Every month, Chicagoans endure between 1,500 and 2,100 violent crimes and more than 25 murders—the vast majority occurring in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Since the 1960s, Windy City politicians have continuously promised to stop the violence and cure the urban poverty that they insist causes it, but little has been accomplished in more than 50 years of attempts to halt the deadly struggle.
This very sad statistic isn’t limited to Chicago. Detroit, Miami, St. Louis, and scores of other U.S. cities continue to lose what President Lyndon Johnson referred to as the “War on Poverty.” While multitudes of academics have studied the problem of urban violence and poverty, none have figured out a reasonable and cost-effective method for solving it—at least not one that has been utilized.
It doesn’t take a Ph.D., however, to realize that the problem is rooted in the very nature of urban society; whenever a region has tens of thousands of impoverished people living in close proximity, crime, including violent crime, is inevitably going to occur.
Well-intentioned politicians and community activists have made myriad attempts to resolve the urban crisis, but 50 years of failure and billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars have accomplished nothing except contribute to the growing debt of states and the nation.
Oftentimes, as the famous English philosopher and theologian William Occam expounded—the least complicated solution is the best solution.
If urban poverty causes violence but solving urban poverty has proven too difficult, why not limit the size of the urban poor by moving them to rural parts of the states?
It’s true that impoverished rural communities experience more crime than middle-class or wealthy rural areas, but it is undeniable that rural poverty is much easier to manage than urban poverty.
For instance, Camden, Alabama—the largest town in the poorest county of Alabama, one of the nation’s poorest states—experienced lower-than-average crime rates in virtually every crime category from 2001–2010, and the same holds true for nearly every other poor rural city and county in the United States.
According to a 2012 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, both violent crime rates and property crime rates in nonmetropolitan counties were less than half the crime rates in metropolitan regions.
Rural poverty may be a serious problem, but it’s nothing compared to the plight experienced by urban poor.
The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) manages roughly 20,000 low-income public housing households in Chicago alone. Rather than trying to squeeze 20,000 impoverished households within 200 square miles, these households should be spread out across the very large state of Illinois and distributed relative to cost and the space available in each of Illinois’ more than 1,270 cities, towns, and villages.
If it is assumed that each of the 20,000 households managed by CHA includes four Chicagoans, the average Illinois city or town would only need to take on roughly 12 households consisting of about 50 people total, assuming Chicago maintains 5,000 of the total households.
Although renting, building, and managing public housing units across an entire state will initially be a significant expense, the cost of managing crime in major U.S. cities is so high that the benefits of establishing a new statewide system of public housing would payoff quickly.
The City of Chicago’s 2015 budget allocates more than $1.3 billion to Chicago Police’s patrol operations, detectives, and organized crime unit. Even if the budget is only reduced by one-quarter over time as a result of there being less urban poverty, the savings—more than $3 billion over 10 years—would more than make up for the cost of developing statewide housing for 15,000 households. In fact, with the savings Chicago would gain, it could afford to buy every household a $200,000 home.
Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, urban poverty, despite its many negative side effects, was a necessity of the modern world. Without individuals willing to work for relatively cheap wages, factories, mills, and shipyards could not possibly function productively.
Times, however, have radically changed. American cities are no longer centers of industry in desperate need of blue collar workers. Cities are now primarily focused on developing international commerce, financial centers, and high-paying and highly skilled jobs for well-educated college graduates.
Without real career advancing opportunities, the impoverished are left to work basic service industry jobs, and many end up relying on government services to help pay the bills. The result of a changing economic environment has been the breakdown of the urban family and a significant increase in criminal activity.
Unless substantial changes are made in regards to how states manage poverty, thousands will continue to die and tens of thousands more will continue to suffer from urban crime. The war on urban violence isn’t over, and victory is still within reach. But without a change in strategy, the nation’s largest cities are doomed to continue repeating their deadly mistakes.
Justin Haskins (Jhaskins@heartland.org) is an author, blogger, and the editor at The Heartland Institute, a leading free-market think tank based out of Chicago, IL. You can follow him @TheNewRevere.