by Derek Cohen:
For most, Independence Day is spent in happiness and camaraderie with friends and family, reflecting on the nation’s genesis while enjoying a hot dog and a fireworks display. Unfortunately, for too many in Chicago, the lasting memory of this year’s holiday weekend is one of preventable horror.
By the morning of Monday, July 7th, 14 people lay dead and 68 more wounded from the worst rash of short-term violence the city has seen in recent years. Most of the violence was confined to the city’s south and west sides: areas of high poverty and limited employment prospects.
Many of the suggested “causes” of this uptick in violence ring of hollow ideological reaction. Some suggest gun laws are too lax. Others suggest that stiffening the penalties on certain types of offenders or crimes will deter would-be assailants.
Unfortunately, neither is supported by facts and history.
Economic opportunity, however, has been repeatedly shown to offer individuals and communities an escape from the cycle of poverty and violence like that which currently plagues the city. From Shaw and McKay’s groundbreaking sociological research in the Chicago Area Project to the World Health Organization’s analysis of global youth violence, criminologists, economists, and public health scholars agree that opportunity assuages violence.
As economic opportunity increases, young men who once had no option other than a short life of violent gang activity will now have alternatives, many of which offer great upward mobility and quality-of-life. The difficult, hand-to-mouth grind of the street criminal would no longer be considered an attractive option for most when true economic freedom is available.
Both Chicago and the state of Illinois can improve public safety and organically grow the state economy. Rather than pursuing symbolically punitive legislation like additional sentence enhancements or establishing arbitrary definitions of what constitutes an assault rifle, the city council and state legislature can work to get out of the way of businesses and individuals seeking to ply a legitimate trade.
By several indices, Illinois is one of the worst states for business and jobs. Decades of government bloat have driven taxes from the 29th-highest in the nation in 1997 and 1998 to 13th highest in 2011. Crippling pension obligations alone have the state teetering on the brink of insolvency and have required notable cuts to public safety. The Chicago juggernaut is struggling to keep the state afloat, though it too is in peril as citizens look elsewhere for a safe environment with better economic prospects. As Chicago progresses into economic hardship, the effect will be felt most swiftly and severely in the already-marginalized inner city.
This economic stranglehold is not a fait accompli. Sensible reforms that empower entrepreneurial individuals and small business owners to expand, businesses to hire qualified employees, and individuals to sell their labor unfettered in the marketplace would increase opportunity across the economic spectrum. This does not need to come in the form of a government handout; rather, could include reducing corporate and individual tax burdens (not simply “picking favorites” through a dubious incentive scheme), permitting provisional occupational licensure, and offering a modicum of liability protection to businesses and individuals who hire or rent residential property to ex-offenders.
Certainly, economic freedom is no panacea against those wholly bent on harming their fellow man. Furthermore, these reforms may all be for naught so long as the state insists on spending more tax money than the taxpayers can earn. Finally, poverty is not a per se criminogenic risk factor. A vast majority of individuals in low-income neighborhoods commit no crime.
However, getting out of the way of economic growth will go a long way towards shoring up public safety for all. As more tax dollars are collected from competitive and growing businesses and less are being used to subsidize connected corporations or paid out in usurious pension plans, Chicago could afford to increase police presence in areas most in need.
The tragedy of Chicago’s Independence Day weekend will not be soon forgotten — and any productive reforms undertaken will not, sadly, benefit those whose lives were taken. Still, by increasing the opportunity to earn a legitimate livelihood, both Chicago and Illinois could lessen the future probability of such violence.
Derek Cohen is a policy analyst in the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice. Follow Derek on Twitter at @CohenAtTPPF.