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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Exploring The Connection Between Violent Crime And Poverty


Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles and other big cities have struggled for decades to help solve the issues of urban violence and poverty.

On a recent episode of Think, Harvard Research fellow Thomas Abt talked with host Krys Boyd about why violence often furthers financial hardship.

On the relationship between poverty and violence: So when you look at a static comparison, there is a very strong correlation. But then if you look at a dynamic comparison, meaning change over time, tracking changes of poverty with changes in violence then the relationship becomes much murkier.

For instance, crime went down during the Great Depression. It rose as the economy expanded during the '60s and then fell or remained basically constant as the economy contracted during the Great Recession. So the relationship is not quite as clear as we think. And in fact, the relationship may be stronger in reverse — meaning that high rates of urban violence can actually be a key force in perpetuating urban poverty.

On the link between feeling safe and school attendance in children: Exposure to violence can create trauma, and responses to trauma in the brain and throughout the body that impacts someone for a lifetime. But you know, some of the most remarkable work has been done by sociologist Pat Sharkey, and he really shows that trauma caused by exposure to violence in childhood can really have a direct impact on a child's ability to concentrate focus and perform in school. And if they can't perform in school, that really impacts their future earnings later on in life. And so exposure to violence can really limit poor children's ability to escape from poverty.

On the difference in media attention: The mass shootings are inherently dramatic, awful events that justifiably get a significant amount of attention. I also think that we have to look at the nature of the way the media covers these things, sort of the sensationalistic approach, and following the big story rather than the broad trends. And then last I think there is a really hard conversation that we need to have about race.

The victims of mass shootings tend to be of all races but often involving white, middle-class, affluent people and when those people are killed it draws more attention than when poor people of color are routinely gunned down in their own communities.

On why the term "black on black violence" is problematic: Most crime is intraracial, meaning that most offenders and victims are of the same race.  For the most, part black people are perpetrating crime against other black people, but the same is true of white people, Latino people, and everyone else. But we don't look at crimes committed by white people against other white people and say it's "white on white crime."

Another issue is that "black on black crime" suggests that somehow this crime is inherently associated with one race or another. And I don't think that's true. I think people are violent if their circumstances are violent. We don't talk about financial crime as inherently white. And yet the socioeconomic circumstances of the perpetrators means that it's going to be largely affluent white people who are perpetrating these offenses.

When we talk about "black on black crime," it's really used to suggest that "black on black crime" is really the fault, and therefore the responsibility, of black people. I think that's extraordinarily unfair. Broadly speaking, there were generations and generations of racial segregation and discrimination. Those neighborhoods were systematically disinvested from and then especially vulnerable to forces like deindustrialization or outmigration. And then over generations, with people suffering from high rates of concentrated poverty but unable to leave because of segregation, you have social dysfunction. And that produces these high rates of crime.

Thomas Abt's new book is called “Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence – And a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets” (Basic Books).

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.