The root causes of urban violence in America are poverty and lack of economic opportunity


President Obama held a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Abe, who is in Washington, D.C on a state visit.

President Obama was asked about the situation in Baltimore by Chris Jansing of NBC News. He provided a lengthy response, but I want to focus on his sixth and final point. Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Abe of Japan in Joint Press Conference:

And I’ll make my final point — I’m sorry, Mr. Prime Minister, but this is a pretty important issue for us.

We can’t just leave this to the police.  I think there are police departments that have to do some soul searching.  I think there are some communities that have to do some soul searching.  But I think we, as a country, have to do some soul searching.  This is not new.  It’s been going on for decades.

baltimore-cover-finalAnd without making any excuses for criminal activities that take place in these communities, what we also know is that if you have impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty; they’ve got parents — often because of substance-abuse problems or incarceration or lack of education themselves — can’t do right by their kids; if it’s more likely that those kids end up in jail or dead, than they go to college.  In communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men; communities where there’s no investment, and manufacturing has been stripped away; and drugs have flooded the community, and the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a whole lot of folks — in those environments, if we think that we’re just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there without as a nation and as a society saying what can we do to change those communities, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity, then we’re not going to solve this problem.  And we’ll go through the same cycles of periodic conflicts between the police and communities and the occasional riots in the streets, and everybody will feign concern until it goes away, and then we go about our business as usual.

If we are serious about solving this problem, then we’re going to not only have to help the police, we’re going to have to think about what can we do — the rest of us — to make sure that we’re providing early education to these kids; to make sure that we’re reforming our criminal justice system so it’s not just a pipeline from schools to prisons; so that we’re not rendering men in these communities unemployable because of a felony record for a nonviolent drug offense; that we’re making investments so that they can get the training they need to find jobs.  That’s hard.  That requires more than just the occasional news report or task force.  And there’s a bunch of my agenda that would make a difference right now in that.

Now, I’m under no illusion that out of this Congress we’re going to get massive investments in urban communities, and so we’ll try to find areas where we can make a difference around school reform and around job training, and around some investments in infrastructure in these communities trying to attract new businesses in.

But if we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could.  It’s just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant — and that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped.  We’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids, and we think they’re important.  And they shouldn’t be living in poverty and violence.

That’s how I feel.  I think there are a lot of good-meaning people around the country that feel that way.  But that kind of political mobilization I think we haven’t seen in quite some time.  And what I’ve tried to do is to promote those ideas that would make a difference.  But I think we all understand that the politics of that are tough because it’s easy to ignore those problems or to treat them just as a law and order issue, as opposed to a broader social issue.

That was a really long answer, but I felt pretty strongly about it.

The root causes of urban violence in America are poverty and lack of economic opportunity. As the President said, this is not new, it has been a problem that has been with us for decades. Baltimore has not fully recovered from the riots in 1968 following the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Now Baltimore has suffered another riot.

The Time magazine cover story this week The Roots of Baltimore’s Riot does an excellent job of weaving President Obama’s comments with a socio-economic narrative of Baltimore’s history. It is worth the read.

The Washington Post today has two economics reports that the average American will find shocking, only because the poor in this country are shielded from our sight and are not thought about until their communities erupt in an all too familiar cycle of violence, because the root causes of that violence have never been seriously addressed by our politicians and public policy.

The first report is Here’s one way Baltimore teens are worse off than poor youth in Nigeria and India:

The unrest in Baltimore that followed the funeral of Freddie Gray was not entirely unexpected. For those of us who live and work in Baltimore and other economically distressed urban environments, these outcries of injustice are familiar. We saw it in Los Angeles in 1965 and 1992, in Detroit in 1967, in Ferguson in 2014, and even in Baltimore back in 1968. While the triggers may vary, the underlying causes are the same — persistent disadvantage and a prevailing sense of hopelessness.

Poverty is global problem, but how it affects young people’s sense of hope and well-being is not universal. Teenagers in Baltimore face poorer health and more negative outlooks than those in urban centers of Nigeria, India and China. That’s what we discovered in a study we published last year comparing the hardships and attitudes of teenagers in Baltimore to those in other economically distressed areas of Johannesburg, South Africa; Ibadan, Nigeria; Shanghai, China; and New Delhi, India. The study revealed that, for young people growing up in poverty, living in a high-income country mattered far less than the social support they receive in the immediate neighborhoods where they develop and grow.

For one aspect of the study, we asked youth aged 15 to 19 years old in each urban location to take photographs that depicted the meaning of health (or ill health) in their neighborhoods. Youth at every site illustrated the idea similarly, taking photos of the garbage and dirt that plagued their communities.

But when we asked them to rate their physical surroundings on a scale of 0 to 14 (with a lower number representing a poorer perception of the environment), those in Ibadan and Shanghai had more positive feelings about their communities than youth in Baltimore. Adolescents in Baltimore and Johannesburg also had the highest frequency of witnessing community violence and the lowest sense of social cohesion.

There were other striking differences.  Across the five cities we studied, adolescents in Baltimore and Johannesburg also experienced the highest prevalence of health problems, including high levels of victimization, sexual violence, substance abuse, depression and PTSD. Importantly, adolescents in both of those sites also held the poorest perceptions about their communities.

Though youth in Baltimore experience similar levels of physical decay as those in other poor urban communities around the world, they feel worse about their environments. This may suggest that witnessing community violence and having a low sense of social support may be especially relevant in determining the health and well-being of adolescents in disadvantaged urban environments.

That feeling of a lack of social support extended to law enforcement. Shockingly, over 80 percent of Baltimore youth in our study had little or no trust in the police, the justice system, the broader government, or other public authorities.

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Urban decay, violence, and the lack of support and trust in adults are some of the underlying factors fueling the unrest in Baltimore. while racial discrimination is no longer legal in the U.S., economic discrimination can have as much impact as a “Whites Only” sign. There are other forms of economic discrimination that manifest in such environments: Young people progress through schools without learning the skills sufficient to obtain living wages. Single parents must work two or three jobs to feed and shelter their families. Young people grow up without any successful role models. The result is that everyday life for some of these young people is so traumatic that the rates of PTSD match those of combat veterans.

Given that such a large proportion of the rioters in Baltimore were teenagers and young adults, it’s important to understand the environment these youths are growing up in. It’s important to hear their concerns and address the problems that plague their communities. It’s important to provide the social support that can end the cycle of hopelessness. Simply living in a wealthy country doesn’t give young people the opportunities they need to feel optimistic about their futures. If we want to end the perpetual uprisings in our urban communities, we must stop turning a blind eye to the injustice right in front of us.

The second report is from Wonkblog’s Christopher Ingraham, Baltimore’s poorest residents die 20 years earlier than its richest:

Inequality in Baltimore has been thrust into the national spotlight this week, with riots and civil unrest in that city following the funeral of Freddie Gray. This inequality has roots that stretch deep into the past. It’s been exasperated by bad policy decisions in the present-day. And it makes itself felt in every aspect of life in the city, from the racial composition of neighborhoods to the number of empty houses standing in them.

For another illustration, let’s look at a hypothetical case of two babies born on the same day this year in Baltimore. One is born in Roland Park, a wealthy neighborhood in the north of the city. The other is born just three miles away in Downtown/Seton Hill, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

The Roland Park baby will most likely live to the age of 84, well above the U.S. average of 79. The Seton Hill baby, on the other hand, can expect to die 19 years earlier at the age of 65.  That’s 14 years below the U.S. average. The average child born this year in Seton Hill will be dead before she can even begin to collect Social Security.

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Call it inequality of longevity. It’s by no means unique to Baltimore — all cities have their divide between the haves and the have-nots. But Baltimore stands out for the extent of its gap, as well as the proximity of the two extremes. The gap here is twice as large as in New York, for instance.

Another way of looking at it is to compare life expectancies in Baltimore to various countries. If Roland Park’s life expectancy is similar to Japan’s, then Downtown/Seton Hill would be closest to Yemen. Roland Park would be the 4th longest-living country in the world, while Seton Hill would be the 230th. Fifteen Baltimore neighborhoods have lower life expectancies than North Korea. Eight are doing worse than Syria.

I’ve charted Baltimore’s neighborhoods against the world’s countries below, so you can compare for yourself.

If you want to understand what’s happening in Baltimore, and to understand how to fix it, you need to know the social and economic context behind the anger and frustration many of the city’s residents are feeling. Imagine being a child and knowing that you could expect to die 20 years earlier than another kid who simply had the good fortune of being born just a few miles up the road from you. For Baltimore’s poorest, that’s the reality they’re living in.



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