Investing in youth to prevent crime and poverty

If you’re reading this, chances are good that you’re not going to commit a homicide this year. You won’t be stealing your neighbor’s car, and the gun in your closet is used for hunting pheasants, not concealed in your trousers where it can be whipped out to end a person’s life. But not everyone lives a crime-free life.

There are many factors that can lead a person to commit a violent crime. People inherently understand the difference between right and wrong. No matter where somebody lives, there is always a choice between right and wrong.

However, there are also conditions that seem ripe for crime, and one of those conditions is poverty. It has been well documented that in areas of concentrated poverty, there is a higher likelihood of crime.

While Minnesota’s overall crime index rate has been falling since the 1980s, there is still reason to be concerned about what’s happening in areas where poverty is more concentrated, which now includes many suburban communities.

A new Minnesota Department of Human Services report shows just how many young people are living in poverty. An estimated one-third of Minnesotans between the ages 0 and 17 — that’s roughly 420,000 children — were so poor they qualified for either Medicaid or MinnesotaCare last year, and 4 out of 10 Minnesota babies were born to mothers covered by those programs.

Of those 420,000 kids:

-Three-fourths are food stamp recipients.

- One-third live in an area of concentrated poverty, where at least 20 percent of residents have incomes at or below the federal poverty level.

-One-fifth have received child protection services within the past five years.

-13 percent have a parent with a serious mental illness, and 10 percent have a parent who has had a chemical dependency diagnosis within the past 18 months.

Many of these children, by virtue of living in poverty, will be exposed to what the state defines as “family risk factors.” The state considers these factors troubling because they impede a child’s ability to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to become productive and engaged community members.

At the root level we should all be concerned when children in this state are entering life at such a disadvantaged start point. But if that is not compelling enough, there are societal reasons to take notice.

Some of the most distressed areas of concentrated poverty, historically confined to Minneapolis and St. Paul, are slowly expanding outward, to places like Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Richfield, Bloomington, Apple Valley and Coon Rapids. In these areas, pockets have sprouted where at least 40 percent of the residents in a defined area are living in poverty. There are 112 areas of concentrated poverty in the metro region and of the 370,000 people living in those areas, the overwhelming majority, 275,000, are people of color.

So what does all of this have to do with crime? Consider for a moment the makeup of Minnesota’s prison population. Even though whites represent 85 percent of the population of Minnesota, they only represent 42 percent of the prison population, according to the Council on Crime and Justice. Conversely, blacks represent 5.2 percent of Minnesota’s total population, but represent 37 percent of the prison population. Black youth represent 40 percent of the detainees in juvenile detention centers, while white youth represent 38 percent. A black person is 20 times more likely to be stopped for a traffic offense than a white person. And these stops remain high despite the fact that whites stopped during traffic searches were found to carry contraband at a higher rate than blacks and other minorities, but resulting arrests and prosecution rates were 10 times higher for blacks.

In terms of costs, crime and incarceration hit every Minnesotan hard. The average annual cost to incarcerate an inmate in Minnesota is about $50,000.

Smart investment in youth programs can reduce these costs considerably and more importantly provide a viable path out of poverty and crime.

Education clearly plays a role in creating productive citizens. In fact, one study cited by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice suggests that a high school drop-out is eight times more likely to be incarcerated than those who graduate from high school.

The Alliance for Excellent Education notes that simply increasing Minnesota’s male graduation rate by 5 percent would have an annual crime-related savings of $107 million. Imagine how many at-risk kids could be helped with that savings.

Efforts like Generation Next, a coalition of civic, education and business leaders working to close the achievement gap in Minneapolis and St. Paul, will certainly help prevent many kids from becoming teen and adult offenders of crime. But much of that success starts even before a child enters kindergarten.

Getting at-risk students to the point of graduation has its roots in early education programs, where good habits and inspired learning can be cultivated and abusive situations can be nipped in the bud.

Established programs like Initiative Foundation in Little Falls, Head Start programs in Forest Lake, Early Childhood Family Education programs in Anoka, Dakota, Carver or Hennepin counties or other youth-focused efforts must continue to reinvent themselves as they look at the changing demographics of their areas.

Investing in our youth today will provide them with hope and the tools needed to escape poverty and crime. Ultimately these are the kids who will one day lead society or become a burden to it.

-An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board

  • cow tipper

    Spend all the money you want. When a family does not raise a kid to be a proper member of society you have problems. It’s lack of parenting and a cultural problem.