As a college-educated worker who felt the sting of unemployment last year, I know somewhat the shame, obvious financial difficulties and suprising sense of languor that go along with being deprived of economic opportunity. Those with families to support or who are losing their homes due to the recession know this pain much more acutely. But falling behind on mortgage payments and having to make do with much less are not the only effects of the parlous economic climate. Crime is also picking up.
The recent mobs of teenagers besetting Chicago, my hometown, and other major cities is making all kinds of headlines and forcing numerous people, even those with a wider understanding of the problem, to feel uneasy. And it's not just the warm weather, which experts usually contend results in higher crime rates because people are more likely to be outside and restless. These crimes are characteristic of something altogether more insidious.
Although there has been some speculation that young white people were involved in at least one mob attack here in Chicago, overwhelmingly the perpetrators have been young black people, and almost always, young black people without sure economic footing. We must ask the question: why is this?
And the answer, in short order, lies in my story of the recession. After leaving my job in July, it took me almost a year to get a job offer. I graduated with honors from a prestigious university. If it took me that long to get a job, I can only imagine what less skilled, more disadvantaged people must face in these times.
Is it any wonder that in a city that only graduates 50 percent of its students, there would be large groups of wandering "wildings" with no sense of hope for the future? Should we expect anything less when the percentage of people unemployed or underemployed is near 20 percent? Is it any wonder that with unprecedented income inequality that a marginalized group of people would resent the affluence of downtown Chicago, where most of the attacks have taken place?
Longstanding economic trends toward inequality and 2008's disaster are driving a wedge between the already polarized rich, middle class and poor. We have passed a point when this merely merited mention in a casual newspaper column or conversation between intellectuals. It is a real problem, being felt viscerally by some parts of the black community. Until real, structural issues are addressed -- like tax rates, funding for schools, technology displacement -- mending the burst of the real estate bubble will only serve as a temporary fix until the next bubble bursts.
We should be spending at least as much money on programs of social uplift as we do on the military. While the threats we face are real and we need real protection because terrorism is an ever-present specter, we have seen that neglecting whole populations of people (specifically the black population, which has understandably yet to develop a strong social support structure only a few generations after slavery), can produce as much havoc as a terrorist attack. We have seen with the Arab Spring that democracy is best not imposed, but home-grown. America's recent military follies cost more than $1 trillion and are partly to blame for our current economic woes.
For the United States to truly advance to the next stage of development, it must begin to see all of its citizens as deserving of a fair chance in life, and that means that they must have a realistic expectation of finding work. Not having any work too often does not just equate to a lack of purpose and temporary crises, but senseless violence and frightening tears at the social fabric.