Chicago needs a war on poverty to stop the violence
Chicago police cross under crime scene tape as they investigate the scene where a man was shot and killed by police on June 16, 2013, in the 1600 block of South Springfield Avenue in Chicago.
Politicians don’t like to talk about poverty.
It’s not the kind of topic that allows them to walk away looking good. If anything, it makes them look like self-serving demagogues who have no idea what it means to be a public servant.
In this polarized political climate, there could never be another president to step up like Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1964 and declare an "unconditional war" on poverty. The only thing we can expect out of Washington the next four years is a guarantee that more people will fall through the cracks. Responsibility for the nation’s poor will rest on the shoulders of city and state officials.
In Illinois, we are past due for a serious discussion about poverty. And in Chicago, where escalating violence threatens to decimate entire neighborhoods, the subject of poverty needs to be front and center.
We already knew that the violence in Chicago is concentrated in communities where people lack basic resources. But a new report from the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance, for the first time, gives us a definitive look at how poverty, violence and trauma are interrelated. The report, "Cycle of Risk: The Intersection of Poverty, Violence, and Trauma," argues that the surge of violence in Chicago cannot be stopped without first understanding its root cause, which first and foremost, is poverty.
More than a third of Illinois residents and nearly half of Chicagoans are considered low-income or living in poverty, according to the report released this week by the anti-poverty group. The number of poor people living in neighborhoods with extreme poverty — the ones most likely to have conditions that foster violence — grew 384 percent from 2000 to 2015.
Consider that for a moment. It’s conceivable how someone in Illinois earning less than $6,041 a year — the federal threshold for a single person in extreme poverty — might see selling drugs as a more viable option. I’m not saying they are right, but it certainly could be tempting.
Whether a young man decides to sell drugs or not, the lack of money in his pocket certainly can lead to anger, anxiety, frustration, hopelessness and desperation. Those are the things that often cause young men to pull out a gun and shoot somebody.
It should come as no surprise that the majority of shootings and homicides occur in poor, predominantly African-American neighborhoods.
Statistics show that people of color are disproportionately affected by violence. The study used data from 2015, showing that black men ages 15 to 44 made up more than half of the homicide victims in Illinois, though they accounted for just 3 percent of the population.
But here’s the tricky thing about poverty and the violence that hangs onto its coattails. It doesn’t just stay in one place. A growing percentage of poor people in the region live in the suburbs, according to the Heartland report. Suburban poverty rose from 34 percent in 2000 to 49 percent in 2015.
It is clear, researchers said, that any effective anti-violence strategy must include a long-term commitment to eliminating inequity and paving a pathway to opportunity.
So what can our elected officials in Illinois do about that? For starters, Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan can stop bickering over partisan ideology and agree on a state budget. Then they should get to work on a jobs bill and push it through our do-nothing General Assembly.
People in Illinois need work, particularly African-Americans. Illinois has the nation’s highest black unemployment rate —11.3 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The poor and uneducated also need job training. And neighborhoods that have long been neglected need access to the same services available to residents who live in more affluent neighborhoods.
In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel needs to pay closer attention to communities that are crumbling both structurally and economically. Aldermen need to make reinvestment in those communities their top priority.
The Heartland Alliance offered some specific strategies for addressing poverty and subsequent violence. The report suggested reforming the criminal justice system so that it does not disproportionally penalize people of color. Illinois needs more investment in its schools, not a reduction in funding. Residents needs more affordable housing.
In order to do this, Illinois has to pass a responsible budget that includes funding for after-school programs, domestic violence programming, re-entry programs for those who have long been out of the workforce, housing and homelessness programs, as well as anti-violence programs.
These are commonsense policies. As residents of this city and state, we have a right to expect our elected officials to act like public servants and deliver the services we need.