American Murder Mystery

Why is crime rising in so many American cities? The answer implicates one of the most celebrated antipoverty programs of recent decades.
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In the most literal sense, the national effort to diffuse poverty has succeeded. Since 1990, the number of Americans living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty—meaning that at least 40 percent of households are below the federal poverty level—has declined by 24percent. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Recently, the housing expert George Galster, of Wayne State University, analyzed the shifts in urban poverty and published his results in a paper called “A Cautionary Tale.” While fewer Americans live in high-poverty neighborhoods, increasing numbers now live in places with “moderate” poverty rates, meaning rates of 20 to 40 percent. This pattern is not necessarily better, either for poor people trying to break away from bad neighborhoods or for cities, Galster explains. His paper compares two scenarios: a city split into high-poverty and low-poverty areas, and a city dominated by median-poverty ones. The latter arrangement is likely to produce more bad neighborhoods and more total crime, he concludes, based on a computer model of how social dysfunction spreads.

Studies show that recipients of Section8 vouchers have tended to choose moderately poor neighborhoods that were already on the decline, not low-poverty neighborhoods. One recent study publicized by HUD warned that policy makers should lower their expectations, because voucher recipients seemed not to be spreading out, as they had hoped, but clustering together. Galster theorizes that every neighborhood has its tipping point—a threshold well below a 40 percent poverty rate—beyond which crime explodes and other severe social problems set in. Pushing a greater number of neighborhoods past that tipping point is likely to produce more total crime. In 2003, the Brookings Institution published a list of the 15 cities where the number of high-poverty neighborhoods had declined the most. In recent years, most of those cities have also shown up as among the most violent in the U.S., according to FBI data.

The “Gathering Storm” report that worried over an upcoming epidemic of violence was inspired by a call from the police chief of Louisville, Kentucky, who’d seen crime rising regionally and wondered what was going on. Simultaneously, the University of Louisville criminologist Geetha Suresh was tracking local patterns of violent crime. She had begun her work years before, going blind into the research: she had just arrived from India, had never heard of a housing project, had no idea which were the bad parts of town, and was clueless about the finer points of American racial sensitivities. In her research, Suresh noticed a recurring pattern, one that emerged first in the late 1990s, then again around 2002. A particularly violent neighborhood would suddenly go cold, and crime would heat up in several new neighborhoods. In each case, Suresh has now confirmed, the first hot spots were the neighborhoods around huge housing projects, and the later ones were places where people had moved when the projects were torn down. From that, she drew the obvious conclusion: “Crime is going along with them.” Except for being hand-drawn, Suresh’s map matching housing patterns with crime looks exactly like Janikowski and Betts’s.

Nobody would claim vouchers, or any single factor, as the sole cause of rising crime. Crime did not rise in every city where housing projects came down. In cities where it did, many factors contributed: unemployment, gangs, rapid gentrification that dislocated tens of thousands of poor people not living in the projects. Still, researchers around the country are seeing the same basic pattern: projects coming down in inner cities and crime pushing outward, in many cases destabilizing cities or their surrounding areas. Dennis Rosenbaum, a criminologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me that after the high-rises came down in Chicago, suburbs to the south and west—including formerly quiet ones—began to see spikes in crime; nearby Maywood’s murder rate has nearly doubled in the past two years. In Atlanta, which almost always makes the top-10 crime list, crime is now scattered widely, just as it is in Memphis and Louisville.

In some places, the phenomenon is hard to detect, but there may be a simple reason: in cities with tight housing markets, Section8 recipients generally can’t afford to live within the city limits, and sometimes they even move to different states. New York, where the rate of violent crime has plummeted, appears to have pushed many of its poor out to New Jersey, where violent crime has increased in nearby cities and suburbs. Washington, D.C., has exported some of its crime to surrounding counties in Maryland and Virginia.

Much research has been done on the spread of gangs into the suburbs. Jeff Rojek, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina, issued a report in 2006 showing that serious gang activity had spread to eight suburban counties around the state, including Florence County, home to the city of Florence, which was ranked the most violent place in America the year after Memphis was. In his fieldwork, he said, the police complained of “migrant gangs” from the housing projects, and many departments seemed wholly unprepared to respond.

After the first wave of housing-project demolition in Memphis, in 1997, crime spread out, but did not immediately increase. (It takes time for criminals to make new connections and to develop “comfort zones,” Janikowski told me.) But in 2005, another wave of project demolitions pushed the number of people displaced from public housing to well over 20,000, and crime skyrocketed. Janikowski felt there were deep structural issues behind the increase, ones that the city was not prepared to handle. Old gangs—the Gangster Disciples and the LeMoyne Gardens gang—had long since re-formed and gotten comfortable. Ex-convicts recently released from prison had taken up residence with girlfriends or wives or families who’d moved to the new neighborhoods. Working-class people had begun moving out to the suburbs farther east, and more recipients of Section8 vouchers were taking their place. Now many neighborhoods were reaching their tipping points.

Chaotic new crime patterns in suburbia caught the police off guard. Gang members who’d moved to North Memphis might now have cousins southeast of the city, allowing them to target the whole vast area in between and hide out with relatives far from the scene of the crime. Memphis covers an area as large as New York City, but with one-seventeenth as many police officers, and a much lower cop-to-citizen ratio. And routine policing is more difficult in the semi-suburbs. Dealers sell out of fenced-in backyards, not on exposed street corners. They have cars to escape in, and a landscape to blend into. Shrubbery is a constant headache for the police; they’ve taken to asking that bushes be cut down so suspects can’t duck behind them.

I began reporting this story because I came across a newspaper article that ranked cities by crime rate and I was surprised to see Memphis at the very top. At first I approached the story literally, the same way a cop on a murder case would: here’s the body, now figure out what happened. But it didn’t take long to realize that in Memphis, and in city after city, the bodies are just the most visible symptoms of a much deeper sickness.

If replacing housing projects with vouchers had achieved its main goal—infusing the poor with middle-class habits—then higher crime rates might be a price worth paying. But today, social scientists looking back on the whole grand experiment are apt to use words like baffling and disappointing. A large federal-government study conducted over the past decade—a follow-up to the highly positive, highly publicized Gautreaux study of 1991—produced results that were “puzzling,” said Susan Popkin of the Urban Institute. In this study, volunteers were also moved into low-poverty neighborhoods, although they didn’t move nearly as far as the Gautreaux families. Women reported lower levels of obesity and depression. But they were no more likely to find jobs. The schools were not much better, and children were no more likely to stay in them. Girls were less likely to engage in risky behaviors, and they reported feeling more secure in their new neighborhoods. But boys were as likely to do drugs and act out, and more likely to get arrested for property crimes. The best Popkin can say is: “It has not lived up to its promise. It has not lifted people out of poverty, it has not made them self-sufficient, and it has left a lot of people behind.”

Researchers have started to look more critically at the Gautreaux results. The sample was tiny, and the circumstances were ideal. The families who moved to the suburbs were screened heavily and the vast majority of families who participated in the program didn’t end up moving, suggesting that those who did were particularly motivated. Even so, the results were not always sparkling. For instance, while Gautreaux study families who had moved to the suburbs were more likely to work than a control group who stayed in the city, they actually worked less than before they had moved. “People were really excited about it because it seemed to offer something new,” Popkin said. “But in my view, it was radically oversold.”

Ed Goetz, a housing expert at the University of Minnesota, is creating a database of the follow-up research at different sites across the country, “to make sense of these very limited positive outcomes.” On the whole, he says, people don’t consistently report any health, education, or employment benefits. They are certainly no closer to leaving poverty. They tend to “feel better about their environments,” meaning they see less graffiti on the walls and fewer dealers on the streets. But just as strongly, they feel “a sense of isolation in their new communities.” His most surprising finding, he says, “is that they miss the old community. For all of its faults, there was a tight network that existed. So what I’m trying to figure out is: Was this a bad theory of poverty? We were intending to help people climb out of poverty, but that hasn’t happened at all. Have we underestimated the role of support networks and overestimated the role of place?”

HOPE VI stands as a bitter footnote to this story. What began as an “I Have a Dream” social crusade has turned into an urban-redevelopment project. Cities fell so hard for the idea of a new, spiffed-up, gentrified downtown that this vision came to crowd out other goals. “People ask me if HOPE VI was successful, and I have to say, ‘You mean the buildings or the people?’” said Laura Harris, a HOPE VI evaluator in Memphis. “It became seen as a way to get rid of eyesores and attract rich people downtown.” Phyllis Betts told me that when she was interviewing residents leaving the housing projects, “they were under the impression they could move into the new developments on site.” Residents were asked to help name the new developments and consult on the architectural plans. Yet to move back in, residents had to meet strict criteria: if they were not seniors, they had to be working, or in school, or on disability. Their children could not be delinquent in school. Most public-housing residents were scared off by the criteria, or couldn’t meet them, or else they’d already moved and didn’t want to move again. The new HOPE VI developments aimed to balance Section8 and market-rate residents, but this generally hasn’t happened. In Memphis, the rate of former public-housing residents moving back in is 5 percent.

A few months ago, Harris went to a Sunday-afternoon picnic at Uptown Square, the development built on the site of the old Hurt Village project, to conduct a survey. The picnic’s theme was chili cook-off. The white people, mostly young couples, including little kids and pregnant wives, sat around on Eddie Bauer chairs with beer holders, chatting. The black people, mostly women with children, were standing awkwardly around the edges. Harris began asking some of the white people the questions on her survey: Do you lack health insurance? Have you ever not had enough money to buy medication? One said to her, “This is so sad. Does anyone ever answer ‘yes’ to these questions?”—Harris’s first clue that neighbors didn’t talk much across color lines. One of the developers was there that day surveying the ideal community he’d built, and he was beaming. “Isn’t this great?” he asked Harris, and she remembers thinking, Are you kidding me? They’re all sitting 20 feet away from each other!

In my visits with former Dixie Homes tenants who’d moved around the city, I came across the same mix of reactions that researchers had found. The residents who had always been intent on moving out of Dixie Homes anyway seemed to be thriving; those who’d been pushed out against their will, which was the vast majority, seemed dislocated and ill at ease.

I met 30-year-old Sheniqua Woodard, a single mother of three who’d been getting her four-year degree while living at Dixie. She was now working at a city mental-health clinic and about to start studying toward a master’s degree in special education. She’d moved as far out of the city as she could, to a house with a big backyard. She said, “The fact of being in my own home? Priceless.”

But I also met La Sasha Rodgers, who was 19 when Dixie was torn down (now she’s 21). “A lot of people thought it was bad, because they didn’t live there,” she told me. “But it was like one big family. It felt like home. If I could move back now, the way it was, I would.” She moved out to a house in South Memphis with her mother, and all the little cousins and nieces and nephews who drift in during the day. She doesn’t know anyone else on the block. “It’s just here,” she said about her new house. Rodgers may not see them right out her window, but she knows that the “same dope dealers, the same junkies” are just down the block. The threats are no less real, but now they seem distant and dull, as if she were watching neighborhood life on TV. At Dixie, when there were shots at the corner store, everyone ran out to see what was happening. Now, “if somebody got shot, we wouldn’t get up to see.”

Rodgers didn’t finish high school, although she did get her GED, and she’s never had a job. Still, “I know I have to venture out in the world,” she said, running through her options: Go back to school? Get a job? Get married? Have a baby? “I want more. I’m so ready to have my own. I just don’t know how to get it.”

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Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of the book The End of Men based on her story in the July/August 2010 Atlantic.

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