A NEW ORLEANS TRIBUNE ANALYSIS
As local officials and leaders pontificate and posture while they appear to do something about violent crime across the city, we say it is time, past time really, to have serious conversations about poverty, inequity, and food and housing insecurities, because it makes little sense at all to talk about fighting crime without addressing those things first.
It is disingenuous to question what is driving the increase in crime these days when the answer is clear as glass. Come on guys, we all know the answer.
It’s poverty, stupid.
Greek philosopher Aristotle is credited with stating that poverty is the parent of crime. He also called poverty the parent of revolution. He was right.
Of course, we caution readers not to misunderstand the statement. We do not believe that every person who lives in poverty or deals with income inequality, food or housing insecurity will turn to crime—violent or otherwise—as a way to meet their needs or rebel against a system that they perceive as inequitable or unfair. In fact, we are certain that most don’t. What we are saying is this—when you have nothing to lose; you might be more likely to risk it, especially in an effort to survive. And for those who feel the most shut out, left out and deprived especially as they see conspicuous consumption all around them, the thought of risking the nothing that they have can easily become a tempting and expedient route to a full belly or a few dollars.
In late June, Mayor LaToya Cantrell held a nearly hour-long press conference to lay out her approach to addressing violent crime in New Orleans.
She talked about the progress she says has already been made during her tenure, including an increasing homicide clearance rate, strong progress in solving cases, and strong progress in clearing cold cases. She also talked about a “holistic” approach her administration is taking to fight crime.
“We believe that there are three key issues in working holistically to address the recent spike in crime: prevention, apprehension and intervention. This includes investing in youth, families, and community leaders to reduce the number of violent incidents; arresting those who commit violent crimes; and providing support and development programs for both youth and adults to reduce recidivism and make our communities stronger,” Cantrell said during the June press conference.
According to the Mayor, NOPD’s homicide clearance rate approached 60 percent as of May 2021, adding that the department has also made significant progress in clearing cold cases—a total of 15 cases to date since 2019.
That’s progress, we suppose. But clearing cases, getting guns off the streets and apprehending violent offenders are responses to crime, NOT SOLUTIONS. And Mayor Cantrell appears to understand that as well, discussing the Pathways Program and the work of the Office of Youth and Families as well as partnerships with other agencies and community organizations
“You’ve heard me say nothing stops a bullet like a job. So aligning our young people with the soft skills they need, the workforce training they need and the workforce opportunities they need to earn wages to put them on a path to be successful in our city.”
The Mayor said that overall, the city is investing $40 million in reducing violent crime in the New Orleans. And that also includes “expanding the law enforcement tool kit” related to strengthening technology and communication between agencies along with “additional resources to combat violent crime.”
To be sure, more officers on the streets and increased resources for the police department will only provide short-term solutions to a long-term problem.
We need more much more than lip-service paid to creating better jobs, increasing economic opportunities and improving the educational landscape in order to cut violent crime at its roots.
Where are the private-public partnerships designed to increase the prospects for a better life for all New Orleanians? Where is an increased minimum wage—a living wage—for every worker? Quality affordable housing for every resident? Workforce training and quality public education opportunities designed to meet people where they are and bring them where they need to be to take advantage of available opportunities?
While we wait on those things to come to fruition, what we have now are wealthy business interests so anxious to force poor workers back into low-paying jobs that they successfully lobbied the state legislature to end the federal stimulus to unemployment payments more than a month before it was scheduled to expire—somehow convincing themselves, or perhaps attempting to convince the rest of us, that poor working people, and not low wages, were the cause of a so-called workforce shortage in the middle of a pandemic.
That very act, supported by Gov. John Bel Edwards in exchange for a meager $28 a week boost to unemployment insurance benefits that wont start until next year, is just one indication to us that few elected leaders are really serious about addressing poverty and its correlation to crime. It also shows that the big-monied business elite seems to care even less about the plight of the poor as long as the poor’s problems don’t spill into their gated communities and that when push comes to shove, far too many elected officials will bow to the rich and powerful.
To be sure, if political and business leaders keep up with their “let them eat cake” approach to fighting inequity, then crime in New Orleans will only continue to rise and become more violent and random.
Does New Orleans have a crime problem? Absolutely. According to NeighborhoodScout, a website and online database of neighborhood analytics that collected its data from 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the city, New Orleanians have a 1 in 86 chance of being a victim of a violent crime and a 1 in 18 chance of being a victim of property crime. For a little more perspective, the site reports that New Orleans is safer than only two percent of other cities across the nation.
There is hardly a week that goes by without reports of multiple shootings, carjackings and robberies.
With a series of shootings targeted along I-10 and the I-10 service road over recent months, there have even been concerns that a serial shooter is targeting the area.
Between June 9 and June 10, there were ten major crimes reported across New Orleans, including three simple robberies, three carjackings, two homicides, an aggravated rape and one aggravated burglary, according to NOPD’s daily police blotter. Logs for many other days are very similar. For instance, the blotter for the 24-hour period between June 30 and July 1 yielded eight major crime reports—three armed robberies, an aggravated rape, and aggravated burglary and three aggravated batteries (two shootings and one cutting).
And while the statistics are startling, the anecdotes, the events we hear about on the evening news, the ones that personally touch our lives, when we can put names and faces with the victims, it is even more disquieting.
At The New Orleans Tribune, we are as beleaguered by crime as any of our fellow New Orleanians. And yes, we agree that New Orleans has a crime problem. But we are not foolish enough to think it is happening in a vacuum. Poverty drives it. Leaders, you want the answer to fighting crime? You want to nip it at its source? Start with tackling poverty.
Pointing out that poverty is often at the root of the crime problems is not an attempt to make an excuse for criminal activity. It is an attempt to address it in a complete, all-inclusive, solutions-driven way. New Orleans has a crime problem because it has a poverty problem—a big one. And unless and until we get serious about fighting poverty, the war against crime will remain an uphill, unwinnable battle.
Statistics bear this theory out.
New Orleans continues to lead the nation in poverty, with nearly 24 percent of its residents living at or below the line. And for Black New Orleanians, who disproportionately comprise the city’s low-wage earning population, that rate is even higher at 32 percent.
The intersection of race, institutional racism and systemic inequity that is a part of this problem cannot be ignored. For instance, while Black Louisianans only comprise about 32 percent of the population, they represented nearly 60 percent of the Louisiana’s unemployed near the end of 2019, according to U.S. Department of Labor data. Adding fuel to this raging fire is the fact that Black male unemployment in New Orleans remains disproportionately higher than any other group.
According to HousingNOLA’s 2017 State of Housing Report, 61 percent of local renters are cost-burdened; and 35 percent are severely cost-burdened.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines cost-burdened renters as those “who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing and face difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and medical care. ” Severe rent burden is defined as paying more than 50 percent of one’s income on rent.
The numbers are better for homeowners, but nothing to celebrate. About 32 percent of homeowners are cost-burdened, and 14 percent are severely cost-burdened.
Meanwhile, quality public education in New Orleans has only fallen further behind in the 16 years since the post-Hurricane Katrina takeover of public schools by the so-called reform movement that has replaced traditional schools with charter management organizations. The vast majority of these schools operating in Orleans Parish are C, D, and F campuses, many with school performance scores that would have been considered failing before the storm despite the hostile takeover of public education and its empty promises of reform. At the same time, local schools—here and now—are more segregated than ever with poor and largely Black populations relegated to some of the worst-performing schools, while White and middle-class students comprise the vast majority of the population at top-performing schools.
And with that, we simply will not and cannot talk about the crime problem with anyone unwilling to talk about the inequity problem that plagues New Orleans because the key to fighting crime in New Orleans or anywhere else is to fight poverty.