2021 was the deadliest year for gun violence in Philadelphia’s history, with 486 people killed and 1,846 others shot. To stop this epidemic, city guides support programs that focus interventions on those already involved in gun violence. While programs like Cure Violence Philadelphia and the Community Crisis Intervention Program attempt to address this problem, targeted approaches are not enough.
To permanently end the gun violence epidemic, the mayor must form a cabinet – call it a welfare and opportunity office – made up of a senior officer from each government department. The closest parallel at the federal level would be a cross-agency working group. That cabinet would define gun violence as a broad public health and safety issue – one that is in large part caused by poverty and that intersects with everything from education to child welfare to housing.
This cabinet would be tasked with identifying and directly addressing the conditions under which armed violence flourishes at the neighborhood level. In that way, it would be responsible for the welfare and safety of Philadelphia’s residents. Most importantly, make it permanent. The cabinet must outlast the individual administrations.
Gun violence is a multidimensional problem, but the leadership has focused too closely on the rate of fire and nothing else. The city needs to understand how poverty and armed violence are related at the local level. Overall, the proportion of Philadelphians living in poverty has declined since 2011. However, this number obscures a more important and nuanced picture of our city. If you look at poverty levels by community, neighborhoods like Kensington and Strawberry Mansion are getting poorer with each census. A recent five-year estimate from the US Census American Community Survey shows that poverty has decreased in 17 neighborhoods but increased in 38 others. Often these areas are surrounded by other poor areas. Gun violence is highest in these neighborhoods.
From 2019 to 2020, over 50 shootings were observed in some neighborhoods just half a square mile in size. In addition to loss of life, a single shootout can induce crippling fear and trauma, limit daily routines, increase early school dropout rates, crowd out businesses, weaken needed social connections and networks, and negatively impact residents’ lives.
A citywide cabinet that understands the nuances of neighborhood-level data would come up with more creative and useful solutions than a single government agency can devise on its own. Mayor Jim Kenney should appoint a panel of residents and researchers, community officials and investors, and city officials to select measures that link the opportunities and risks associated with gun violence.
Looking at these traumas together should create a sense of urgency. Raising a child without experience of violence or trauma must be a fundamental value of any system. Our leadership must reflect this.
The most productive anti-violence policy will recognize that the problems of the past two years are only partly related to the pandemic but are also related to the structural barriers that have concentrated poverty and limited the opportunities for Philadelphians to thrive . These barriers are outside the criminal and juvenile justice system: schools without nurses and counselors, decaying and harmful infrastructure, closed parks and decaying summer swimming pools, substandard daycare, food insecurity, housing instability, overcrowded homes, limited health care, lack of access to substance abuse and mental health treatment. These are just a few.
The failure of gun violence policies and programs so far has been that the solutions were not as big as the problems they were trying to solve.
Caterina G. Roman and John K. Roman
The cabinet is tasked with finding out what welfare means for each community and what barriers they see in connection with the gun violence epidemic. For any action at the neighborhood level, the cabinet must work backwards to identify existing funding or programs that could remove risks and promote opportunities. In addition, the data and results must be publicly available and the cabinet must be made responsible for implementing solutions.
No new funding needs to be found for this. Dollars and programs can already exist. We just have to tailor the solutions to the problems.
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With well-being as a fundamental value in anti-violence efforts, the crucial role for sectors outside of the criminal justice system becomes evident, as does the need for cross-sectoral coordination. A simple realization that the funds spent – for example for capital investments in school infrastructure or training enough lifeguards to reopen swimming pools – are also part of the basis for preventing armed violence. Together, welfare policies will paint a rich picture of a poor city with great needs. The task then is to deliver the investments to reduce the documented risks and increase the wealth. The city needs to ensure that gun violence spending is in line with wealth metrics, with grants carefully matched to neighborhood needs and outcomes tracked.
In other words, how a problem is understood has a huge impact on solutions.
A city government that carefully weighs the many obstacles faced by people in high risk locations will make wise investments in solutions that match the scale of our gun violence problem. The major failure of policy and programming on this issue is that the solutions have not been as big as the problems they are trying to solve.
Caterina G. Roman is a professor in the Criminal Justice Department at Temple University. John K. Roman, Senior Fellow in the Department of Economics, Justice and Society at NORC at the University of Chicago.