It's Not American Carnage. It Is An Urban Crisis.

Saying something is so does not make it so – even in this not so brave new world of alternative facts and fake news.
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In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump called attention to the very real and serious problem of “Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities….” He was right to signify on this problem.

But, as he continued to signify on an “education system flush with cash” he was wrong. And, when he ended this section of his address – after talking about crime, gangs and drugs - by declaring “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” he was even more wrong. He was wrong on two counts.

He was wrong in the choice of the word “carnage” which Merriam Webster defines as “great and unusually bloody slaughter, as in battle” to describe the current situation. This might be Trump engaging in what he referred to as “truthful hyperbole” in his book, The Art of the Deal, so we will not take him to the grammatical woodshed for that.

But he should be held accountable for his assertion that this “carnage”, or as we would label it an “urban crisis”, stops right here and stops right now. That statement is absolutely incorrect.

Saying something is so does not make it so – even in this not so brave new world of alternative facts and fake news. The sad and real truth is that the urban crisis abides.

It abides, in part, because as we wrote in March of 2015, “…not only has America not won the war on urban poverty. It has essentially abandoned it. It has declared victory and turned its attention elsewhere. The term “urban crisis” has disappeared from our vocabulary.” (We go into extensive detail on the reasons for why this has occurred in our earlier blog.)

Perhaps President Trump’s inaugural comments will renew our national dialogue on the urban crisis and the conditions of poverty in the neighborhoods of our inner cities. We are pleased to see the President shine a bright light on these issues which were rarely discussed during the presidential election year.

Here are a few select facts regarding the crisis conditions that we have highlighted in prior blogs:

  • In the period from 2009-2014, in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., there was growth in 95 areas with increases in gross metropolitan product, jobs and aggregate wages. In stark contrast, there was little inclusion with only 8 areas seeing increases in median wage, employment rate and relative income poverty rate. And, the relative income poverty rate gap between whites and other races grew in 69 areas. (Source: Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institution)
  • In a study of 100 American cities over 5 and one half million young people are neither working nor in school. (Source: Measure of America.)
  • Children born into middle income families have a “roughly even chance” of moving up or down once they become adults.” But, “those born into rich or poor families have a high probability of remaining rich or poor as adults.” (Source: Brookings Institution Study)
  • In the period from 2001 and 2014, the number of high poverty schools serving primarily black and brown students more than doubled. (Source: GAO Report) Nationwide, districts with high levels of poverty receive $1,200 less per pupil from state and local sources than districts with low levels of poverty. (Source: Study by Marguerite Roza of Georgetown University)
  • Children who moved into “good neighborhoods” fared much better than those who were stuck in “the ghetto”. (Source: Studies by Harvard Professors Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz )

These facts are just the tip of the statistical iceberg about the conditions of poverty in our inner cities. Sadly, as more reports come out and studies continue to be done, the conditions there continue to worsen and the residents start to be seen as statistics rather than human beings.

The crying need now is for interventions. There is an emerging consensus among many experts on where and how to intervene.

The point for intervention should be the neighborhood and the intervention should be designed to focus on kids to close what David Leonhardt of the New York Times has called “the neighborhood gap.” The intervention should be structured to bring together the families, communities and schools as the pivot points for improving the quality of education and opportunities for economic mobility for poor kids.

As we noted in earlier blogs, Harvard Professor Robert Putnam provides solid recommendations for leveraging those pivot points in his masterful 2015 book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. An excellent nonpartisan “consensus” report issued by the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the more liberal Brookings Institution provides recommendations for actions in three domains: family, work, and education.

The good news for the bad news about the urban crisis is that there are solutions at hand. The requirement is to mobilize and utilize them.

We recognize that this will be easier said than done. That is because unfortunately poverty is a partisan issue. This was demonstrated when the Republican presidential candidates, absent Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, convened in early January of 2016, in a forum to discuss poverty.

The primary conclusion of that session was that the main thing that needed to be done is to eliminate federal programs and give the money to the states to deal with the issues. As we pointed out in a blog at that time that has been tried already through block grants and failed miserably. In that same blog, we noted that Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution and Arron Chatterji of Duke University have written that because of increasing partisanship and political and policy realities the states can no longer be looked to as “laboratories of democracy.”

After the January forum, poverty disappeared from the presidential radar screen. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan who was co-host for the forum did head a Republican Party Poverty, Opportunity and Upward Mobility Task Force that produced a report on June 7 titled A Better Way – Our Vision for a Confident America. The Introduction to the Report states:

“No amount of government intervention can replace the great drivers of American life: our families, friends, neighbors, churches, and charities. And Americans do not need more one size fits all, top-down government programs that limit their ability.”

The Report itself focuses primarily on duplicative governmental programs and proposes some welfare and education related measures. It is notably silent, however on the issues of primary and secondary education, urban cities, and inner city neighborhood and community improvement.

Add to that Donald Trump’s twitter threat “to send in the Feds” to Chicago to end the carnage there and it becomes apparent that the carnage that he wants to end is that of the crime, the drugs, and the gangs.

These are problems that absolutely must be dealt with. But, if only those symptoms are addressed, the root causes - abject poverty, broken families, devastated neighborhoods, fewer community schools, and the lack of economic mobility and opportunity - that give birth to them will be ignored.

To conflate this crisis as a simple matter of law and order enforcement or of less federal government involvement and red tape is a serious misdiagnosis of the conditions causing it.

So, this is the context within which the debate about what to do in response to the urban crisis must take place. It is not a particularly optimistic setting. Nonetheless, one must forge ahead.

To do otherwise, is to ignore the crisis which has already been ignored for far too long. If it continues to be ignored for years and decades to come, this crisis could lead to real carnage.

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