it’s a dismal answer, one that city leaders have made clear they don’t want to hear. It’s an answer that offers up racial stereotypes to fearful whites in a city trying to move beyond racial tensions. Ultimately, it reaches beyond crime and implicates one of the most ambitious antipoverty programs of recent decades.
Uh oh. I have a sinking feeling I can guess what’s coming. And sure enough:
Early every Thursday, Richard Janikowski drives to Memphis’s Airways Station for the morning meeting of police precinct commanders….A criminologist with the University of Memphis, Janikowski has established an unusually close relationship with the city police department. From the police chief to the beat cop, everyone knows him as “Dr. J,” or “GQ” if he’s wearing his nice suit. When his researchers are looking for him, they can often find him outside the building, having a smoke with someone in uniform.
….About five years ago, Janikowski embarked on a more ambitious project. He’d built up enough trust with the police to get them to send him daily crime and arrest reports, including addresses and types of crime. He began mapping all violent and property crimes, block by block, across the city. “These cops on the streets were saying that crime patterns are changing,” he said, so he wanted to look into it.
….When his map was complete, a clear if strangely shaped pattern emerged….Janikowski might not have managed to pinpoint the cause of this pattern if he hadn’t been married to Phyllis Betts, a housing expert at the University of Memphis.
….About six months ago, they decided to put a hunch to the test. Janikowski merged his computer map of crime patterns with Betts’s map of Section 8 rentals. Where Janikowski saw a bunny rabbit, Betts saw a sideways horseshoe (“He has a better imagination,” she said). Otherwise, the match was near-perfect. On the merged map, dense violent-crime areas are shaded dark blue, and Section 8 addresses are represented by little red dots. All of the dark-blue areas are covered in little red dots, like bursts of gunfire. The rest of the city has almost no dots.
Their basic conclusion is simple: the goal of Section 8 is to get rid of inner city high-rises and disperse poor residents into other parts of the city. Eliminate areas of concentrated poverty, goes the thinking (those where more than 40% of residents are poor), and you’ll eliminate many of the pathologies associated with poverty too. But that turned out to be only half true. Crime did go down in the city cores where this happened, but the number of areas of moderate poverty (20-40% poor) went up, and the crime in these areas went up too. Inner city gangs simply reformed elsewhere.
This is a depressing story, and not one that has a conclusion yet. It’s certainly not a blanket condemnation of Section 8, which may simply need more time to affect a problem that’s been generations in the making. In fact, if you read the whole story one of the things that comes through is the need to expand programs like Section 8 so that people aren’t simply being dumped into new neighborhoods, and to improve the use of “cops on the dots” policing programs that have been successful in larger cities. Still, sobering stuff, and worth a read.