Beginning in the 1960s, social scientists like James Q. Wilson described life in crime-ridden areas in cities in terms of behavioral pathologies. The typical prescription of political conservatives to cure “ghetto blight” was to crack down on crime. Wilson is credited with the broken windows theory, which argued that official toleration of minor crimes created an atmosphere of lawlessness that encouraged more serious crimes. This theory was employed by administrations of mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg with much-ballyhooed success in bringing down the crime rate in New York City. Political liberals have criticized the broken windows approach for being a treatment plan that addresses only the symptoms but not the underlying causes of crime. Liberals tend to advocate for more generous poverty alleviation programs and additional funding to try to improve inner city schools.
Both approaches are right, and both are wrong. They are correct in recognizing that the community would be a better place to live if crime were reduced, citizens felt secure in their homes and neighborhood, standard of living increased, and education improved. Where both approaches fall short is in a failure to address the reality that the character of the community is determined by the character of the individuals that make up the community. So long as people in the community are inclined toward criminal behavior, the pathologies of the community will continue no matter how much money is poured into welfare programs and how many cops patrol the street. Creation of high character among community members—so that most folks will take good care of themselves and then help others in need—does not happen because a person gets a couple hundred more dollars per month in assistance. Nor is it created because people think they are likely to go to jail if convicted of a minor offense such as breaking a window.
The character of an impoverished neighborhood does change when it is gentrified. Most people living in high crime neighborhoods are not lawbreakers, and even those who do break the law might be involved in victimless crimes, such as nonviolent drug dealing, gambling, and prostitution. People whose livelihoods are based on victimless crime may be taking care of themselves, their families, and adding to the local economy in the only way they think they can. Outsiders with political power have criminalized victimless crimes out of a self-righteous imposition of their beliefs onto a community they do not understand.
Liberals may dream of turning “ghettos” into middle-class neighborhoods by committing enough money. We’ve already seen the failure of one version of that vision in the urban planning policies in the ’60s and ’70s. Poor but healthy neighborhoods were destroyed. Aging single family homes were razed and people were pushed into and stacked up in high-rise, poorly constructed apartments. Public assistance policies helped women with children without supporting a nuclear family, and a generation of poor children grew up in crappy housing projects with broken families.
If more money in itself resolved the character issues associated with criminal pathology, all rich people would be moral beacons, right? Not. The mistreatment of the economy by investment bankers, securities traders, and mortgage brokers, which caused the economic crash and Great Recession of 2008 through 2012, should be proof enough that there’s no direct link between wealth and high moral character.
A study by Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, involving a survey of 450,000 Americans, found that there is a link between earning around $75,000 in annual income and emotional happiness. The further below $75,000 one earns in annual income, the unhappier on a daily basis one is likely to feel. However, there is no incremental increase in happiness when earning more than $75,000. When our essential economic needs are fulfilled we generally wake up feeling okay. If we wake up worried about the ability to pay our bills, we feel anxiety, depression, or both. Making more money than is needed does not contribute to a positive mood, according to the Princeton study.
Another finding of the study was that acquiring greater wealth does offer the opportunity to feel a deeper sense of satisfaction with life. Rich people have greater freedom to make desirable life choices and share their material wealth with the community. The rich can afford to spend $100 on a haircut, pamper themselves at a spa, and still make the payments on their boat and Learjet. (A wealthy person can also start a foundation to improve city schools, distribute mosquito netting in at-risk areas for malaria, and fund a forum for peaceful interfaith dialogue in the Middle East.)
Whether rich or poor, we have 24 hours in a day to choose how to live. Rain falls on both the rich and poor alike; the only difference is the rich can afford to buy an umbrella.
The philanthropic efforts of Bill and Melinda Gates through the Gates Foundation have become an inspiration and challenge to other billionaires to lean toward unselfishness. Here’s a more approachable example: a friend of mine left his private surgical practice to spend three months in the winter of 2014 in South Sudan as a volunteer for Doctors Without Borders. Had my friend not already achieved financial independence, he probably would not have felt free to give three months of his life to benefit the people of a country with an underdeveloped healthcare system.
Wealth comes to the rich person by way of the community, and we are justified in expecting the rich to feel an obligation to give back. In a campaign speech when she was running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in 2011, Elizabeth Warren put it this way:
You built a factory out there? Good for you. . . . But I want to be clear; you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.
We might spend decades with a focus on building an estate and caring for family. But, at some point, the focus will shift; kids grow up and careers come to an end. For those of us who are materially wealthy, we can focus more on giving away some of what we accumulated. Or, we can choose to spend all that extra time on the golf course.
The evil, spider-like Henry Potter in the 1946 Frank Capra movie It’s a Wonderful Life was not a happy person. He profited from but did not give back to the town Bedford Falls. George Bailey gave overly much to the community to his own detriment. He wasn’t happy, because he never got out of town to live his dream of traveling the world. The two characters are paired: Potter alone and bitter because he is too selfish, George surrounded by loving friends and family but frustrated and resentful. With the help of Clarence the angel, George comes to understand that he sacrificed his own self-actualization for the greater good of the community. He also comes to realize that the life choices he made helped create a well-balanced community. His selflessness balanced Mr. Potter’s selfishness within the community of Bedford Falls.
George is not self-actualized, but by the end of the movie he is self-realized. He becomes conscious about the choices he’s made and accepts the uncomfortable balance of his life. If It’s a Wonderful Life had a sequel, perhaps George would be on a round-the-world trip with his family paid for by the donations of grateful depositors in the Bailey Savings and Loan Association.
Potter is unchanged by the end of the movie, still a lonely, bitter old man. Yet he too was fully realized: he consciously decided to live a life guided by selfishness. Potter viewed the rest of humanity as sheep and himself as a wolf. In the beginning he was, and at the end he still is, a bitter old man with no friends. Whose life had more meaning? He who gave too much or he who gave none at all?
It’s a Wonderful Life has an ambiguous ending: none of the protagonists go to prison, but justice isn’t done. The story includes the message that a wonderful life might not turn out to be fair or equitable in the material rewards received from the world. “He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
I have become well acquainted with the village of Basa, Nepal. I’m the president of the Basa Village Foundation, which has been doing “culturally sensitive development in partnership with the village,” since 2007. Most everyone in Basa lives below the United Nations poverty line of $1.25 per day, as the village has no commerce and the families are subsistence farmers. In Basa divorce is a rarity and the communal support of children is amazing to American eyes. The entire village really does look out for the children. The nine orphans of the village live with the school principal. Food and clothing for the orphans are provided by the village. There is no crime despite the material poverty of the village. The village even has a distributive welfare system. Villagers who perform the duties of blacksmiths and tailors are allotted a set amount of the crops from each of the other farm families, because the blacksmiths and tailors are unable to spend as much time tending their own crops.
The village is populated by people who live happy, balanced lives and who care about each other. That is the culture in which each succeeding generation is reared.
In the United States, poverty and crime seem to be interlocked. Statistical analysis of state and metropolitan area data from the Bureau of the Census reveals a consistent pattern of high crime in low-income neighborhoods (other factors do come into play, but the data is compelling that the crime rate in cities is highest in the poorest neighborhoods).
So-called conservatives might want to fill prisons with wrong doers, but that just shifts the criminal population off the streets and behind bars where the taxpayers then bear the burden of the cost of criminality instead of the potential crime victims within the neighborhood. Statistics provided by the Bureau of Justice on criminal recidivism reveal that more than two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners are arrested for a new crime within three years, and over three-quarters (76.6 percent) are arrested within five years.
These are depressing statistics. How many years will it take before we learn that locking people up in jail does not reform them? We can lock up criminals to protect the community, but the root causes and criminal personalities will not change unless the offender chooses to re-evaluate his or her values.
Counseling and therapy may help a person who has been victimized or is a victimizer to recognize his or her own value and that of others. Much of the work of the helping professions is devoted to dealing with clients that have not developed a healthy habit of caring for themselves or others. Many of these clients have been harmed by someone who didn’t care about others.
Health professionals are only available for a certain amount of time on certain dates. What is most effective in helping to develop healthy attitudes and behaviors are long-term relationships with family members, friends, and mentors, who will be there for us throughout our lives and who model living well-balanced lives. One of the reasons Basa village is such a peaceful and cohesive community is that villagers know each other so well they can recite the genealogies of their neighbors back five generations.
People who truly care about us will make themselves available when we need them. If we lean toward helping others in need, we will seek opportunities to befriend those in need. When we realize we are in need of help, we should reach out to those willing to provide it. There are many in our communities who need a friend or mentor to model and explain how to live a balanced life guided by positive values. There are also many fine and generous people in our communities willing to give of themselves to others in need. We can find each other if we try.