We know what doesn’t work to fight poverty

I’m thinking of Baltimore and recalling these words: “While no one condones looting, one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who have had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime.”

So said Donald Rumsfeld, explaining the lawlessness that followed bringing peace, freedom and democracy to Iraq. From the picture that’s emerging, there are parallels: decades of anger, frustration and loss of hope stemming from repressive and uncaring actions by government officials.

My neighbor is an Everett cop, best neighbor ever. I know others, too, and they’re uncommonly good people. Working in emergency rooms and trauma centers, I’ve seen how dedicated and professional most police are, and what a dangerous job it is. I’ve seen the lowest of society’s low, criminals committing horrifying acts, addicts coming back and back again. I’ve come to know how easy it is to become cynical, how hard to avoid stereotyping whole categories of people based on the behavior of some. And yet, as important as relations between police and citizens are, they’re results, not the cause of the problem.

Reactions to Baltimore, and Ferguson and New York, and on and on, shatter along predictable lines: Overzealous militarization; they were asking for it. Lack of family; lack of opportunity. Racism is no more; racism is obvious. To discuss is to politicize. Too much money spent; not enough. Without doubt, though, African Americans in many big cities have ample reason to distrust the police; and police have cause to assume the worst when patrolling ghettoized neighborhoods. Yet whereas it’s important to demand accountability on both sides, it’s also a pundit-ready distraction from the harder work of finding solutions. I’m no thaumaturge, nor have I the wisdom to dissect the complexities and failures of policy and of humanity that brought America to this place; even in retrospect, who can say what might have been different had other approaches been tried?

But here we are, awash in failures, blame aplenty, and something needs to change. If it’s possible — and given our current political dysfunction, I’m doubtful — it might take generations to get there, and we don’t do “future” any more. Today’s teenagers and young adults, already through the cracks, are probably lost to us. And it’s likely impossible to repair, in time, the broken communities into which babies are now being born. But if there’s not time to rescue their neighborhoods, maybe we can still help those children, and the ones they’ll have in another generation, avoid poverty and crime. Were we to narrow our thoughts precisely to that, maybe we’d think past the usual ideological barricades. I may have no answers, but I’m pretty sure which ones are certain to fail: it’s those being advocated by the party currently in charge of legislation around the land.

The problem is too many families without fathers, they say, yet they want tougher laws and more incarceration for petty crimes. It’s people unwilling to work, they claim, and people abusing food stamps and unemployment; so they cut those programs while refusing to fund job creation and skill centers; they’d eliminate the minimum wage, making work more futile, keeping economy-stimulating cash out of people’s pockets, while increasing dependence on social programs. It’s babies being born out of wedlock, they preach, while demanding failure-proven abstinence-only education, and legislating to prevent access to birth control and abortion. Yet for those kids whose mothers “choose life,” they reject paying for preschool, childcare, nutrition aid and health care. In whatever direction solutions may lie, it can’t be this. This will beget more kids delivered into hopelessness, while blocking all avenues out. It’s only by thinking, specifically and non-ideologically, of the children being born right now into broken neighborhoods, not pointing fingers but seeking the best way to help them avoid repeating the cycle, that we can hope to end it. Some say liberals failed in Baltimore because they invested in housing and not in humans. It rings true. Now what?

How sad that for something so important and obvious we still need to decide between spending on this or on unneeded weapons systems and tax giveaways to those who already have it made.

Sid Schwab is a surgeon and Everett resident. His email address is columnsid@gmail.com.

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