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The [Wednesday] Papers

By Steve Rhodes

Is youth violence really like a disease?

That's what the Tribune would like you to believe. And the paper marshals all the usual evidence about brain development and interventions and the sort of thing that organizations like CeaseFire talk about too.

And maybe that's something Arne Duncan and Eric Holder will discuss today while they are in town for their dog-and-pony show.

But here's the funny thing about not only youth violence but crime on the whole: It's inextricably linked with poverty.

As I wrote at NBCChicago.com earlier this morning, kids who attend New Trier aren't killing each other.

And that's not because they are predominantly white. It's because they are predominantly rich.

Despite what some pundits say, there is no such thing as black-on-black crime. Blacks aren't killing other blacks because they are black. And rich blacks aren't killing rich blacks.

What we have here is poor-on-poor crime. It just so happens that in this country, for all of the historical reasons we are all familiar with, as well as some very present current reasons, the poor are disproportionately African American.

Crime is also a matter of proximity.

If gangbangers arising out of tough neighborhoods lived near wealthy whites, wealthy whites would be among the victims.

But we are not allowed to discuss this. We are not allowed to discuss an economic structure that keeps those on the bottom at the bottom - on purpose.

When the unemployment rate, for example, gets "too low," the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to slow down the economy.

In other words, the Federal Reserve - at the behest of policymakers and elected officials from the White House on down - purposely keeps those at the bottom out of work to prevent inflation from eroding the assets of those at the top.

Economists also talk about the importance of a flexible labor market; by this they mean a labor market that keeps a certain number of potential workers unemployed or partially employed to put downward pressure on the wages of those who are fully employed. They also mean that it's important under our system to have a flexible labor pool that can be dipped into when needed and set aside when not.

This is not a discussion we are allowed to have. The discussion we are allowed to have is one about morals and character and personal responsibility - of the poor, not the wealthy, even though it's always the wealthy who plunge our nation into economic disaster.

Timothy Geithner doesn't pay his taxes (and utterly fails as head of the New York Fed) and he becomes Barack Obama's Treasury Secretary; Chicago's schools can't provide textbooks to all its students and it's somehow the parents' fault.

We are not allowed to talk about economics in this country. Conservatives call it class war. Liberals are split between those who believe in the system and those who simply say "Shhhh! We'll never get elected if we acknowledge what we know to be true."

Why are our children dying on our streets?

You can blame the schools, but why do all of the nation's schools work pretty well except those in the poorest districts?

You can blame the parents, but why do most of our parents do a decent job except those with the lowest wages?

You can blame our communities, but why do most of our communities do a decent job except those ravaged by poverty?

Youth violence is not an education issue and it's not a criminal justice issue. It's an economic issue.

Instead of addressing our economic structure, we invest in chasing the Olympics and promise that a few crumbs will fall from the table to help the less fortunate.

There's always enough money around for a new sports stadium, but not so much for crumbling schools. Unless it's a magnet school where we can skim the cream off the crop and scurry them away from danger - and clout in the rest of those we care to save.

We saturate poor neighborhoods with fast-food franchises, liquor stores and billboards for cigarettes and the lottery, then scold the poor for succumbing to temptation - the very temptation that keeps the profits rolling for the fat cats and those they employ.

Nobody talks about poverty anymore. Nobody talks about economics, except the stock market and porked-up stimulus bills that don't stimulate.

The mayor doesn't have a plan. He has TIF districts.

The president doesn't have a plan. He has political imperatives.

If laissez faire economics doesn't work for Wall Street - and how many times must we learn that lesson - then how can it work for the poor?

I'd be angry too. And violent. Maybe in a gang. Or maybe just an innocent bystander unable to stay out of trouble. You would too.

This isn't about socialism or communism or capitalism or liberalism. It's about decency. The notion that the wealthiest nation in the history of the world can't supply every citizen who wants an education and a job with an education and a job is the height of absurdity - at least next to failing to provide health care for all of our citizens.

It's not even about what kind of nation we are, because there are worse out there. There are also better.

It's about what kind of nation - and state, and city - we want to be. It's far from undoable.

On this, Obama and Daley and Cosby are right: It's about personal responsibility, morals, values and character.

But not of the poor. Of the rest of us.

-

The Beachwood Tip Line: For the people.



Permalink

Posted on October 7, 2009


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