Policy Today magazine cover
July 5, 2006

"Creating opportunity for the poor comes down to one word—'choice.'"

Generations of policymakers have grappled with how to provide children in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods a chance at a better life. But are we looking at the problem the right way?

Washington State Senator Adam Kline (D-Seattle), who represents some of the poorest and richest citizens in the state, strikes a familiar note: "For many kids, education is the only remaining way out the cycle of poverty," Kline said. In this sense, education remains "the great equalizer" of American society.

So, apparently, believes Washington Governor Chris Gregoire. She is pushing for spending increases for the entire state education system, early childhood through higher education, of about $2.4 billion compared to the previous budget. The payoff will be smaller class sizes, more teachers and higher salaries to attract high-caliber teachers, Kline said.

Another proposed equalizer introduced by state legislators is a constitutional amendment that would authorize school levies and bonds to be approved by a simple majority (50%, plus one) of voters, rather than the current 60% supermajority requirement.

"We want to change it to a simple majority because we see it as an equalizer in a society that no longer has the same upward mobility," Kline says. "American society has become more stratified. We have to make sure that K-12 prepares [poor] children for further education. Then, we need to fund higher education."

More funding for schools is great, but what does it have to do with crime? This approach is "cost effective in the extreme when you consider what jail costs," says Kline.

The first line of defense against crime

Education is the first line of defense against crime, agrees Texas State Senator Kel Seliger, (R-Amarillo). "A well educated populace can make the most of the opportunities we have."

But the citizenry must also be protected, he adds.

"We must crack down on crime," he says. "We have no other choice to make our cities more livable."

The Texas state legislature recently held a joint hearing on drug rehabilitation and diversionary strategies to reduce recidivism. One goal, says Seliger, is to have more prisoners undergo substance abuse treatment before they are released from the state penitentiary.

Fostering equality

Creating opportunity for those who live in crime-ridden neighborhoods all comes down to one word—"choice," believes John Klofas, a professor of Criminal Justice at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York.

"Highly concentrated poverty and racial isolation are the ingredients for a high-crime neighborhood," he says.  "We need to give people choices about where they go to school, work and live. We need to give them choices and see how many take advantage of the opportunity."

For example, in Rochester about 600 low-income children attend suburban public schools through an urban-suburban transfer program, but another 3,000 children are on a waiting list for the program.

In the city of Rochester, there are approximately 25 homicides per 100,000. Many of these homicides are tied to the illegal drug trade. And the lack of job opportunities—and hope—lead some of the "best and brightest" who live in poor neighborhoods to turn to selling drugs.

"Those people are trying to make it and are often constrained by the structure of their community," Klofas says.