President Barack Obama recently went to Chicago to promote his poverty and gun violence initiatives and actually spoke a good deal of truth. “There’s no more important ingredient for success, nothing that would be more important for us reducing violence than strong, stable families, which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood,” he said. Reiterating a line from his State of the Union speech, he observed: “What makes you a man is not the ability to make a child; it’s the courage to raise one.” And though he paid the obligatory tribute to single mothers, he added with remarkable candor: “I wish I had had a father who was around and involved.”
What Obama didn’t say also came as a relief. In the worst of all possible worlds, he could have trotted out hackneyed poverty and racism themes from the academy—that biased law enforcement and an “epidemic” of incarceration, for example, are harming what would otherwise be law-abiding inner-city communities. Unfortunately, the president’s deputies are pursuing policies informed by such ideas behind the scenes, but at least Obama is not putting the power of the presidential bully pulpit behind them.
Had Obama left it at that, he would have made an important contribution to public discourse. But though he rightly recognized the distinction between civil society and government (“When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill”), he came to Chicago bristling with big government programs that threaten to cancel out his personal responsibility theme. The administration is promoting an initiative called “Promise Zones,” based on a concept that has been endlessly flogged by liberal foundations: that if we can just form “collaboratives” to coordinate the existing morass of taxpayer-funded social service agencies and programs, we will achieve a breakthrough in the self-defeating behaviors that cause poverty today. The Ford Foundation’s Grey Areas program in New Haven in the 1960s was a progenitor of this idea (and the seedbed for the War on Poverty); more recently the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s New Futures collaborative bombed spectacularly.
Paradoxically, streamlining social service delivery requires adding yet more agencies to the existing mix: The Promise Zones project will involve, inter alia, the U.S. Departments of Justice, Treasury, Commerce, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Education, and Housing and Urban Development. Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, explained the Promise Zones idea to the New York Times: “The premise behind this is that the federal government has to be a positive actor in all of this effort—but as an actor who’s a partner.” Got that? A “partner,” not just an “actor.”
Actually, Promise Zones are not even new to the Obama administration. Since 2010, the Department of Education has doled out nearly $100 million to “Promise Neighborhoods” (almost the same thing as Promise Zones) in over 50 cities. Not surprisingly, the administration is mum about the results.
The Promise Zones will also give out tax and regulatory breaks to encourage businesses to locate in distressed areas. While it is always gratifying to see liberals acknowledge, however fleetingly, that lower taxes and less onerous regulations are good for economic activity, lower taxes alone do not overcome the disincentive to locate a business in a crime-plagued area.
Obama’s other announced antipoverty initiatives—such as raising the minimum wage and providing universal preschool education—are progressive evergreens whose efficacy is deeply contested, to say the least. But the biggest disappointment in the president’s agenda is his unwillingness to move the debate on gun violence beyond the stale polarities of gun control and gun rights. The fact that he chose Chicago as the site for his speech was a tip-off that he would be breaking no new ground.
Though this latest eruption of the gun control-gun rights standoff was triggered by that rarest of all events—an in-school massacre by a non-student—the public discourse on gun violence has subtly shifted since the Newtown tragedy to acknowledge (however sotto voce) that the real problem lies elsewhere. An event as thankfully rare as the Newtown massacre is impossible to predict and nearly as difficult to prevent. Both sides in the gun debate have nevertheless seized upon it to promote their favorite cause—whether banning assault weapons or arming everyone to the teeth. The most common gun violence, by contrast, is drearily predictable and, unlike mass shootings, the source of thousands of homicides a year. It occurs overwhelmingly in certain locations of cities—over the past 30 years in Boston, for example, 75 percent of the city’s shootings occurred in 4.5 percent of its area, whereas 88.5 percent of the city’s street segments experienced not a single shooting. Urban shootings are retaliatory or the product of the most trivial of slights. They are committed with handguns, not assault rifles. And both victims and perpetrators come disproportionately from fatherless homes and communities and are disproportionately minority, by huge margins. Reforming the involuntary commitment laws and beefing up mental health services are largely irrelevant; though the shooters have serious problems with impulse control and are clearly a danger to themselves and others, few would be deemed mentally ill.
While it is unclear how to prevent mass shootings—short of the unlikely event of removing all guns from the public—we know how to reduce urban violence: data-driven, proactive policing. The New York Police Department has brought crime and homicide down an unmatched 80 percent since the early 1990s by deploying officers to locations where crime patterns are emerging, encouraging them to use their lawful discretion to question people about suspicious behavior, enforcing quality-of-life laws, and holding police commanders accountable for crime on their watch.
Gun control has had only a limited effect on inner-city violence, as the case of Chicago demonstrates. Despite the Windy City’s strict firearms bans, juveniles under the age of 17 are killed there four times as often as youth in New York. In 2012, Chicago logged 506 homicides; New York, with three times the population, tallied 418. The difference lies largely in policing. Chicago has historically eschewed proactive policing, and is for that reason still embraced by the left—however incredibly—as a model for law enforcement. Some South Side community leaders, however, know better and are calling for the reconstitution of antigang units just so their officers can stop and question more suspects on the streets.
Whereas Chicago’s minority neighborhoods are awash in illegal guns, criminals in New York report leaving their guns at home or stashing them in communal locations to avoid being stopped with a gun on their person. As a result, 10,000 homicides of minority victims have been averted since the early 1990s. And by lowering violence and fear, proactive policing has done more to revitalize poor neighborhoods than billions of dollars of government-funded social programs have ever accomplished.
President Obama should have gone to New York City, rather than Chicago, for his poverty and gun violence speech. If he amplified his marriage and fatherhood message and spread the word about how policing can save lives, he could in fact be the transformative president that his followers believe him to be.
Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor to City Journal and the author of Are Cops Racist?