Violence is a symptom of poverty, not a cause

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Earlier this week, we got a glimpse of President Donald J. Trump’s potential as a leader. His address before Congress was often inspiring and hopeful, and attempted to reach out to those on the other side of the aisle. He articulately explained his intents for the next four years, and of particular interest to me, his plans to address violent crime and poverty. 

As a presidential candidate Trump promised his administration would pour resources into battling both crime and poverty.   from his speech last week gave me pause. Still one line from his speech last week gave me pause.

“But to break the cycle of poverty, we must also break the cycle of violence.”

Mr. Trump said that line about halfway through his address. Now, I would never say that violent crime should not be addressed. I am from Baltimore. I am intimately familiar with violent crime, and there is nothing that breaks my heart more than the excessive violence that plagues my city.

{mosads}As has been reported many times by the media, violent crime has been decreasing across the country for decades, but that’s of little comfort in places like Baltimore and Chicago, where it has in fact been on a steady increase for several years. The violence in these cities are also almost exclusively located in low income, black neighborhoods. There’s no doubt that there is a link between violence and poverty, but to imply that reducing violence is necessary to reduce poverty is backwards, and dangerous.


Violence does not cause poverty. Violence, is a symptom of poverty. To say otherwise perpetuates false information that has plagued policy in this country for decades and made it impossible to affect real change. When you muddy the relationship between the two, it contributes to a myth that has plagued the poor, especially poor black people, forever: That their situation is their fault. 

If they weren’t so violent, maybe they wouldn’t be so poor.

If people are violent, it’s usually because they are poor, because when you are poor, your opportunities to escape poverty are exceptionally limited. 

According to the most recent census data for Baltimore, the poverty rate is 24 percent. A quarter of a city that is 63 percent black. Of those people in poverty, only six percent will ever escape it in their lifetime. When you need to pay rent, or feed your family, or just find something to eat yourself, and there is nowhere else to turn, the poor turn to crime, and that usually means selling drugs.

The illegal drug trade is fueling most of the violence that’s occurring in the streets of Baltimore and in the streets of most other cities that face the same problem. There aren’t a lot of positive outcomes once you enter the drug game. Usually, it means prison, which is another of the main forces that drives poverty. If it’s hard to get a job coming from poverty, coming from prison it is almost impossible, and so to survive you return to selling drugs, and on and on it goes.

The other result from entering the drug game? Is death. There is a lot of money in the illegal drug trade, and for the people involved, it’s often the only source of income they’ll ever see. The only way to protect that income if usually with a gun. 

The answer is not more police, and based on the language in the president’s speech, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was his plan. We’ve been down that road already. In 1994 President Clinton thought it was a great idea to add 100,000 additional police officers to the streets of America as part of the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill. The degradation of the relationship between police and our communities is the price that we paid for that decision.

Nobody would ever choose to enter a lifestyle where the only result was prison or death if they had other options. I watched young men, women, and even children lose their lives because of the choices they felt they had to make that got them involved in that business. I guarantee you that most of them would be alive today if they had the opportunity to secure a decent job.

I’m pleased that this administration is planning to address the problem of rising violence in our cities, but after Mr. Trump’s speech, I am worried that his administration will make the same mistakes that have been made for years, and treat the symptoms, and not the disease.

Kevin Shird is an author, public speaker, and advocate from Baltimore. HIs writing has appeared in the Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Magazine. His recent book, “Uprising in the City”, examines the Baltimore riots following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. Follow him on Twitter @kevin_shird

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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