How Poverty Kills

The dominant narrative on Chicago’s problems is wrong. That’s becoming obvious as each solution falls flat on its face. We need to radically rethink those problems, their causes and their solutions.

It’s not enough to get illegal guns off the street, which is the cornerstone of the Chicago Police strategy (to his credit, Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson mentions some of the underlying causes of crime; to his detriment, he asserts that they’re well taken care of when they aren’t). It’s not enough to talk about the “culture” of some of our neighborhoods, transparently a code for racism. It’s not enough to hire more cops and tell Chicagoans to do their part, as the mayor has done.

It’s not enough because it’s not addressing the underlying cause. The root cause of our city’s problems is economic.

Just this week, the director of the trauma center at the University of Chicago School of Medicine recounted in the Sun-Times how poverty shaped the lives and the deaths of three children shot to death last month. Dr. Selwyn O. Rogers, Jr.:

We can mitigate the risk factors that lead to violence much like we have learned do with heart attacks. Much like we have encouraged healthier lifestyles to reduce cardiovascular mortality, we can create and implement policies and programs that tackle upstream factors such as helplessness, hopelessness, homelessness, and lack of opportunity and education. We can and need to address the often-ignored toxic stress that results from repeated traumas in urban America.

The whole opinion is excellent, although Rogers sometimes dances around the word “poverty” and substitutes popular neoliberal terms like “lack of opportunity,” as if a steady job is good for someone because of its “opportunity” and not its “income.”

But at the core, he’s right: Violence is a product, and it’s not a product of a violent person, a generic bad guy with no morals. It’s a product of its environment, the social and economic conditions where it happens. This should be basic stuff, ingrained in the news section rather than the opinion pages, but at least it’s being said.

Which brings us to the horrible news of the week: The grandmother of Gizzell Ford was found guilty of her torture and murder in 2013. Gizzell was 8 years old.

Helen Ford, Gizzell’s grandmother, and her father, Andre, kept Gizzell tied to a bed and tortured her repeatedly. The Tribune coverage, linked above and here before the verdict, is excellent and heartbreaking. Gizzell was essentially held in her father’s apartment in South Austin after school ended in the summer of 2013, starved and beaten. It’s hard to read.

It’s also hard to understand. Naturally the first move is to label the father and grandmother monsters, and they are, I can’t argue with that. But it’s not enough to stop there. We can’t ignore how poverty contributed greatly to Gizzell’s death.

Not just in vague ways, either. There are specific things in Gizzell’s story that were shaped by poverty. Gizzell was living with her father because her mother was supposedly homeless, an argument Andre made in court to win custody of Gizzell. Addressing that problem would have given Gizzell a much better chance in life.

In court, prosecutors said her father probably wanted custody of Gizzell in order to get child support or state aid. It’s horrible if true. A parent fighting for custody just to game the ludicrous, Byzantine welfare system in this country literally placed money over the life and well-being of their child. Children shouldn’t be bargaining chips, and I believe parents know that. But people in poverty make that choice not because they’re morally bankrupt but because the need for money is all-consuming.

The Department of Children and Family Services clearly missed several opportunities to save Gizzell’s life. DCFS has been underfunded for Gizzell’s whole life. At what point do we say criminally underfunded, not as a turn of phrase but literally? When the safety net is so shredded that DCFS can’t stop a crime like this, it should spur lawmakers to action. If it doesn’t — and it won’t — aren’t they responsible for similar violence in the future?

At what point does responsibility go beyond Gizzell’s grandmother and father, to all of us who won’t fix the poverty at the heart of the crime?

It’s hard for people to recognize because they confuse identifying a root cause with absolving responsibility. No, being poor did not force Helen Ford to murder her grandchild. It didn’t make her do it, or make her the kind of person who’d do it. It did create the environment and remove almost all the barriers that should have prevented her from doing it, though. If we want to prevent Gizzell’s death, we must improve the environment she grew up in.

Another story emerged in Chicago last month, showing how poverty kills even without violence. Two children died in a Feb. 25 house fire on the South Side when a “fast-moving” fire swept through their basement apartment.

Three adults and three children were living in the basement apartment and heating the home with the stove, which was opened and turned on. That appeared to be the only method of heating the apartment. There were no smoke detectors in the building.

Again, did poverty make people make these choices? No, it didn’t guide them around like puppets. But poverty led to their deaths, plain as day. Nobody heats an apartment with the stove if they have other means. Nobody lives in those conditions unless it’s all they can afford.

Now I know the next argument conservatives will make: Those people chose it somehow, or didn’t work hard enough to better their lives, or deserved it. They didn’t, partly because we’re talking about children, but it’s a meaningless debate anyway. Because if you agree poverty caused those deaths, if you acknowledge the power it has over the lives of children, then you recognize that something must be done to address it before it continues to kill.

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