A discussion over at BlogCatalog about affirmative action - turned socio-economic conditions debate has sparked my need to read. The question that sparked this exploratory post was whether not impoverished people could lift themselves up out of poverty by the very simple act of not making poor personal choices. At first, this question seems exceedingly simple to answer - better choices create better environments and results, therefore yes, making better personal choices would lift people out of poverty. Of course, the real answer is no where near that simple. In fact, the matter is so complex one could invest a lifetime exploring the causes and implications of poverty and socio-economic standing. I'm thinking we could do a brief overview, instead.
There are some common ideologies about poverty, crime, education and so forth that are often used in debates about the issue.
- Poverty is a choice, the poor choose to remain poor, the poor could lift themselves out of poverty by applying themselves, and the poor consciously make bad decisions to perpetuate poverty.
- The poor have no choices, are victims and are generally helpless.
- Poverty is caused by various means, and is a self perpetuating cycle that will require a concerted effort on everyone's behalf to break or correct.
Now, all of these ideologies have a bit of truth to them, but none of them are all true. First and foremost, we have to consider our national economic system's role in poverty. We have a mixed economy that leans heavily towards free market capitalism. In capitalism economic hierarchies must exist, and be appropriately filled in order for capitalism to thrive. That includes the economic class of poor and working class economic brackets. Although extreme or abject poverty provides little benefit for regulated capitalist markets, those who hover right around the poverty threshold fulfill the basic needs of companies offering low wage employment. Students whose age and academic schedules determine that they work part time jobs, or fewer than twenty hours a week means that there simply aren't enough bodies to satisfy the needs of companies. So adults, particularly adults with little or no education, must step in and fill those positions.
Of course, we all know that supporting oneself or one's family on a low, minimum wage, or below minimum wage job (service industry, commission based jobs) is next to impossible, hence you have an entire segment of the population who are now poor. I find it ironic that the very requirements of an economic system that people support causes and sustains poverty, and yet, the poor are consistently blamed for their own financial woes.
Education is key.
The most commonly looked at issue regarding poverty is education, or a lack thereof. Large cities with poor inner city schools are severely lacking in the funds and resources needed to provide decent, or competitive educations. To compound that issue, poor inner city areas also have little in the way of out-of-school educational resources, such as proper libraries, extracurricular activities, youth groups and organizations, tutoring and so forth. The children growing up in poor inner cities simply do not have access to all of the materials and information they need to become successful.
Drop out rates, rates of illiteracy, and poor educational resources result in poor test scores, low paying job opportunities, and a lack of value on education. Compare graduation statistics by cities and, Compare the test results of schools with high vs low levels of poor students. The numbers speak for themselves. However, even more pertinent to the problem are parents with equally low levels of education. Cognitive development studies have shown, over decades of research, that children with parents who have secondary, graduate, or post graduate educations will have children who develop faster and retain information better than children whose parents have little or no education, and for a variety of reasons.
Also, an interesting study and thesis points out that young adults with little to no education, or a poor education, living at or below the poverty level could adversely affect the unborn child and young child respectively due to a lack of pre-natal medical care, inability to properly parent, and exposure to insufficient role models and peer groups. Read - The Vicious Cycle: Poor Children, Risky Lives by Bruce L. Mallory.
Essentially, the idea is that uneducated parents produce uneducated children, and instead of each generation experiencing a progression towards a decrease in poverty, the percentage of poverty and poor education actually increases.
Crime doesn't pay.
Well, actually, it does pay. Crime pays well, in fact for a lot of people who would otherwise be scraping by a meager minimum wage and welfare living. There are a lot of arguments circulating around about the relation of poverty and crime. However, incarceration statistics clearly indicate that far more convicted criminals are coming from, and returning to, impoverished neighborhoods. There are anecdotal arguments about how not all poor people commit crimes, and never would, and that's true. However morals are relative and learned behaviors so it would suffice to say that those growing up who are exposed to crime, and have little education, and little hope for real opportunities have a much higher chance of committing a crime than those who do not grow up under those circumstances. A debate on the direct and indirect links of crime and poverty states:
Poverty creates unstable communities. Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay's classic 1942 study on juvenile delinquency argued that economic deprivation encourages crime only because poor neighborhoods tend to be socially unstable, [and] Unstable employment creates despair. More recent studies, however, have had to revise this aspect of the theory, the authors write. In his 1987 work The Truly Disadvantaged, William Julius Wilson showed that low-skill, high-paying manufacturing jobs in U.S. cities declined drastically during the 1970s. The result has been a concentration of poor blacks in ghetto areas. These areas have experienced extremely high rates of violent crime even though they are not subject to a job-driven turnover of population. [and] low levels of economic well-being directly encourage crime because people naturally shift to illegal activities in order to succeed when legal channels are blocked. [and] Obviously, deciding whether or not social disorganization mediates economic deprivation and crime depends crucially on how "social disorganization" and "economic deprivation" are defined and measured.
A look into the history of gangs and gang violence sheds even more light on the subject of crime, gangs, and violent crimes:
The black youths in Aliso Village, a housing project in East Los Angeles, started a club called the Devil Hunters in response to the Spook Hunters and other white clubs that were engaging in violent confrontations with blacks. The term "Devil" reflected how blacks viewed racist whites and Ku Klux Klan members. The Devil Hunters and other black residents fought back against white violence with their own form of violence.
Although organized crime was nothing new at that time, the organization of gangs that evolved into what we know as the Bloods and Crips started for a very real, logical reason. Protection and survival from racist groups. These gangs, of course, evolved over time, and sought to use their power and numbers to create wealth in areas where poverty reigned supreme. I find it highly disingenuous to claim that poverty and an already violent environment had and has nothing to do with gangs and crime, considering that the gang members are often very, very poor. Top ten poverty locations and gangs. There is a psychology of poverty and social stigma attached to impoverished areas that when paired with an actual need to make money makes ganglife a desirable choice. Not only is the gang member making money to support himself or his family, he is also now commanding respect (through fear and violence) so that he gains power, social respect, and protection for himself, and his family members.
Although "gangbanging" is frowned upon by mainstream society, it garners a particular type of fear based respect from almost everyone. The moment you hear that someone is from a gang, be it the Bloods or the Hell's Angels, the reaction is immediate, and noticeable. One immediately knows not to challenge such a person, much in the way we would react to a brightly colored, venomous plant or animal. The genetic predisposition to stay away from that which endangers us is strong even in social circles. That kind of respect, although generally negative, still retains it's power. And when a person or group of people grow up feeling powerless, gaining social power and respect can and does become a priority. Crime pays out in this respect in a very big way.
It also helps to remember that the ideology of wealth being a desirable goal, and that the wealthy are notably respected for being able to acquire such wealth permeates every aspect of our society. It generates respect, awe, and power along with the financial ability to do whatever you please. This concept is not lost on those living in impoverished areas. In fact, I would say that living with the social stigma of poverty creates a huge desire to accumulate as much wealth as possible.
Look at it like this, if the temptation to commit a crime exists within wealthy, educated people so much so that they commit crimes to attain more wealth when they already have it, it's fair to say that those without educations, and no wealth to speak of, and no real possibility of attaining said wealth, the temptation to commit crimes to attain wealth increases accordingly. Although arguments of needs and wants may creep in, the psychological concept of willingness to commit a crime to accomplish the same goal remains unchanged, and would seem to be even more likely at lower levels of the economic structure, particularly when greed is combined with desperation.
Back to education...
You might be saying to yourself, "But, but, but there are other ways to gain respect, and wealth than crime, we all know that!" And, to an extent, you would be thinking correctly. However, there are other forces at play here that when combined create the the right environment for crime. First and foremost, the lack of [quality] education immediately creates very real barriers to gainful employment above and beyond poverty wages. But you also have to address the psychological issues at play when poverty strikes or persists.
In the above argument about why crime and poverty are linked, it addresses unstable communities, and despair. This is important because when despair sets in, it works a bit like clinical depression, and may even be clinical depression. If a person has been living in poverty, struggling for their entire lives, or if a person has fallen into poverty with the inability to cope, they not only view the reality of severely limited choices as a large barrier, but may even refuse to accept a golden opportunity if one should come along. When you combine despair or depression, or even anger with a lack of education, or training for critical thinking you create a person who may not recognize, understand, or comprehend the available options, and may even create a fear of the unknown.
When you live among criminals and hustlers, you gain the street knowledge of healthy skepticism. If something is too good to be true, it probably is. With a life dedicated to scraping by a meager living, the thought of losing even more by way of a scam can be terribly frightening. Although I'm sure the temptation exists. In that regard, even a true opportunity may be interpreted as a scam.
Can anyone argue that these fight or flight reactions, the basic survival reactions ingrained in our genes are really personal choices? They are choices, of course, but the idea that one is making a calm, educated choice with a future goal in mind in an impoverished and crime riddled environment with a lack of education is taking some creative license with the notion of "choice".
What does it all mean?
If we look at the Census Bureau's statistics on poverty we will see that 13% of the population lives at or below the poverty threshold, and 17.5% of the population hovers right above the threshold, or what is known as 125% of poverty. That would suggest that over 30% of the population is living at, below, or just above the national poverty threshold. That amounts to 91.5 million men, women, and children who are either in, or sinking into poverty.
We can argue that 30% of the population are simply making poor life choices, and leave it at freewill's doorstep, or we can address the very real issue of income and opportunity disparity in this country. 91 million people can't all be making the same simple mistakes.
As we look at the history of gangs, the history of crime, the history of impoverished neighborhoods, and the history of the US we can get a general idea of what happened and why, where it all began. Unfortunately the task at hand now is breaking the violent cycle of poverty and crime. Knowing how it all began is a decent start, but doesn't speak to the changes we need to make it stop.
An answer lies somewhere, and it's time we really tried to find it.
More poverty statistics, independent studies
Culture of poverty, cycle of decline
History Channel's Gangland Series