John Katko, District 24NY Representative to the US House of Representatives, announced the other night on the news that he was bringing home $11m in grants for use in addressing the housing problems poor Central New Yorkers face. Some of the money will go to the city of Syracuse and some to Onondaga County. Of course, this is good news. In 2015 the Century Foundation published an article called “The Architecture of Segregation” which showed the role that being unable to own a house played in robbing poor people, especially poor black people of generational wealth. Redlining kept black folks in center cities that were losing their tax base as white people moved to the suburbs, and real estate companies found ways to keep black people from following them to more prosperous areas with better schools. It was racism that affected the pocketbooks and bank accounts of those who were denied mobility, who remained in crumbling inner city neighborhoods where the equity in any property people owned there declined as housing prices fell. Pioneer Homes (pictured above), the oldest housing at the heart of the city of Syracuse, was built in 1941 and is still fully occupied.
When children do not see way to join a society that seems to be thriving all around them but does not seem to offer them a way in, they begin to dream about ways to make it rich quick. Those who want to choose a legal route dream of succeeding in professional sports or in music. Those who see friends who seem to have found ways to stay local and strike it rich, are attracted by less legal role models, and by gangs which seem like families who have your back no matter what. A few kids are lured into success through academics, and when community programs came along that guarantee college funding to kids who do well in school the numbers improved. But we all know that school success is not always a path to riches, and unless you are born into a wealthy family wealth is certainly not likely to come instantly. Not having college debt speeds things up a bit. Hope is a tender thing, easily killed in harsh surroundings. The same gangs that offered support to members made inner city communities dangerous places that did not encourage the academic route, and tended to bully ‘nerds.’
To deal with gangs cities went the route of tough law enforcement, getting gang members off the streets and into jail. RICO laws made sure that gang members got long sentences. But retribution and vengeance are fostered more often by long jail sentences and gangs seem to stick and stay alive almost in defiance of law and order approaches. I am a law and order appreciator. Cultures that are not lawful and orderly soon disintegrate into thuggery and chaos. But there has to be something hopeful about administering justice in cities.
Throwing people in jail, letting them out after time served, seems to mostly produce reoffenders, anger, and unhappy communities where residents hold vengeful feelings in their hearts. It is an endless negative loop and it is wasteful. It allows us to consider some people beyond redemption, as throwaways. People who only wish to inflict harm cannot be tolerated; people who are so addicted to drugs that they will do any crime to support their needs are also menaces to peaceful enjoyment of a neighborhood or a city or even a home. But I firmly believe that we can find more creative ways to short circuit reoffenders than simply sending them back to jail over and over. We can reach people if we find the right carrot, the one that will fire up the light in their eyes and make them want to do something new. As for addicts we can either set up programs that allow someone to feed their addiction regularly, or we can set up enough rehab programs to get people off drugs and, at the same time, find the pursuit in life that will serve as their carrot.
Well, right there in a nut shell is my beef with John Katko. He is a law and order man. He does not think about wasting human beings and providing hope. He believes that when people are bad you punish them and this teaches them to not do whatever they did again. Except we know that punishment only works in a very few cases. Using a stick without a carrot fosters anger and resentment, deep resentment that erodes the ability to hold hope for a better life in your heart.
Plenty of people have studied the efficacy of using praise or using blame to encourage changed behavior and praise works better every time. It can’t be false praise. Finding what fires up the furnace in each person is not easy. Public schools are notoriously bad at it unless you are fired up by academics. Even if you are, the chaos in an individual’s life can make the pursuit of academics unrewarding. Why haven’t we, with all our knowledge, our brain power, figured out how to stimulate the imaginations of diverse populations of students? Why are kids still sitting in armed desks in neat alphabetical rows? Some of it is about money and safety. Some of it is about control. Some of it is about institutionalization. If certain schools can find ways to click with kids of all stripes, more schools could do the same. John Katko most likely thinks this is unrealistic and that ‘softness’ will increase violence rather than counteract it. But I think that using praise and blame together might be worth trying. Creative approaches to educating kids in the poorest neighborhoods would be well worth the extra cash they would cost. There are plenty of intelligent minority professionals in inner cities who could be trusted to design programs that entice participation, using their familiarity with poorer residents to best effect.
So, John Katko, a rather inflexible, stern and all-knowing Mr. Law and Order, brings money home and it is for housing. He brings $11 m, which sounds like a lot but probably isn’t, and that money is divvied up among several agencies with differing missions, although all related to housing. Katko is given this money to bring home just in time to help him get reelected. We are all grateful for the money, but the timing is certainly suspect. And as long as Katko remains Mr. Law and Order and does not have any more creative dimensions to his approach to stubborn poverty and crime in city neighborhoods, to students who come to school with life problems that make academic pursuits seem like ‘baby stuff’, the cycle of street to jail and back is likely to continue uninterrupted. More, much more is called for.
Syracuse recently competed for a tech grant with 250 cities and won one of only a few grants. The grant is for $3m and comes from a big unnamed bank. It is paid out over three years and cannot be used by the city for other initiatives. It must be used to plan and deliver tech skills to inner city residents. Here is some hope. Two pools of money to spend on our inner city. May it be spent as it should be. The money could make a difference.
As for John Katko, don’t send him back to Congress. We can do better. He is no hero, he is flawed human just like the rest of us, but we can see that his particular flaws may be a lack of compassion and imagination.