The Spiral of Violence
Essays Society

The Spiral of Violence

Dave Atenasio

While Americans generally commit crime at a rate comparable to other wealthy nations, America’s murder rate is roughly seven times higher.[1] This remains so despite a thirty-year downward trend in violent crime. But it may be more appropriate to say violence had been trending down: over the summer of 2020, the murder rate in many cities skyrocketed. Protests and riots broke out around the country at levels not seen since the political turbulence of the late 1960s. Angry youngsters looted, tossed bricks through windows, pulled down statues and started fires. Left- and right-wing partisans skirmished in the streets, often with shields and pepper spray but occasionally with live rounds.

Some obvious explanations present themselves. In May of 2020, Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin applied a knee-to-neck chokehold to George Floyd for approximately eight minutes, holding it long after Floyd was unconscious. Floyd was pronounced dead an hour later. The entire incident was captured on camera and the ensuing outrage prompted nationwide protests, occasionally giving way to rioting and destruction. Americans also spent the summer of 2020 isolated and social distancing on account of a once-in-a-century pandemic. The pandemic took a terrible psychological toll on America’s young, as surveys found that approximately a quarter of them had experienced suicidal ideation at least once in the previous month.

But there are reasons to think these conditions underdetermine the increase in violence. Six years earlier in 2014, a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, leading to protests, riots and a similar spike in homicides, despite an economy on the mend. During the pandemic, many states imposed lockdown measures to prevent people from gathering in public, a tactic that really should have reduced the rate of violent crime. Other countries that imposed lockdowns generally saw violent crime levels remain the same or decrease substantially.[2]

We do not yet know all the triggers that unleash waves of violence, but we have an idea about the social and structural conditions out of which they emerge. Violence is overwhelmingly the province of young men, typically low-status with poor marriage and life prospects. If men cannot acquire the minimal status necessary to procure stable employment and form a family, they first become self-destructive and then violent. Years of segregation and deindustrialization in Black, urban areas eventually gave way to a steep rise in violence there, an increase that never abated for some of the hardest hit cities. In the past few decades a similar deindustrialization death spiral has hit larger portions of the suburban and rural working class as well, who are now passing through various stages of social dysfunction. If we do not do something to address the lack of stable jobs and families in left-behind parts of the country, the recent surge of violence may not be a pandemic era aberration but an introduction to a terrifying new reality.

The City

In the early twentieth century, African American families migrated north in droves on the promise of good industrial employment. Cities like Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit were expanding and adding thousands of new jobs as automobile and wartime manufacturing ramped up. The Black population in the north exploded and for a time during World War II, economic conditions for Black people in a number of northern cities could almost be described as favorable. A tight labor market combined with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s non-discrimination Executive Order 8802 led to a flood of stable, well-paying union jobs open to Black applicants.[3] Black workers in war-related industries earned wages substantially higher than their peers in other industries.[4]

But even when times were good, racist housing covenants kept Black workers segregated in buildings and neighborhoods that were at once run down and artificially expensive.[5] When the war ended, industry immediately pulled out of northern cities to head for the suburbs and regions with weaker labor laws.[6] Factories increased automation, leading to job cuts which primarily fell on Black workers, who had little union seniority.[7] As industry abandoned formerly prosperous cities in the north, the upwardly mobile left, and the urban tax base was devastated, leading to further cuts in public spending.[8]

By the mid 1960s, many northern industrial cities had become a shadow of their former glory.[9] Without a thriving tax base, infrastructure began to crumble and houses fell into disrepair.[10] Because de facto segregation lingered even after de jure segregation ended, Black citydwellers could not relocate their families to the suburbs to pursue alternative employment. Without access to stable employment, young, Black men began dropping out of the workforce.[11] Some found themselves shipped off to Vietnam only to return home to a frustrating ordeal: having fought for their country alongside white people as equals, they returned to segregation, racism, and poor life prospects.

In addition to their outrage, Black veterans brought back from Vietnam a taste for heroin. By some accounts, around forty percent of returning veterans had used heroin in Vietnam and twenty percent had acquired an addiction.[12] Fears of a nationwide drug crisis grew, but the object of those fears never quite materialized. White veterans who returned to jobs, families, capital, and sturdy social networks found themselves able to kick the habit. Black veterans who returned to poverty, racism and segregation found abstention significantly harder. Black parts of Washington D.C. saw a surge in heroin addiction in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By June of 1969, forty-five percent of men admitted to the D.C. Central Detention Facility were heroin addicts.[13] The crisis encouraged many Black leaders to support the draconian drug laws that would eventually snowball into the War on Drugs.

Also in the 1960s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued the infamous Moynihan Report, which flagged the declining rate of marriage among Black Americans and the increase in children born out of wedlock. Moynihan attributed these trends primarily to the psychological and cultural effects of slavery, but this was an error. The percentage of married Black women had for a long time exceeded the percentage of married white women.[14] Unsurprisingly, once good employment for young men started drying up in Black, urban areas, the marriage rate first declined slowly before falling off a cliff after 1960. Shorn of the status and public respect that came with union manufacturing work, young men delayed and eventually gave up on stable family formation.

Poverty, racism, segregation and police brutality eventually gave way to protests, marches and demonstrations for civil rights. Beginning in 1964 Congress passed civil rights legislation to finally end Jim Crow segregation. While these reforms were a monumental political victory, they did not bring back jobs to Black parts of the country. A number of administrations implemented affirmative action directives, but these programs often benefited the upwardly mobile. The unfortunate result was a cleavage of the Black community into two groups: a rising Black middle class and a left-behind black lower class.[15] By the late 1960s, frustration boiled over in Black, urban areas and riots broke out in cities around the country.

It was clear by the end of the 1960s that many Black, urban areas were in crisis. The political victories of civil rights legislation were not enough to reverse either segregation or deindustrialization. We must disagree with Christopher Caldwell that the Civil Rights Act went too far; in fact it did not go far enough. An ambitious Marshall Plan for Black, urban areas would have stanched the bleeding, provided young men with jobs, and slowed the poverty death spiral. Instead, political, legal, and business leaders further accelerated the decline of left-behind America to chase bigger dividends and higher profit margins.

By the 1970s, American cities hemorrhaged jobs with low education requirements.[16] Factories shuttered, sending good-paying jobs for high school graduates overseas. Two phenomena obscured the impact of the drastic economic changes: first, manufacturing jobs were replaced by service sector jobs in other industries. Millions of new jobs popped up in the food and drink industry, but these jobs were not located in urban areas; they paid less; and they did not provide men with the same status as union manufacturing jobs.[17] In addition, women entered the workplace in large numbers, further obscuring the extent to which urban deindustrialization had devastated the life prospects of young Black men.[18]

On the heels of the employment shocks came the sexual revolution and dual technology shocks of birth control and abortion.[19] As sexual norms and access to birth control shifted rapidly, marriage rates plummeted, children were increasingly born out of wedlock and the number of households headed by single mothers rose.[20] The social expectations of marriage weakened and shotgun weddings became rarer. By the end of the 1970s, 68 percent of births to Black women ages fifteen to twenty-four were outside of marriage.[21] Single female-headed families in poor parts of the country often fell into poverty and stayed there. By 1982, seventy-one percent of all poor, Black families were female-headed.[22]

As if the employment, marriage and drug shocks were not enough, violent crime would soon be on the rise as well. Starting in the mid 1960s and into the 1970s, violent crime of all types soared nationally.[23] By the mid 1970s the murder rate had doubled, the rate of rape and aggravated assault had tripled, and the robbery rate had quadrupled.[24]

By the 1980s, years of concentrated poverty, unemployment, and broken families had created a class of young men in the urban ghetto living what could best be described as a frontier lifestyle. Shut off from a dignified life in mainstream society, they drank, sold drugs, chased women, and fought with each other for status. They had children out of wedlock, and often could not raise them because they were absent, dead, or in prison. Poor Black women tried to make ends meet with low-paying jobs, but found that an entry level food service job did not pay enough to cover child care, let alone rent and groceries. Many single mothers ended up on welfare for lack of a better option, even though welfare payments were not sufficient to take care of a family.

The 1980s brought with it another drug crisis. Cocaine poured into the U.S. from Latin America, often trafficked by government-funded contra groups right under the nose of the CIA.[25] The cocaine was cooked into a highly addictive, smokable form called crack. The crack crisis plunged millions into crippling addiction and created a pretext for the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations to ramp up the militarization of the police, drive up mandatory minimum sentencing, and slap the debilitating label of “felon” on more and more of the urban poor, at once disenfranchising them and making their re-entry into mainstream society near impossible.

Starting in the 1990s, crime would go on to decline across the United States, perhaps due to lowering lead levels in the atmosphere.[26] But not all cities would reap the benefits of the crime bust equally. In cities with diversified economies the reduction in crime was pronounced and stable. Cities that never recovered from deindustrialization, such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee, did not benefit from the national violent crime bust, often seeing murder rates as high in the 2000s as they were in the 1980s and 1990s.[27]

Instead of finding a solution to the exogenous shocks battering left-behind parts of the country, liberals and conservatives teamed up to immiserate the urban poor. They called them welfare queens and tried to take from them what little they had. Politicians cut federal funding that was desperately needed by cities that had lost their tax base.[28] Armed with Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, politicians and intellectuals blamed welfare for unemployment and family disruption and further cut social services. They built prisons and increased mandatory minimums to lock young men up for longer and longer stretches. And all through this they continued to sell neoliberal economics as a long term solution to left-behind America’s struggles. But with each passing year the rising tide didn’t lift all boats so much as drown more unfortunate souls in its churning wake.

The Country

White communities were traditionally protected against these sorts of exogenous shocks. Faced with widespread poverty and joblessness during the great depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats engineered the New Deal, a massive government spending program that aimed to get people back to work and invigorate the economy. Black people were often not able to enjoy the benefits of the New Deal to the same extent as white people.[29] After WWII, returning white service members availed themselves of the GI Bill to go to college and generous FHA home loans to purchase new homes. This shortcut to the middle class was largely denied to returning Black service members. When industry began restructuring after the war, white men were able to hold on to union jobs and move around the country to pursue better employment while many Black men were not. Even the drug crises displayed racial inequalities: white Vietnam veterans were mostly able to kick the heroin habit while many Black veterans could not.

As the 20th century came to a close, something curious happened. Whether it was globalization, changes in media and technology, an increasing reliance on computers to automate the circulation of capital, the dispersal of capital and the rise of the investor class, or perhaps just an abundance of costs to distribute, the system became less partial in its propensity for doling out pain.[30] Exogenous shocks that were formerly managed, diffused, or diverted now began battering large portions of the white suburban and rural working class as well.

Already by 1992 the miasma of deindustrialization had seeped beyond Black, urban communities to the rest of the working class in the Rust Belt, so much so that Bill Clinton found success running on a muscular industrial policy and state-supported bank.[31] But he would go on to break all his promises, as Clinton appointed deficit hawks, slashed welfare programs, pursued free trade, deregulated finance, and encouraged struggling lower- and middle-class workers to invest in their homes and the stock market, a suggestion that would have devastating consequences in the years to come.[32] Clinton stewarded the passage of NAFTA, a free trade agreement between Canada, Mexico and the United States. Unable to resist the margins made possible by the devalued peso, companies moved manufacturing south. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich assumed that high-skill manufacturing would remain in the states, but Mexican and Asian factories demonstrated a capacity to produce high-quality goods with masses of low-paid, low-skilled workers, so those jobs fled as well.[33]

NAFTA devastated the agricultural industry and small businesses in Mexico, leading to a flood of undocumented workers into the US.[34] In 1996 the number of undocumented workers from Mexico equaled the number of undocumented immigrants from all other countries. By 2007, according to some estimates there were approximately 1.6 million more undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States than from all other countries combined.[35]

The pain of disruption in the Rust Belt and elsewhere was obscured by aggregate gains to the U.S. economy. Physical capital in the Rust Belt was slowly auctioned off and shipped overseas while paper capital crept out to booming coastal metropoles.[36] According to one study, over the fifteen years after NAFTA was passed, trade deficits with Mexico resulted in the loss of approximately 682,900 American jobs.[37]

Despite the shocks set off by NAFTA, the United States still had approximately 17 million people employed in manufacturing in the year 2000. But the United States would continue to liberalize trade by inking the PNTR, an agreement that normalized trade relations with China. At the time, Robert Scott warned that this would destroy 800,000 American manufacturing jobs. For this prediction, he was excoriated by the Cato Institute’s Daniel Griswold, who insisted that the PNTR would “create not… fewer jobs… but better jobs.”[38]

It turns out Scott may have underestimated the devastating impact of the PNTR. Over the next 10 years the number of U.S. manufacturing jobs would drop precipitously. Between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. would lose between 5 and 6 million manufacturing jobs, many of which were concentrated in the Rust Belt. Michigan alone lost approximately 450,000, cutting their manufacturing employment base in half.[39] One study suggested that from 2000 to 2007, 800,000 lost jobs may have been the lower boundary directly attributable to the PNTR. The actual number could have been as high as 2 million.[40] Robert Scott estimates that the total number of jobs lost because of competition with China was 3.4 million, approximately three-fourths of which were in the manufacturing sector. Despite promises by free trade advocates, these jobs were not replaced with good employment for displaced plant workers. The added jobs were often low-paying work in the service sector or high-skilled jobs that required education and training.

Parts of the Midwest had become so economically devastated in the mid 2000s that venture capitalists began buying up scrap yards there, eager to profit off of its physical destruction.[41] Aluminum siding was stripped from houses and components removed from shuttered factories. Even manhole covers and guardrails were pulled from the streets of towns and cities that not long before were vibrant and teeming with playing children. Much of the scrap was sold to Chinese firms who stripped the paint off, melted it down, and used it to build the factories that would replace those recently shuttered in the Midwest. But not only the exterior of China’s plants arrived from the vortex opening up over the Midwest: previously operative refining equipment was auctioned off to the lowest bidder and shipped overseas to resume productivity there as well.

Similar to the Black, urban employment shocks, the steep decline in good jobs for men without college degrees coincided with a precipitous drop in the marriage rate for low-income earners. Between 2000 and 2018, the percentage of all low-income earners who had never been married shot up from twenty-three percent to forty-two percent.[42] Out of wedlock births rose correspondingly: between 1990 and 2016, the number of children born out of wedlock to white women with a high school diploma but no college degree jumped from eighteen percent to fifty-two percent.[43]

Also in the 2000s, doctors began prescribing large volumes of OxyContin, a powerful opioid that proved to be far more addictive than its developers had promised. In the year 2000, America suffered approximately 20,000 overdose deaths a year. By 2010, that number had doubled. By 2018, that number was close to 70,000 overdose deaths per year that included overdoses of prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, a strong synthetic opioid often shipped in from China. While the number of overdose deaths finally stopped increasing in 2018, it has not decreased in any meaningful sense. We continue to tolerate close to 70,000 drug overdose deaths a year, a number which may have gotten worse with the isolation and mental stress of the pandemic. The epicenters of the drug overdose crisis were located in post-industrial New England, the Rust Belt, and Appalachia, and while the crisis did affect middle-class regions, overdose deaths were heavily concentrated among the working poor.[44] Whatever social protections kept white Vietnam veterans from plunging into heroin addiction in the 1960s and 1970s were apparently no longer operative.

As the 2000s wore on, men in the Rust Belt and other locations hit hard by trade shocks fell into despair. Suicides would increase in the United States every year from 2000 on, despite the fact that the global suicide rate was generally dropping.[45] One research paper found that the increase in suicides that began in the 2000s was heavily concentrated among men who lived in regions hit by the PNTR trade shocks.[46] Stripped of the status and dignity that came with good, stable employment, men were killing themselves, either slowly with powerful drugs or quickly with a shotgun blast.

Just as it did in Black, urban areas, the self-destruction soon turned outwards. While the violent crime rate in much of white, rural America still lags behind the most violent cities, it is creeping ever closer. Shibani Mahtani found that from 1998 to 2008, the rate of violent crime in rural counties in the Rust Belt and post-industrial Northeast continued to increase even while urban rates remained steady or decreased.[47] According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, in 2014 the violent crime victimization rate for 15-17 year olds in rural areas was almost four times that of 15-17 year olds in urban centers.[48]

It is hard to ignore the other signs of white dysfunction: white nationalist shootings are on the rise and school shootings have not abated since the terrifying events at Columbine in 1999. Many of the perpetrators are young, angry men who feel isolated from society. Many are low-status and have suffered through family disruption. They are often mentally ill and so socially isolated that they have no one to step in and help. Many are simply bitter or resentful about their disappointing life prospects.

A number of predominantly white, rural counties have been saved by structural safety nets. In these counties there are more intact families, more public services, and greater stores of wealth and resources. But we are drawing down what is left of that reserve. Inpatient rehabilitation programs for opioid or opiate addiction can cost a family over twenty thousand dollars for a thirty day treatment program, depending on whether or not it is covered by health insurance. Given that many opioid and opiate addicts will need to attend multiple treatment programs over a number of years to kick the habit, a single child who gets hooked on painkillers or heroin can drain a family’s retirement fund and leech all the equity out of their home. While family disruption in white, rural counties still lags behind Black, urban ones, it is quickly catching up, as marriage rates continue to trend down and more children are born out of wedlock. Whatever the barriers keeping back the floodgates of violence in many white, rural locations, we have no reason to expect them to hold as social structures degrade and wealth stores evaporate.

The Story

The conservative explanation of social dysfunction in Black, urban centers was typically one of culture. On this account, young black men got into trouble because of a poor upbringing or permissive cultural norms. This narrative unravels at the most cursory inspection. Black women married at a higher rate than white women up until the 1950s.[49] Crime existed in Black, urban areas in the 1940s and 1950s, but it was consistent with what one would expect from poorer and densely packed regions. Black residents of Harlem still slept on fire escapes and rooftops when it was hot, and white people felt safe enough walking the streets at night to visit the nightclubs there.[50] Conservatives never provided a coherent explanation for why or how cultural norms would have changed so drastically over such a short period of time.

Conservatives next blamed perverse economic incentives. Now the problem was that the government had been too generous to poor, Black communities, having given too much money to cities and too much in aid to struggling families. Charles Murray’s Losing Ground convinced an entire generation of conservative intellectuals that the solution to inner-city dysfunction was to withdraw welfare benefits. This did little but further plunge families into crushing poverty, as the promised benefits never materialized.[51] Most of Murray’s claims about the effects of welfare benefits on employment and stable family formation did not age particularly well.[52]

As William J. Wilson documents, it is not possible to explain the social unravelling that crept into Black, urban areas without noting the annihilation of stable, respectable employment opportunities and their replacement with low-paying service work.[53] Indeed the economists Autor, Dorn, and Hanson have found that the decline of manufacturing precipitated by the PNTR had a strikingly similar effect on white, rural communities.[54]

So far liberals agree, but Ackerlof and Yellen found that employment shocks only explain part of the increase in single parenting.[55] They argue that no full picture of the steep decline in stable family formation is possible without accounting for how abortion, birth control and changing social norms removed the social pressures for low-income earners to marry and raise children.

Far from being appalled by the decrease in stable family formation, educated liberals cheered it on as a progressive victory, all the while continuing to marry and have children within wedlock at comparatively high levels.[56] Many were convinced that if unmarried men and women could just acquire the material resources they needed to live a decent life, their destructive behavior would dissipate. But there is reason to think this may not be the case. During the fracking boom in North Dakota, young men moved there in droves for well-paying jobs. But the increase in material resources never translated to a decrease in destructive behavior. The young men brought their drug use, fighting, and alcoholism with them. Their improved material standing seemed to have little effect on their propensity to commit to stable family formation.[57]

Even more damaging to liberal aspirations, Robert Sampson found that the dramatic increase in violent crime in Black, urban areas was not driven directly by joblessness but by the family disruption caused by joblessness.[58] Communities can maintain low levels of violent crime as long as men commit to raising their families and informal networks of social control remain intact. But when men cannot acquire the status they need to hold a respectable job and become marriageable in their own esteem and the esteem of women, they enter into a kind of behavioral death spiral that often ends with them killing each other over a pickup truck or new pair of shoes.

Men need jobs and those jobs need to come with sufficient status to be an object of esteem in their communities. They need the stability to plan a life for themselves and their families. They need strong social expectations to encourage them to commit to their families and communities and do the right thing.

It may be possible to maintain low levels of violence while broken families proliferate, at least for a while. But as families get more fragile, as jobs pay less and become more humiliating, as men and women increasingly do not respect each other enough to marry, as gig work proliferates, as cultural elites promote norms of sexual and economic liberty, we pile up more and more kindling, awaiting that one spark that unleashes the next awful conflagration of violence, once again sending the well-off fleeing for the suburbs, this time away from the city and the country.

The Solution?

Addressing the cycle of violence presents a genuine political dilemma, for it may require both parties to commit to programs they find deeply questionable. Conservatives will need to get past their distaste for government intervention. Neoliberal “economic zones” did not stem the tide of violence and poverty. Companies have little incentive to move their operations to left-behind parts of the country, where infrastructure is rundown and men have often spent so much time un- or underemployed that they are no longer reliable. Similarly liberals need to grasp the centrality of traditional coupling, marriage, and strong social obligations to maintaining informal networks of control in strained communities.

But above all, we need to change the way we think about the distribution of status in society. Some men in this cultural environment cannot derive the status necessary to maintain a stable job and get married from service or pink-collar work. Academic chin-stroking about how anger at lost status amounts to white rage or male privilege misses the point. Low-status men of all races and ethnicities do not need cultural superiority or dominance, just the minimal status necessary to secure stable work and matrimony. Once we reliably provide men with a healthy outlet for their drive to participate in something that transcends themselves, we may even experience a decrease in misogynistic tendencies.

We need to address the structural decline of left-behind America. This goes beyond fixing roads and bridges. In some parts of the country, utility infrastructure is years out of date. Public transportation networks have decayed, and those will need to be restored and made affordable through subsidies. Many urban and rural locations have poor access to grocery stores and banks. If private enterprise will not step up and provide essential services to left-behind America, perhaps the promise of a national bank might finally be fulfilled, even a national grocer.

The United States needs to take control over the sorts of jobs available to high school graduates. It is time to begin dismantling the service economy to rebalance it in favor of substantive goods. This will involve an aggressive industrial policy that strategically brings back production to American soil.[59] If we want good jobs in poorer, Black parts of the country, we should do what we did the last time jobs were plentiful there, run the economy extremely hot and stimulate demand through government purchasing.[60] We need to move beyond the simplified economic thinking that jobs with similar compensation are fungible. We should not view the destruction of a factory in Scranton as justifying a marginal decrease in the price of air conditioners, nor the creation of another factory one thousand miles away.

We need to rethink FDR’s anti-discrimination measures for our present moment, to ensure that all persons in left-behind parts of the country have a reliable pathway to employment and stable family formation. We ought to dismantle the suffocating web of restrictions that shackle felons once they get out of prison. We should experiment with different forms of direct payments, whether forgivable loans, wage subsidies, a universal basic income, or an aggressive expansion of welfare or unemployment benefits. The disastrous labor recovery of 2008 contrasted with the stunning success of the unemployment insurance supplement during the 2020 pandemic should disabuse us of our faith in the power of neoliberal austerity. Fiscal and monetary policy should aggressively stimulate demand and target full employment.

While strong government action to correct business and political failings is necessary, it is not sufficient. Organizations and institutions at every level of society will need to pitch in to restore the proper functioning of our broken communities. Liberals and conservatives need to lay down their arms in the culture war and recognize that both religious and humanitarian non-profits have a role to play in bringing material and cultural renewal to suffering America. The government can help by providing these organizations with grants to focus their efforts on places like Baltimore and Youngstown.

We need recreation and cultural centers where young people can meet and bond with others who share their interests. Community leaders and local elites should encourage marriage and stable family formation. Influencing marriage and child-rearing through policy is notoriously challenging, but we do very little of it, so we ought to start rolling out programs to see what works. Maternity and paternity leave should be funded with a mandatory federal insurance program, to decrease the incentives for corporations to punish parents. We need to finally end the marriage tax penalty, and we should provide parents with free childcare or a childcare stipend. At the very least, we should permanently increase the size of the child tax credit and make it refundable. For those who struggle to find a suitable match, we could implement a national dating and matchmaking service modeled on Singapore’s Social Development Network.

Some people have been deeply scarred by years of living in poverty and desperation. We should get comfortable with decarceration, if only to end the cycle of children growing up without a father in left-behind parts of the country. We need to aggressively fund rehabilitation services and increase the number of inpatient beds available. We ought to experiment with non-carceral restitution and public works projects, so that those who break the law can help make right the harm they have caused while simultaneously reintegrating with their communities. And we need religious organizations, counseling centers, local businesses, and community colleges to collectively create a transformational pathway away from a life of violence and self-destruction.

For a substantial segment of America’s left-behind, the American dream has died, auctioned off to the highest bidder. As jobs left and infrastructure decayed, their communities disintegrated as idle men turned to drugs, risky sexual behavior, and violence. Any political movement that claims to speak for the multi-racial, multi-ethnic working class needs to aggressively create the conditions for them to make a better life for themselves, their families, and their communities. Alternatively, we could do nothing, and as the evening news fills up with the faces of adults and young children wasted in a hail of gunfire, try to quiet our guilty consciences with our rising investment accounts and all the cheap, disposable junk cluttering our homes. But as we saw when a mob of mostly wild young men stormed the Capitol building to overturn President Biden’s electoral victory, our domestic protections against public demonstrations of force remain sporadic and fragile. While we escaped that incident comparatively unscarred, some in the crowd were prepared for something far more sinister. Next time, we may not be so lucky.

Editor's Note: We published a follow-up essay from the writer, which investigates the economic causes of the themes discussed above.

  1. Thomas Abt, Bleeding Out. (Basic Books: New York, 2019), 2. ↩︎

  2. Ben Stickle & Marcus Felson, “Crime Rates in a Pandemic: the Largest Criminological Experiment in History,” American Journal of Criminal Justice 45 (2020): 525-536. ↩︎

  3. Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis. (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2005), 27. ↩︎

  4. William J. Collins, “African-American Economic Mobility in the 1940s: A Portrait from the Palmer Survey,” The Journal of Economic History 60, no. 3 (2000): 756-781. ↩︎

  5. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 53-54. ↩︎

  6. Ibid, 127-130. ↩︎

  7. Ibid, 130-135, 144. ↩︎

  8. John C. Austin, “A Rust Belt Rebuild Can’t Rest on Locals,” Brookings, March 5, 2018, ↩︎

  9. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 125. ↩︎

  10. Ibid, 147-150. ↩︎

  11. William J. Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged. (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1987), 43. ↩︎

  12. Lee N. Robins, Darlene H. Davis and David N. Nurco, “How Permanent Was Vietnam Drug Addiction?” American Journal of Public Health 64, no. 12 (1974): 38-43. ↩︎

  13. James Forman Jr., Locking Up Our Own. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2017), 25. ↩︎

  14. Erol Ricketts, “The Origin of Black Female-Headed Families.” Focus, Spring/Summer 1989, 32. ↩︎

  15. William J. Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. (Vintage Books: New York, 1997), 196-197. ↩︎

  16. Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged, 41. ↩︎

  17. Ibid, 42. ↩︎

  18. Wilson, When Work Disappears, 27. ↩︎

  19. George A. Akerlof and Janet L. Yellen, “New Mothers, Not Married: Technology Shock, the Demise of Shotgun Marriage, and the Increase in Out-of-Wedlock Births,” Brookings, September 1, 1996, ↩︎

  20. Ibid. ↩︎

  21. Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged, 66. ↩︎

  22. Ibid, 71. ↩︎

  23. Gary LaFree, “Declining Violent Crime Rates in the 1990s: Predicting Crime Booms and Busts.” Annual Review of Sociology 25 (1999): 145-168. ↩︎

  24. Ibid, 146-147. ↩︎

  25. Jon Schwarz, “Oliver North Worked With Cocaine Traffickers to Arm Terrorists. Now He’ll Be President of the NRA,” The Intercept, May 12, 2018, ↩︎

  26. Jennifer Doleac, “New Evidence that Lead Exposure Increases Crime,” Brookings, June 1m 2017, ↩︎

  27. Scott Calvert, Shibani Mahtani and Zusha Elinson, “With Their Elevated Homicide Rates, Four Cities Stand Out.” The Wall Street Journal, February 20, 2017, ↩︎

  28. Wilson, When Work Disappears, 49. ↩︎

  29. Charles Lane, “The New Deal as Raw Deal for Blacks in Segregated Communities,” The Washington Post, May 25, 2017. ↩︎

  30. Enzo Rossi and Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, “What’s New About Woke Racial Capitalism (and What Isn’t),” Spectre, December 18, 2020, ↩︎

  31. Michael McQuarrie, “The Revolt of the Rust Belt: Place and Politics in the Age of Anger.” The British Journal of Sociology 68, no. S1 (2017): 133. ↩︎

  32. Ibid. ↩︎

  33. Nelson Lichtenstein, “A Fabulous Failure: Clinton’s 1990s and the Origins of Our Times,” The American Prospect, January 29, 2018, ↩︎

  34. Jeff Faux, “NAFTA’s Impact on U.S. Workers,” Economic Policy Institute Working Economics Blog, December 9, 2013, ↩︎

  35. Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “Overall Number of U.S. Unauthorized Immigrants Holds Steady Since 2009,” Pew Research Center, September 20, 2016, ↩︎

  36. McQuarrie, “The Revolt of the Rust Belt,” 134. ↩︎

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  59. Michael Lind, “Tripartism, American Style: The Past and Future of Sectoral Policy,” American Affairs 4, no. 1 (Spring 2020), ↩︎

  60. Oren Cass, “Some Like It Hot,” American Compass, December 8, 2020, ↩︎

Featured image: Photo by Alex McCarthy on Unsplash.

Dave Atenasio is a Lecturer at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, MD. He received his PhD from Loyola University Chicago. You can find more of his work on his website. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.