Poverty’s Many Pathways into Chicago's Youth Gang Violence

Poverty’s Many Pathways into Chicago's Youth Gang Violence

Chicago’s youth gun violence is being exacerbated by financial exploitation, fear, community tolerance and distrust of the police while Washington is out of touch and urgent financial help is needed.

There has been an influx of gang activity and drug selling “even with the presence of all of our churches” observed Pastor Belinda Hood of Love in Action Ministries Center who has seen a “drastic change” in their west side Chicago neighborhood over the past five years.

Initially, Hood served as an assistant to the founding pastor who established the Center in 1990 and has led the congregation since his death in 2004. A storefront ministry on West North Avenue, the Center’s mostly glass faced building is now protected with a heavy black-meshed security wire.

The west side congregation is located in the 29th Ward says Pastor Hood, who complains that Alderman Deborah Graham has failed to respond to her numerous attempts to make personal contact and is ignoring her complaints about physically cleaning up the neighborhood.

While there are a few social service agencies in the neighborhood, Pastor Hood is quick to point out that there’s a high number of youths that are not in school and who “still think they want to hang out.”  She sees a “mind set in the community” that breeds for this type of environment—“the drugs and for the children not going to school and just loitering.”

University of Chicago Crime Lab Co-director, Harold Pollack, PhD, acknowledges that “In some fundamental way we know that poverty, segregation, educational failure and inequality play a very important role in crime and violence.”

Payday Loan Stores Only Create the Appearance for Helping the Community

Also, there has been an influx of payday loan stores in the area observed Pastor Hood who, in 2011, gave a workshop seminar to the congregation and the community on how payday loans and title loan businesses in the neighborhood may have the appearance for helping their mostly working poor congregation, but “they are actually vultures for our community and for our people.”

Most loans are for necessities not emergencies

Most loans are for necessities not emergencies

Hood’s seminar included one person who actually worked at a payday loan—a brother of a congregation member—and a congregation member who had obtained a payday loan of $500 and ended up paying back “like $1,500—it was horrible” said Hood.“We were helping people to see that these businesses were set up to look good but that, if you’re on welfare or have a minimum wage job and you’ve got all these children to feed, you’re actually getting deeper into debt –it blindsides the people” the Pastor explained.

Interestingly, Hood’s observations track well with the 2012 Payday Lending In America report published by The PEW Charitable Trust, which identified five groups that have higher odds of having used a payday loan.  Specifically, these groups included those without a four-year college degree; home renters; those earning below $40,000 annually; those who are separated or divorced; and African Americans who—after controlling for other factors—were found to be 103% more likely to obtain a payday loan than other race or ethnicity.

What one single mother would say about payday loans

Annette Daly a restaurant server and single mother who has often had to work two jobs, grew up on Chicago’s west side but didn’t want to get into the details of why she had taken out a payday loan, except to say that she needed to help out her daughter and that “it was something that had to be taken care of immediately, you know.”

Despite her reluctance, Daly went on to say that she “can’t even imagine what honestly desperate people, who, get caught up in that, and can’t afford to pay, what kind of cycle that is for them.”

When asked whether she’d take out another PLS loan if presented with the same circumstances, Daly’s immediate response was, “No, never!  The amount of interest that you have to pay for the loan is just—it makes you sick.”DSC_0018 2

Learning to be a good financial steward

Interestingly, Pastor Hood’s seminar included a 21 day challenge intended to help form a new “habit” in the congregation of being good financial stewards of their hard to come by dollars.  “Only buy what is necessary” was the challenge given her congregation and “bring your lunch to work” said the Pastor.

Commenting on the profusion of payday and auto title lenders in the neighborhood over the past several years and the irony of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new zoning ordinance restricting the location of these storefronts, Hood remarked, “You know they’re appealing to the eye” in a neighborhood that is chasing their alderman to get the community cleaned up.

Aware that these predatory lending operations have now strategically lined every traffic artery through her neighborhood, the Pastor proclaimed, “They’re not there by mistake.”  Intuitively, Hood senses where the many pathways of poverty lead and how they harm her neighborhood and congregation.

Policy makers know the business model is deceptively advertised

There is a lack of political will to push back too hard against the predatory lending lobby in Illinois, which arguably reflects the political trade-off of having an esthetic appeal while allowing these businesses to harvest the City’s working poor.

Payday loans are just too easy and made without any underwriting analysis.  Deceptively, the industry is permitted to advertised their product as a temporary bridge to the next payday.  While in reality, profitability of the industry’s business model depends upon borrowers becoming indebted for much longer than one loan term or payment cycle.

Would policy makers permit the sales of cough syrup if profitability depended upon misuse of the product–probably not.

Nevertheless, policy makers in Illinois have long known that the payday loan business model, as promoted, is not profitable without the successive debt cycle according to Katie Buitrago, a Senior Policy and Communications Associate at the Woodstock Institute, who has done much of the research for the City’s new zone ordinance restricting these storefronts.

Public benefits are harvested by payday lenders

What’s not known is exactly how much of the payday loan industry’s business is harvested from public benefits like social security, unemployment and disability payments.  Lynda DeLaforgne, co-director of Citizens Action Illinois who has been on the front lines of the battle for payday loan reform for 12 years, says that, to her knowledge, there would be no way to track that in the current system.

“At one point, one of the big lenders in Illinois, the Payday Loan Store of Illinois, PLS Financial Service was tapping into people’s unemployment benefits.” said DeLaforgne.   In other words, they were using their unemployment check as security.

Apparently, Citizens Action Illinois “kind of blew the lid off of that and I think they pulled back and subsequently stopped using people’s unemployment checks to secure loans,” says DeLaforgne.

Importantly, explained DeLaforgne, Illinois does allow wage assignments, not as security for the loan, but the “lender is allowed to ask for wage assignments.”

Data on what percentage of the population currently receives public benefits and importantly, how much of those benefits in Pastor Hood’s neighborhood are being siphoned away by financial predators sadly, is not at this moment known.  But, the most recent census data suggests that it’s likely to be substantial.

Community “mind set” tolerates the escalation of violence

Directly across four lanes of busy street traffic from Love in Action Ministries Center is  Dove’s Funeral Home, another strategically located neighborhood business in a city that just ended the year with a total of 535 homicides—many of them occurring on the west side.

A long bright white building with royal blue awnings occupying almost a third of the block, Dove’s 24 Hour funeral services also maintains a huge, well lighted west facing billboard at the west end of the block providing a constant reminder to Hood’s congregation and Chicagoan’s—who’ve already endured 64 homicides since the beginning of the year—that services for the recently deceased in their neighborhood are always right at hand.

Boldly, the escalation of violence in this west side neighborhood has not deterred Pastor Hood.  She still goes out in the community knocking on doors and trying to talk in the community asking what they can do as a church to change the neighborhood.  “What we found out is that a lot of the older people in the community are afraid.  They’re afraid to say anything to the young people in the community” said Hood.

One of the big problems, as Hood sees it, is that the “mind set” is not to come out and try to change the situation but to tolerate it.  The Pastor explained, “They just go in their house, close the door and allow this stuff to go on in the community—they tolerate it.”

Over 75% of the households—“probably a greater number in that community now” Hood believes—are households being run by single mothers.  “A mother can only go so far with a son.  But a young man needs a father to help raise him and direct him and we find that missing” says Pastor Hood.

There is an absence of fathers in these homes

The reality for this west side congregation is that a lot of the young men are loitering, dropping out of school and getting involved in crimes—gang activity and drugs. In large part because “there is the absence of fathers in the homes who set the tone for the homes” says Hood.

Adamantly, Hood pronounces that a mother can only do so much, “but it takes a father to really raise the children, especially our young men.”  Also not lost on Pastor Hood is the fact that when fathers are missing in the home it keeps mothers out of the home while they’re having to work and leaves children unattended.

“We are the working poor” says Hood and, in her opinion, a lot of this violence stems from the fact that fathers are missing from these homes.

The ability of adults to be successful parents is sometimes compromised by poverty.  You know many things parents would like to do for their kids they can’t do explains Harold Pollack and “young people see in the adults around them many sources of stress and difficulty that make it hard for them to develop successfully”  But, “If you’re the child of a single mom and she’s got a network of adults—maybe her siblings or her parents or whoever—who are really there helping, you can certainly nurture a child very well.”

A lot of mothers are certainly in very challenging circumstances either because they don’t have that support or because economically it’s really hard to be a single mother and be, essentially, both a mother and father in a family.

Also, while the circumstances of parents aren’t made any easier by what’s coming through the ear bud of a young man who’s listening to the cruddy hip-hop music from an adult perspective, what really matters is not what that kid’s listening to in his ear buds, but “what does he see in the adults in the world around him and how they treat each other and how they present to him what being a man is about” says Dr. Pollack.

Gangs in ChicagoThe transition into High School is especially important

An expert on the intersection of poverty policy and public health, who’s research has helped inform Washington and State policy makers, Pollack believes that there is “too little emphasis on helping kids with social and emotional development when they’re adolescents.”

Acknowledging that “every kid needs adults to support them, nurture them and to show them the way” Pollack says that “it’s a very challenging thing to be a 17 year old kid in the City of Chicago.”

There is the “transition into high school when we can have a large impact and be proactive” and “these are moments in kids development that seem especially important” says Pollack.

While there are many pathways that poverty feeds into violence, one is that the resources available in schools and in other venues for young people are challenged in low-income communities.

School closures center on politically marginalized neighborhoods

Political marginalization in parts of the City where people are disorganized and less influential is certainly the case in Pollack’s mind.  For parents and students the prospect of being forced away from familiar, nearby schools—even those where student performance lags—is a frightening prospect.

Particularly when navigating more streets in the City brings with it the perilous reality that as many as one in every five youths killed by gunfire in Chicago are an innocent bystander, according to a report from the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

Importantly, Chicago’s violence—and particularly gun violence—is unevenly distributed across communities with shootings being disproportionately concentrated in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

African-American and Latino neighborhoods on the South side and in Pastor Hood’s West side neighborhood  have seen school enrollments decline.  Shifting demographics of the city which have fed wide variations in school use have left schools in the area targets for closure.

Patterns of youth gun violence are familiar

Harold Pollack knows well that Chicago suffers the burden of a long history of vast areas of the city being highly segregated and poorly served by police, education and everything else.

Every issue that we struggle with in urban America is made more difficult to solve when there is a serious public safety problem.  Violence is not some nebulous phenomenon.  Intuitively we understand that people surrounded by violence are more likely to be violent themselves.

At the heart of our dilemma in Chicago, is the real concern that “if we leave it up to 17 year olds to protect themselves in a very difficult environment, we’re not going to like all the solutions that they come up with” remarked Pollack.

The University of Chicago Crime Lab’s investigation and data underscores a distressingly familiar demographic pattern of youth gun violence.  Both victims and offenders are disproportionately likely to be young African American males who come from poor, single-parent households and who hail from some of the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

School failure is a particularly important factor contributing to the rubric of Chicago’s violence which the Crime Lab’s investigation identified as underutilized targets for intervention in seeking a solution.

Improving school engagement and outcomes for high-risk youth seems like a particularly important component of any anti-violence strategy because—unlike such after the fact strategies as sending juvenile offenders to detention—prevention programs that improve schooling outcomes have the potential to reduce the burden of violence and delinquency to society while at the same time helping, rather than harming, those youth who are at highest risk for violence involvement.

Police must win the trust of the community

“Distrust of the police is a very potent issue” in Chicago, says Dr. Pollack—an opinion shared by attorney John Lag, an Adjunct Professor of Law at John Marshall Law School.

“The police department has never embraced community policing here,” says Lag.  The C.A.P.S.–Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy–program “was really never meant to be community policing, it was a way for the Department to have metrics,” explained Lag, who has practice law in City for over 30 years.  Lag believes, that “They just want to keep score so that they can show people what they did.”

The C.A.P.S. program–which started in 1993–“is always changing,” says Lag.  “It’s not police officers on the street.  It’s not cops walking a beat.  It’s not cops coming into the neighborhood getting to know the community members.”

“You need the community to have that active engagement with the law enforcement process” says Crime Lab co-director Harold Pollack and “you have to win the trust of the community both in terms of your effectiveness and in terms of your values.Public Resources

In short, people need to “feel that it will make life in their community better if they work with the police” explained Pollack.  Needless to say, this is the challenge and “mind set” that Pastor Hood identified while going out and speaking with the older members of her west side neighborhood.

The yearly economic impact on every household  is substantial

In economic terms, the cost of gun violence—both direct and indirect—is large and shared by the entire Chicago community.

While the cost of treatment for gunshot wounds often garners the most attention, in financial terms they are surprisingly a small part of the full social costs to the public generated by gun violence among school-age youth in the City.

Every crime-related gunshot wound imposes costs on society on the order of $1 million, according to previous research by Crime Lab members Philip Cook of Duke University and Crime Lab co-director Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago.

Chicago has averaged roughly 420 gun homicides per year over the past 10 years.  The gross social costs of this gun violence imposed on the entire Chicago community over this period are on the order of about $2.5 billion each year—about $2,500 per Chicago household according to calculations made by the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

There is no sense of urgency in the help needed from Washington

Unquestionably, the findings of the Crime Lab’s report imposes a level of responsibility on Chicagoan’s and particularly on policy makers to continue to address persistent social inequality and to focus our resources on the individuals and neighborhoods most likely to bear the costs of violent crime—think police and school closures.

Unfortunately, neither Rahm Emanuel’s current proposal for CPS closures nor President Obama’s proposed gun legislation fully encompasses a reflection of what they should realize Chicago needs now.

“When I look at the politics going on around the sequester, it seems completely unrelated to the street   realities in urban America where we just really need jobs and we need social services and help in a variety of ways” said Dr. Pollack.   “We need some help from Washington in this, because we are really going through a difficult budgetary time” and “I just don’t see the sense of urgency in Washington to provide it.”


Watch:  Gangs, Guns and Politicians

Current thoughts on political grandstanding, the alliance between gangs and politicians, gun control and the public health approach to  youth gang violence in Chicago.

Features:  David Bernstein, Senior Editor Chicago Magazine, Harold Pollack, PhD Co-Director University of Chicago Crime Lab, John Lag, Adjunct Professor of Law, John Marshall Law School and Don Mastrianni, owner Illinois Gun Works, Elmwood Park, IL.


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