An Allegory About How Crime Is an Economic Problem


I hate artless metaphors that are supposed to illustrate economic problems, where widgets stand in for real products and free markets stand in for the way markets actually work. But I’m going to try one out on you, just because this is a blog, and bloggers are allowed to be artless while still being relevant.

So here’s an allegory that represents why it aggravates me when people from the good side of town talk about reducing crime by training criminals to get “real jobs” so that they can live a better life.

Pretend there are a dozen thirsty people hanging out in some droughted place that has little clean water to drink. (Water is money in this story,  and places are neighborhoods, and people are people. FYI.) So there’s three bottles of clean water and three people already have dibs on them. The other nine or ten people are drinking this nasty stuff that’s probably going to kill them eventually (which is why it’s technically illegal to sell or drink: for their own good).

Churches admonish their congregations for drinking the unholy beverage. Pastors are privately pissed at themselves for failing to guide their flock to clean water. Even though, in the end, there are no good jobs is no clean water.

Then along comes the Programs Coordinator for “Drink Big,” a non-profit from the good side of town where people are bathing with Dasani and then buying diet-specific water at farmers markets for $2 an ounce, and so on… Drink Big’s representative is down here to set up a program that will teach people how to get their hands on a bottle of the good stuff.

Her first “case” is a success. Disenfranchised Guy #1 successfully snatches up a half-drunk pint and is off the bad stuff for life, he swears.

The second case is just as successful. Disenfranchised Guy #2 puts down his greywater and sneaks the clean water away from Guy #1 when Guy #1 is off dealing with some thirst-related domestic issues.

The Programs Coordinator goes home happy that she had so many successful cases, albeit a little disappointed that the actual crime and thirst statistics went absolutely nowhere. More grants, she thinks.

And there you have it: a flat little children’s story to explain why, on Chicago’s south and west sides, the hundreds of people with good-paying jobs selling heroine aren’t likely to drop their risky but dependable trade in order to steal a low-wage food service job from their friend—on the rare occasion that such a job actually opens up.

The only way job-training could actually reduce crime is if the labor market were stocked with jobs and the only thing standing between the unemployed and employment was a lack of skills and some motivation. But that’s not the case. In fact, there aren’t that many available jobs, and when there are, they’re usually up on the north side.

When unemployment is concentrated far away from the center of Chicago’s media and culture, in black neighborhoods that have no public voice and no economic power, pity is what replaces actual solutions. Pity and sometimes disgust for a criminal lifestyle. Liberals pity, conservatives condemn, but both ways of thinking lead to a circular logic: that the crime justifies the disparity that causes it.

No room here to talk about solutions, but feel free to ask me about Fight for Fifteen, works projects, guaranteed income, public health care, democratizing workplaces, paying interns so that they don’t have to take food service jobs from the less-educated. And so on.


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