What our youth need is investment, not policing
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It’s summertime in Chicago, and that means warm weather, block parties, cookouts, and trips to the lake. It also often means an increase in gun violence, as bullets rip through neighborhoods where children are playing outside. And it’s not just Chicago or just cities — across the country, summer is a particularly deadly time, and this year, the trend is exacerbated by the effects of the ongoing pandemic. Confronted with the grief of families and communities, leaders often make knee-jerk calls for more policing and harsher enforcement. But the numbers speak for themselves: these measures aren’t working. Instead, we must have an honest conversation about the root causes of gun violence.

We must acknowledge that the places where people experience high levels of gun violence also experience many other compounding issues — like limited or no access to living-wage jobs, safe and quality housing, health care, or mental health care services. These places are often highly economically disadvantaged and segregated, forged by past and present racial discrimination and systemic oppression. Communities like this, like many of those I represent in Congress, have experienced cycles of disinvestment, poverty, violence, trauma, and grief for decades.

And our youth and young adults are caught in the crosshairs.

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Young adults ages 15-29 accounted for 31 percent of all gun deaths in 2016 and nearly 50 percent of all gun-related homicides. Black youth face an exponentially higher risk of being the victim of a gun murder in the United States: African Americans between the ages of 15 and 29 are 18 times more likely than their white peers to be the victim of a gun homicide. Young Latinos also face higher rates of gun homicides, with rates that are estimated to be four times higher than their white peers; which is likely a low estimate given the difficultly gathering data on Latinx communities. 

Subsidized youth employment is only one of many investments that must be made to address the public health crisis inflicted by gun violence: it is a critical part of urgently needed reforms including changes to policing and criminal legal systems as well as overdue reinvestment in historically underfunded communities. Research shows that a thriving local economy, one that ensures that everyone who wants to work has access to a quality job, is a key element in reducing gun violence and crime, and that’s something I’ve experienced firsthand.

Youth engagement in real, living-wage work opportunities is a key piece of the violence reduction puzzle. Transitional jobs programs can reduce re-arrest and re-incarceration for new crimes by up to 50 percent among people with the highest risk factors — including for youth. And paid subsidized employment programs for youth have been shown to reduce neighborhood violent-crime arrests by over 40 percent. Projects in Chicago, Albany, Los Angeles, Hartford and elsewhere are combining living-wage work opportunities with access to behavioral and mental health care and other supports to break cycles of poverty and violence.

It’s past time for Congress to invest in youth employment opportunities and other approaches that tackle some of the root causes of violence and crime in communities. The Biden-Harris American Jobs Plan includes resources dedicated to addressing community-based violence prevention programs. My colleagues and I have also developed legislation, like the Connecting Youth to Jobs Act I introduced earlier this year, that combines subsidized jobs with wraparound services for young people in communities most impacted by gun violence and trauma. We must make a transformative reinvestment in communities. The lives of our youth depend on it.

García represents the 4th District of Illinois.