We're not sure where Mayor Ron Littlefield's new advisers on gang violence will focus their attention as they try to get a handle on the problem. Yet it has been apparent for some time that Chattanooga's rising gang-related violence -- as in other urban centers in America -- is significantly linked to deep levels of urban poverty, single parent households, a deficit in educational achievement, fewer economic opportunities and higher rates of incarceration among young males stalled by these common indices of poverty.
This isn't a novel revelation, to be sure. But that may suggest the larger problem here: the environment that produces gang violence is a very common phenomena. It's so common, in fact, that it tends to be ignored when communities finally reach, as Chattanooga has, the threshold of gang violence that rings the alarm bell. Then, concerned leaders are prone to act is if they have to find an unknown factor, when it's been growing their nose for decades without much constructive attention.
That's not unusual in the United States. As recent studies have noted, Americans' national image has glorified our country as a classless, upwardly mobile society for so long that the conventional wisdom obscures the grim reality that the United States badly lags other western nations in upward mobility. So here, if kids get involved in gangs, it's not because their neighborhood culture from childhood pushes them that way; it's because they're deliberately choosing to go against our larger societal mores.
On the contrary, an insightful new review by the New York Times last week noted, "at least five large studies in recent years have found the United States to be less (upwardly) mobile" than other leading western nations. A study led by a Swedish economist, for example, "found that 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as an adult." That "persistent disadvantage," reporter Jason DeParle wrote, is "much higher than in Denmark (25) percent and Britain (30 percent), a country famous for its class constraints."
Even fewer (just 8 percent) of American males from the bottom fifth of household income -- typically the most impoverished segment, with family incomes in the U.S. below $25,000 -- rose to the top fifth (incomes over $100,000), while 12 percent of the British and 14 percent of the Danish men in the same lower bracket managed to rise to the top fifth of income.
The Pew Charitable Trusts "Economic Mobility Project," DeParle's survey found, suggested similar disparities of America's more harsh economic class divisions. It showed that 65 percent of American males and females born in the bottom fifth of income levels stayed in the bottom 40 percent, while 62 percent of Americans born in the top fifth of incomes stayed in the top two-fifths over their lifetimes.
Such studies generally find that children born into families with higher incomes and levels of education stayed in those levels and vice versa -- and to a much greater extent in the United States than in other western countries that provide more social supports, better health care and more equitable education for lower- and lower-middle class families.
The only surprise in such findings is that more American conservatives and organizations -- from the National Review to Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican, to Rick Santorum, the conservative former senator from Pennsylvania who nearly defeated Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses -- have also become focused on the societal causes and historical racial stratification that characterize America's low-ranking in upward mobility, which they also see as defeating the archetypal American dream.
"Republicans will not feel compelled to talk about income inequality, but they will feel a need to talk about lack of mobility -- a lack of access to the American dream," said John Bridgeland, a former aide to President George W. Bush, who has helped start Opportunity Nation to explore policies to reverse poverty.
Acknowledging the problem of economic divisions and the factors that entrench these divisions is just the first step on the long road toward a remedy. Yet it's clear -- and has been for decades in America's urban ganglands -- that urban gang issues are as much a symptom of a larger societal dysfunction, as they are one of the toughest issues.
Experience elsewhere shows that it will take more than an anti-gang, anti-crime/drug/guns strategy to quell the violence. Rather, it will take a comprehensive vision involving families, parents as first teachers, churches, neighborhoods, employers and after-school programs to root out the problem.
It's a costly, hard job for the long haul, and the whole community. But denial is no longer an option.