Investments in Less Crime

Republican conservatives are fundamentally opposed to the best ways to reduce crime. That’s because the most effective ways are social, take a long time, and are expensive, and Republicans believe that all such problems can be blamed on the inborn faults of the poor and black, because they are naturally irresponsible. It is a story that has been told about every unpopular group, particularly new immigrants, using the identical words. It is demonstrably false, yet Republicans are trapped into believing it because it’s written into their primary faith in “personal responsibility” and “minimal government”.

In fact, nobody doesn’t believe in personal responsibility, regardless of political affiliation or anything else. There is no class of people who are the culprits, not even inner-city blacks.

Start with the low-wage full time worker. These are responsible people with families who go to work every day. There are millions of people who work for minimum wage or near it, but there is no place in the country those workers can afford the rent for a common 2BR apartment and otherwise survive on their earnings, let alone save anything. Their survival depends not on whether they work, which they do, full time, but on other earners in the family (which violates the Republican belief in the father-dominant family with the mother at home) and/or government welfare support. Which is better, to allow them to earn enough by the “dignity of work” so ballyhooed by Republicans, or to make up the difference with our tax money so the Walmart heirs can make an extra hundred million this year?

Republicans are fundamentally opposed
to the best ways to reduce crime.

Look at the child born into poverty. An unacceptable percentage of poor children—up to half—are malnourished, which is absolutely guaranteed to produce lowered academic achievement, and probably behavioral problems. A recent Republican campaign purporting to show that poor children are too ashamed to receive help buying lunch is deceptive blather. Hungry kids don’t give a damn who buys the food.

The poor live in run down areas that are often characterized by crime, inadequate schools, and all the rest, and have difficulty putting enough food on the table. A child coming of age in this setting faces difficulties, particularly if he’s non-white. The chances are high that his education will be incomplete. Very few opportunities will be open to him, and if he tries his best he may still be trapped forever in a low wage job. The cycle will repeat in the next generation unless we invest to change it. Invest is the right word.

The problem is not that such a child will grow up to work at a common job. Common jobs are useful work, but he is unlikely to be able to improve his life if he can only earn minimum wage.

The factor that would have the best effect in changing this trajectory would be Living Wage, something that Australia has had for over a century. Any full time worker could afford all the bare-bones necessities of life, including a decent place to live, good food, health care coverage, and savings for retirement. It would also bring new jobs, because these workers will spend most of their earnings, increasing demand. None of these important things comes from personal effort, which our low-wage worker is already giving. All of them depend on good government. But Congress is not even talking about Living Wage. They are talking about an increase in the greatly eroded minimum wage to a level nobody can live on, and many Republicans are saying even that is too much because that would put poverty-stricken blacks in the lap of luxury.

Living Wage would have
the greatest positive effect.

There are many effective plans that have proven to be beneficial in reducing crime and creating a better society. These too are opposed by Republicans, on the grounds that they are Big Government, which is inherently ineffective and a waste of money. But they are wrong. Consider the following.

In the 1970s, scientists and doctors finally caught the ear of Congress, and money was provided to rid the nation’s older housing of lead paint, which I have written about here. Even the most minute amount of lead causes brain damage in young children, which commonly leads to disruptive and criminal behavior as they mature. It’s a given. The result of this expensive program was a dramatic reduction in serious crime when the un-poisoned children grew up. In spite of its great cost the program saved huge amounts of money.

Many other programs either guarantee improvement or show great promise as an investment in our common social life. Child nutrition is another no-brainer, because there is a demonstrated link between good nutrition and better school performance and social behavior, and a large percentage of poor children are inadequately nourished.

Most effective improvements are expensive,
which is opposed by Republicans because
“Big Government” is inherently inefficient.

Some of the best plans seek to break the generational link of antisocial problems. Child abuse is at the top of the list. Parents who abuse their children were universally abused themselves. As parents, they have no other role model. The most long-lasting changes that could be made would be to teach these ill-equipped people how to be better parents, and insist on it. This would require intensive and long-term intervention, and might include such things as getting the parents free of addiction and onto a better life path, and how to manage their temper so others aren’t hurt.

Success here would have permanent benefits, because the child would then know how to behave when he himself was a parent, and unlikely to repeat his parents’ faults. But our most common response today is to remove the children without helping the parents, which may sometimes be necessary, but generates its own difficulties. Obviously, a half-hour home visit every eight weeks ain’t gonna do it. A social worker will have to be persistently in these people’s faces for a long time.

There are numerous other ways in which our society can be improved, but virtually none of them will ever be achieved by simply telling people all they have to do is become responsible and quit being poor, which is the standard Republican recommendation. Most of them are responsible, and would love to stop being poor. For the others, we can only deal with them as they are, and help them be responsible and earn adequate pay. Making such changes always costs money, but produces measurable and highly cost-effective benefits that last into the far future.

Nothing will be achieved by telling people to
become responsible and quit being poor.

San Francisco has an educational program that is geared to criminal offenders. It operates within the jail system (where one of the biggest problems, attendance, is controlled) and outside the jail, after an inmate is released. It’s very effective, but it costs money. A new program is enrolling all inmates in Affordable Care. This will be especially valuable for the quarter of inmates who suffer from mental illness, which is often untreated, particularly after release.

Mental illness has not been adequately addressed either among the incarcerated or among the civilian population since the seventies, when institutions that provided stability for the ill were closed. The result was untreated mentally ill stalking the streets, conversing with or shouting at hallucinations. Nothing will improve if we harangue such people to become responsible. Continuous social intervention is essential.

On a larger scale, government can provide financially efficient assistance in a number of ways that will improve the social setting, but Living Wage is the most important. Hectoring about “personal responsibility” reflects a philosophy that is demonstrably wrong and cruel, and wastes hundreds of millions every year.

[Addendum: Take a look at this telling graphic that shows a quick history of the drug war and its results.]


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  1. Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.


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