Four shootings and one dead in less than 10 days and Fifth Ward City Council member Laura Nauser has an epiphany: Columbia has a gang problem, and the fix she and others propose is a law-and-order approach.
Oh, if it were only that simple.
For years, I have written in this column that Columbia has a gang problem. I have talked about possible solutions and have warned against the acceleration of violence. I am afraid the shootings so far in 2013 are a precursor to what we will see this summer.
In his report, “Into the Abyss: A personal journey into the world of street gangs,” Missouri State University’s Mike Carlie cites Robert M. Gordon’s research: "The main reasons for involvement with ... gangs and [wanna-be] groups were: economic and ethnic marginality; material gain; the attraction of supportive peer groups; and flight from abusive family circumstances."
Carlie continues, "Gangs form to satisfy needs which are going unmet in the families, schools and neighborhoods in which they live or which are perceived as unavailable to the youths who join them."
This is an economic and education problem that will not be addressed by simply enforcing curfews and putting more cops on the street.
The root of gang involvement
The problem stems from a level of “fatalism” caused by poverty, lack of education and no viable employment opportunities. It comes from an “ignorance of inner-city America… [by] most of us who don’t have to survive there.”
The causes in Columbia are more than “we are a way station between St. Louis and Kansas City.”
Take a look at the numbers:
Though Columbia’s unemployment is well under the national and state rates — 4.2 percent versus 6.6 percent statewide as of April 2013 — the city's average income is 16 percent lower than the national average.
The 2013 poverty rate for a family of four is $23,550, or about $11.77 an hour if one is working full-time. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that about 28 percent of "careers" in Columbia do not meet this minimum standard.
If that number does not rattle a few chains, the American Community Survey reports that in 2012, 19.2 percent of Boone County citizens live at or below the poverty rate.
Missouri’s poverty rate in 2011 was 15.8 percent.
Job loss contributes to the problem
This month alone, IBM and ABC Labs, Boone Hospital and MU Health Care are laying off workers or not planning to fill vacant positions.
The Center for American Progress reports that in Missouri, “children attending school in higher-poverty districts still have substantially less access to state and local revenue than children attending school in lower-poverty districts.”
This is the City Council focusing on high-paid professional careers and businesses without consideration for the people who maintain the facilities, feed the masses, educate future generations and sell the fancy clothing, the latest electronics and fancy sneakers but live at or below poverty wages. Almost all are without access to health or dental care insurance.
Ms. Nauser and others continue to look at the “problem” from a fear perspective, seeking a simple heavy-handed solution of enforcement to an extremely complex problem. They are missing the human factors of employment, education and a viable future.
Cures not easy, but rewarding
The argument here is simple, that this is not just a “gang problem” but a “people problem” that can be substantially reduced. We know why street gangs exist — poverty and lack of support systems, few living wage jobs, poorly funded education systems and the outlook of a dismal future.
It is the cures that are difficult, requiring a complete revamping of our vision of society. It is not a move toward socialism, but a return to humanism; not a redistribution of wealth, but creating an avenue to a living wage.
We do not need a bigger hammer to stop gang violence. Hammers we have. Let’s use them to fix the underlying problems, jobs, education and family.
Not more cops, but more cops meeting the community. Not more laws, but more jobs paying living wages.
Not punishing schools for low scores on standardized tests, but giving the test takers a positive vision of tomorrow.
David Rosman is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics.