Are climbing crime rates in our poorest communities best solved with handcuffs and prison terms, or does the problem stem from growing inequality? Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia talks with PT about the best way forward.
PT: You came from a difficult background—a large, immigrant family living in the Lower East Side of New York City—yet you've managed to succeed personally, professionally and politically. What, in your opinion, has allowed you to overcome those obstacles and achieve your goals?
Garcia: Well, my grandparents came from Puerto Rico in the 1950's. They were agricultural workers and when the work in the fields dried up, they joined the mass exodus to the cities. My father was one of 17 kids and my mother one of eight, and they married when my mother was 16. I was born three years later and I was her third baby. By the time she was 24, she was divorced with four children.
The great equalizer that allowed me to overcome all of the problems that come with growing up in a low income, high-crime community was the support of my family and the shepherding they did to steer me away from trouble. My grandparents and my mother were constantly saying, "It doesn't matter where you come from, it matters where you're going," that really helped me to feel like I had an equal chance to succeed. They stressed that it didn't matter whether it was a bad marriage or poverty or drugs or whatever, you need to stay focused, stay out of trouble and stay in school. That has been the great equalizer in my life.
PT: Let's look at neighborhoods like the one you grew up in. High-crime areas are often treated as places that need to be "cleaned up" through better law enforcement. Isn't it fundamentally an issue of inequality though when you look at what's available to people in those areas?
Garcia: Yes, it's more than a criminal justice problem; it's a serious social problem too. I think that in a lot of minority communities where you don't trust government or tell people your problems, you end up in a cycle wherein behavior is repeated. And it's not just crime, it's teenage pregnancy, domestic violence and the cycle of poverty.
You need to see someone who is successful in order to know what success is. When you're surrounded by the same type of people who are trapped in the same cycle as you, what can you possibly know about success?
One of the things that helped me growing up in a concrete jungle, high-crime area, was when my mother discovered this program called the "Fresh Air Fund." They took city kids, put them on a bus and drove them out to the country to live with nice Christian families in Pennsylvania for a week. We were exposed to things like sunshine and backyards, and it was the first time I realized that people live in houses not in tenements. That you could have your own playground in a backyard. That you didn't have to sleep two in a bed. That you could own your own books instead of checking them out from a public library.
It opened up a world to me that I never knew was accessible, and it really was an issue of equality. You can't achieve equality if you never know what opportunities are out there. So, yes, we should deal with the crime in our bad neighborhoods, but we should also look at programs like this to teach kids in those areas that there is something else available to them.
PT: In the absence of educational, employment and cultural opportunities though, do residents in these areas truly have an equal chance to succeed?
Garcia: Absolutely! Like I said before, it doesn't matter where you came from, it's where you're going. People come to this country because they realize the incredible opportunities here. Immigrants don't come here fixated on a nine-to-five job, they care about working hard and providing some seed money to improve the long-term circumstances of their family. Yes, they have access to success, but often they don't know where to go for some of the resources available to them.
I think it's important that when we do things like the Community Reinvestment Act or we teach financial literacy and teach people about their rights, we need to do it in a way that's meaningful and lasting. Moreover, these lessons need to be delivered by people that they trust.
PT: How do you build that trust as a representative?
Garcia: Part of it starts with how we identify and define ourselves. You can't start by saying, "I'm a Latina," or "I'm a Republican." You have to start by saying, "I'm your representative." You have to be accessible, so I say to my constituents, "I want to show up at your high school or your college, I want you to come to my office, I want you to come to Sacramento—I want to be the bridge that connects you to the resources you need to succeed."
PT: With respect to policy, then, what types of things would you like to work on to help bridge that gap between people and the resources available to them?
Garcia: Programs we've adopted in my district such as mobile offices have been a good way to teach people not only about state programs, but also about resources available in the community. The policies we need to enact should reflect the reality on the ground, and we need to erase policies that enforce stigmas and create distinction between classes. Instead of obsessively "cracking down on crime" so much in bad neighborhoods, we should be focusing our efforts on increasing access to quality education and health care. We should be facilitating more mentoring programs as well.
I work with a program called Building Horizons. It takes kids in high school and teaches them how to build a house. They work with Habitat for Humanity and actually build and retrofit houses. I go out and talk with these kids and say, "Let's do the math: If you go out and finish a program like this, by the time you're done you can command $25-$40 an hour. If you command $40 an hour and you work 40 hours per week, you're making $1,600 a week. If you're flipping burgers at McDonald's for $7 an hour because you don't want to take any training, you'll be making $280 a week." When you start to tell them how much things like rent, food, diapers, car insurance and everything else costs, kids understand it.
So, again, you can crack down and eliminate the chances for kids to get into trouble if you realize how to address it correctly. You can't talk to people, you talk with them. It's incumbent upon everyone who has risen from difficult circumstances to reach back into those communities and pull people forward.
PT: What about encouraging private investment in problem areas? What types of policies could be instituted to help it along, to encourage social and capital growth?
Garcia: We need to bolster our programs that teach financial literacy. We need to teach people not only how to get into a house with no money down, but how to keep that house so you don't end up in foreclosure. And we shouldn't be talking to kids about getting ready for college in 11th or 12th grade; we should be having these discussions in first grade with the parents.
The opportunities that are available in some of these communities are often unknown to the private business sector. We have enterprise zones, manufacturing enhan-cement areas and other incentives, but we don't do a good enough job promoting them. If we find ways to implement tax credit programs or research and development credits that encourage employers to hire people who are disenfranchised—people who are coming out of jail or people on the welfare-to-work program—then we can reduce the risk to investors in those communities.
PT: Assemblywoman, thank you for your time.
Bonnie Garcia represents California's 80th Assembly District. She is the vice-chair of the Housing and Community Development Committee and serves on the Jobs, Economic Development and the Economy Committee as well as the committees on Governmental Organization; California-Latin American Affairs and Urban Education.