Category Archives: Causes of Violence

The Impacts of Housing Policy on Socioeconomic Residential Segregation and Violence

We are increasingly being made aware of how important our environment is to all aspects of life (health, emotional well-being, access to education, opportunity, etc.) however, many don’t realize how housing policies in our country have had such a large impact on poverty, education, health and violence. Urban planning and housing policy is intimately tied to all aspects of violence prevalent in our communities. In turn, the physical environments that people live in define not only their educational and employment opportunities, but also their health outcomes. I was specifically interested in finding out how housing policies and programs that were implemented right after World War II shaped the characteristics of neighborhoods and the geographical divisions within cities that exist today.

In 1934 following the Great Depression, the federal banking system was restructured and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created as part of a new deal program in order to help citizens purchase homes by privately lending money to home buyers. The FHA also allowed the government to control who could or could not purchase homes based on a variety of factors that more often than not included race as a criteria used to deny loans1. Redlining was one such practice induced by the FHA in order to prevent African Americans and other minorities from obtaining housing loans. In 1935, the FHA and the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) assessed 239 cities and created residential security maps, which were meant to outline economic and social stability, but in reality outlined neighborhoods on the basis of ethnic make-up. Based on these maps, many minority communities were ineligible for housing financing and were denied housing loans. Politically motivated practices such as redlining in predominantly Black and minority occupied neighborhoods created a “lack of equal access to credit, [which] had profound ramifications including fabulous enrichment for speculative contract sellers and their investors, debt peonage or impoverishment from many black contract buyers and an almost guaranteed decay of the communities in which such sales were concentrated2.”

Up until the 1960s, “federal housing agencies engaged in racial redlining, refusing to guarantee mortgages in inner city neighborhoods3.” The long-term effect of practices such as redlining included the separation of populations along ethnic lines, creating a sort of ‘urban apartheid,’ that can be directly traced back to the above government policies. Housing policy must be designed to address this history of spatial and racial socioeconomic segregation. One avenue through which this can be addressed is through mixed income housing that encourages socioeconomic integration of neighborhoods. An interesting example that we recently discussed in our class on violence was the preservation of socioeconomic integration of neighborhoods in Paris. A lack of elevators in many buildings in Paris led naturally to a social order where wealthy people lived on the ground floor (because they could afford a more expensive apartment where they didn’t need to climb the stairs), and poorer families lived on the higher floors (because they could not afford the more expensive apartments on the ground floors). As a result of this natural preservation of socioeconomic integration (simply due to lack of elevators), school systems in Parisian neighborhoods remain socioeconomically integrated, presenting equal opportunities for wealthy as well as poorer families.

An understanding of the historical forces that have instilled a legacy of racism and spatial segregation is key to moving forward with the structural changes that must be implemented to improve living conditions in zones of concentrated violence and inequality. Acknowledging the cumulative impact of years of politically motivated spatial segregation and installation of inequality is essential both at the level of public knowledge and governmental policy decision making. While much of the impacts of historical housing policy seem lacking in hope for change and progress, an important aspect to note is that the pride and sense of connection to a community can be extremely impactful on health including on levels of violence. Studies demonstrate that the health of new immigrant populations is often on equal levels as those of wealth Americans based on the fact that recent immigrants maintain strong connections and ties to their community. These positive health effects rapidly drop off in second and third generation immigrants. These studies offer promising avenues of hope, suggesting that strong family and community networks can counter many of the most difficult situations that people face and greatly affect an individuals’ resiliency to future insults. Thus, important interventions should not only include changes in housing policy that would promote socioeconomic integration of neighborhoods, and programs that would allow individuals to own their own homes, but should also include programs that foster a greater sense of community and increase ties and connections individuals feel towards their community.


1Ploys in the Hood, Raymond Arsenault

2Why the Poor Stay Poor, Richard Thompson Ford

3 In Chicago, Real Estate and Race as a Volatile Mix, Dwight Garner



Watch Your Mouth: The Use of Language in Gun Control Debates

Just a few days after the addition of the Boston Marathon bombing as another wound in an ongoing tale of public violence in the United States, and following the recent defeat in Congress of a proposed expansion of background checks for gun transactions, President Obama is now focusing his efforts on enforcing executive actions requiring state agencies to release mental health records to the FBI. Federal law currently prevents individuals diagnosed with certain mental health issues to purchase firearms; the FBI uses information provided by states in order to enforce this legislation.  Prior to the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, states voluntarily provided these records.  However, following the incident, new legislation was passed requiring states to provide the information or face significant cuts to criminal justice funding. Recently, the Obama administration, under executive order, began working to remove other barriers that might prevent states from releasing mental health records to the FBI.


Interestingly enough, this tune is quite different than that of only a couple of weeks ago, when, it was reported that Senate lawmakers were working quietly to develop legislation that would bring about comprehensive mental healthcare reform.  The legislation would provide more funding and development in the mental health care sector across the country, increasing the number of health care facilities, providing early intervention training, and increase Medicaid allotments for mental health care.  While lawmakers and mental health care lobbyists initially attempted to quietly distance the mental health legislation from discussions about gun control, recent events have made the connection inevitable.


Such a scenario begs larger questions about the language used in media reporting about mental health and violence, especially in the current popular dialogue over gun control reform in the wake of increasingly frequent mass shootings.  If one were to read through the headlines published about the spree killers involved in the shootings in Aurora, Tucson, or Newtown, one would read scores of connections between the acts of violence and allegations of mental illness or instability.  In fact, according to Ronald Honberg, the director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, none of these individuals have ever been formally diagnosed with a mental health issue, at least not to our knowledge.  Yet, in the wake of these shootings, the discussion about gun control centered directly on issues of mental health, reflecting subconscious societal connections between violence and mental health.


However, the truth is that, although many people assume that mental illness commonly precipitates violence, the annual incidence of violent crimes against people with serious mental illnesses is more than four times higher than in the general population (Teplin, et al. 2005).  If we are going to have a national conversation about mental health, then this aspect has to be included in it.  However, the current stigmas present in the media, political discourse, and social conversation short circuit the potential productivity of a mental health conversation by reducing the impact of mental health to acts of violence, a connection that is not backed up by the facts themselves.


A public conversation about increasing resources for addressing mental health is essential in our national health climate, especially when approximately 47% of Americans will have a diagnosable disorder within their lifetime (according to the DSM-5).  However, as we pursue this conversation, we must be extremely careful about the ways in which we conflate mental health and violence.  The language we use and the connections we draw matter immensely for our abilities to care for such a significant and valuable population in our society.

Social Causes of Violence


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What causes an individual to engage in criminal and violent behavior?

This week my life has been impacted by violence: a mentor and friend of mine committed suicide by shooting himself; I observed juvenile court proceedings one day in which the docket started and ended with cases of kids bringing knives to school; and a friend told me how she was having difficulty because her two-year-old son was the “biter” in class in response to social stress. These three examples demonstrate a range of violence from a middle-aged man (self-directed) and two teenagers who possessed weapons at school and a two-year-old in daycare (directed at others).

Professor Robert Agnew outlines that sociologists have elaborated at least 3 different theories about why people engage in violence.

1. Strain Theory: While most individuals cope with strains in a legal way, strains (or stressors) increase the likelihood an individual will commit crime. Strains that are most likely to result in crime include harsh/excessive/unfair discipline; child abuse and neglect; negative school experiences; abusive peer relations; work in “bad” jobs; unemployment; marital problems; criminal victimization; discrimination; homelessness; or failure to achieve certain goals. Strains create negative emotions and one method of coping is violence. The self-directed violence by my friend may have been influenced by his failure to achieve certain goals (he thought his performance at work was not where it should be) and relationships in his personal life. One boy accused of bringing a knife to school brought it because he was afraid of being attacked by other kids on the way to school. The best way to reduce the negative impact of strains it to help equip individuals with traits and skills necessary to avoid strains and to avoid and to alleviate social and economic stress. Programs that might promote that goal include parental training programs and anti-bullying campaigns.

2. Social Learning Theory: suggests that an individual learns behavior (including criminal or violent behavior) by observation. People learn how to act from their environment. Elements of the social environment that impact behavior include its values, beliefs, nature and operation of the family, school, church, community, and peer groups. One way the environment impacts behavior is that certain behavior is rewarded and other behavior results in being punished. This theory utilizes concepts of there is what is called positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement, in the context of violence, is when you engage in violence and something good happens. Negative reinforcement is where you engage in violence and something bad is removed. For example, when the child bit the other kid who was too close to him, biting made the child go away. Upon the bite, the bitten child gave him more space. Positive reinforcement would say that the biter problem, for example, can be addressed by giving the child candy when he comes home from day care if he hasn’t bitten anyone. Teaching values and belies that counter violence and crime may be beneficial.

3. Control Theory: asks the question “why do most of us not commit deviance?” Societal social control mechanisms in society dissuade people from being deviant. These relationships may be between individuals or the community at large. People’s relationships and values encourage them to follow the laws of their community. This theory explains why people do not always act on their deviant impulses. If you have strong social bonds connecting you to other people in the community you are less likely to commit crime. This bond makes someone more likely to conform to the laws and values of the community Someone with weak bonds to those in the community are more likely to commit crime. Community development programs, education improvements, and parental training programs can strengthen an individual’s bond with the community.

Professor Agnew explained that each theory has merit but serious violent offenses are often the result of a combination of factors. Given this conclusion, it seems that a combination of policies and programs suggested as solutions under each theory may be warranted.

Information conveyed in this post comes from lecture given by Professor Agnew to our class on February 11th at Emory, 2013 and the articles Control and Social Disorganization Theory by Robert Agnew published in The Routledge Handbook of Deviant Behavior; Strain Theories by Robert Agnew published in 21st Century Criminology A Reference Handbook Volume 1; Social Learning and Violent Behavior by Gary F. Jensen.

Economics Behind Violence

            The focus of the class this week was the relationship between violence and economics. The lecture speaker, Dr. Phaedra Corso, emphasized the economic implications that occur as a result of violence. This type of information was cited as being significant for policy-makers in public health, law enforcement, etc. because it allows these individuals to assess tangible data in order to formulate a large-scale response. For example, if hospital data shows a noticeably high rate of domestic violence patients, programs can be put into place in order to raise awareness about resources for abuse victims.
            This discussion reminded me of Dr. Robert Agnew’s lecture on strain theory and the social causes that lead to violent behavior. To paraphrase, strain theory holds that stress/stressors cause individuals to react negatively and may lead to violent crime. Also during this lecture, the idea of social control and social disorganization was discussed. Violence, it is held, can result from the loss of social control mechanisms, such as fear of punishment and positive family environments.
            Economics, in my opinion, has an important role in the discussion regarding these two theories. Although Dr. Corso focused on the economic effects of violence, there is also room for serious research and discussion about the economic motivators that lead to violent behavior. This idea encompasses many forms of violence, from war to interpersonal and self-directed violence. While not absolute, there seems to be a clear connection between economic difficulty and high rates of crime and violent behavior.
            There is a particularly direct relationship between poverty and crime. Gary Becker, the influential economist, is known for his idea (1968) that people resort to crime if the costs of committing the crime are lower than the possible benefits. Following this logic, people who live in poverty have a much lower cost/benefit ratio than those individuals who are not in poverty and, thus, have more to lose. Lack of education, unemployment, poor living conditions, drug use, and dangerous environments are all associated with poverty, and each of these factors is also linked with crime.
            This is an important relationship to consider because the economic aspect behind violent behavior helps perpetuate violence in low-income regions, from housing projects in urban American cities to the slums of developing countries. In fact, scholars and experts following this logic have designed responses that incorporate components of poverty, such as this study by J. Gilligan in which education of violent inmates is the primary suggestion for violence reduction. Ultimately, in order to successfully develop and institute programs that decrease violence and rehabilitate victims and communities, the economic situation must be considered, both as a result of and a reason for violent behavior.

Resilience and Resolve: Community-Led Efforts to Target Youth Violence

Resilience (\ri-ˈzil-yən(t)s\): an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

Our class discussion this week poked around at definitions of and impact of resilience on victims of crime—particularly for those in the youngest stages of their lives. Having grown up in a single mother household in a relatively non-affluent suburb of Indiana, I have often felt that my upbringing brought with it a sense of self-reliance, hardiness, and street-sense that I feel many others in my demographic often lack or underestimate. While I would have likely considered myself “resilient”, growing up in an environment relatively free from violence ensured that I had very little understanding of what true strength or experience could ever truly entail.

After my graduation from college and during my work with disadvantaged youth as a youth advocate for a major educational non-profit in Harlem, New York, resilience became a word that I became intimately familiar with. In fact, “resilience” became the central coordinating theme of a creative writing course offered through our non-profit’s after school program, in which students participated in weekly writing sessions focused on their experiences, challenges, and overcoming adversity. Unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with the historical crime rate of Central Harlem, many of the students’ writings focused on personal experiences dealing with violence, both within the community and at home.

In often heartbreaking fashion, each of my students could recount times in which they had been bullied, beaten, or otherwise victimized by members of their families or by neighbors in their communities. While the patterns of violence and perpetrators were unique to each student, all were able to recount stories of how instances of violence presented them with trials and tribulations for which they had to endure and overcome. However, all students—without exception—shared a common thread of strength and resilience that prevented their entry into an all too real world of crime that lurked—quite literally—on every street corner.

Resilience, however, does not appear to result merely from exposure to adversity or violence, indicating that other mechanisms must be in play for misfortune to lead to an increase in resilience and self-efficiency. During my other work with paroled adolescent and teenaged gang members living in Brooklyn, the attribute of resilience was all too rare. As individuals who had fallen into hands of the juvenile detention program early in their lives, education levels remained low and interrupted and economic resources were scarce and not easily and often not legally accessible given a dearth of education, hard skills, and social capital invested in those who have been previously convicted of crimes. Without the availability of these social supports and personal encouragement, resilience and opportunity were staunched and a life resigned to depending on crime for survival seemed almost inescapable.

However, a series of efforts have been undertaken in order to improve youth resilience in the highest risk communities through education, mentorship, and through the building of social capital and community support. Over the past two decades, a series of grassroots community-led outreach initiatives have been developed in order to encourage resilience in youth as well as to quell the rising tide of youth violence in many American communities. A particularly successful Southside Chicago initiative was showcased in PBS’s raw and emotive 2012 documentary “The Interrupters”.  In order to reduce the number and intensity of crimes in their community as well as to build resilience in young adults at risk of participating in violence, a group of tireless and dedicated peace advocates have taken to the streets in order to reach out and encourage local youth to make smarter, safer decisions about their actions and reactions to everyday threats of physical violence.

The Interrupters

Such efforts to build resilience among those affected by tragedy and violence have the potential to have lasting positive affects throughout the life course of the individual and encourage often cyclical patterns of violence to be broken. However, we must ask ourselves about the nature of resilience. Can one be taught resilience or is it an innate quality? Does one choose a path toward resilience or is one guided to it by the pressures of circumstance and the support of others in one community?

If resilience can built, what are our best mechanisms for doing so? Are educational efforts the key to supporting our youth and preventing their participation in crime and delinquency? Is ensuring that strong, relatable leaders are available in communities in order to provide mentorship our best bet for reducing crime and improving social resilience? Or are investments in social and economic capital that target those most at risk of violence perpetration and victimization the most fundamental way to improve the livelihoods of at-risk youth, thus reducing the pressure to commit crimes and improve self-efficacy? Thoughts? Opinions?