Memphis Crime and the Brooks & Dunn Hypothesis
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
June 12, 2008 - Those who listen to country music will not find it surprising to read in the most recent issue of The Atlantic that social scientists from the University of Memphis now have virtually incontrovertible evidence confirming the Brooks & Dunn hypothesis: “You can take that girl out of the honky tonk, but you can’t take the honky tonk . . . out of the girl.” Well . . . sort of.
In “American Murder Mystery,” Hanna Rosin discusses the work of Richard Janikowski, a criminologist with the University of Memphis. For several years, Janikowski has been mapping violent crime patterns in the greater Memphis area. About six months ago, following a hunch, Janikowski made a significant discovery – one which, according to Rosin, is sure to trouble proponents of a particular antipoverty campaign.
Together with his wife, Phyllis Betts – a housing expert at the University of Memphis – Janikowski compared crime patterns with residential addresses of past recipients of “Section 8” vouchers – a federally funded effort to subsidize new housing for urban poor whose public-housing projects were scheduled for demolition. The results were astonishing. Those areas of Memphis with some of the highest rates of violent crime were a “near-perfect” match with those areas most densely populated by the displaced urban poor.
Rosin writes: “Betts remembers her discomfort as she looked at the map. The couple had been musing about the connection for months, but they were amazed—and deflated—to see how perfectly the two data sets fit together. She knew right away that this would be a “hard thing to say or write.” Nobody in the antipoverty community and nobody in city leadership was going to welcome the news that the noble experiment that they’d been engaged in for the past decade had been bringing the city down, in ways they’d never expected. But the connection was too obvious to ignore.”
As it turns out, Betts’ premonition about the difficulty of getting a hearing for this sort of data was correct. According to Rosin, when Betts presented these results to Memphis city officials – including the head of the Memphis Housing Authority, Robert Lipscomb – they remained skeptical at best, defensive and defiant at worst. Rosin writes: “From what Lipscomb said to me, he’s still not moved. “You’ve already marginalized people and told them they have to move out,” he told me irritably, just as he’s told Betts. “Now you’re saying they moved somewhere else and created all these problems? That’s a really, really unfair assessment. You’re putting a big burden on people who have been too burdened already, and to me that’s, quote-unquote, criminal.” To Lipscomb, what matters is sending people who lived in public housing the message that “they can be successful, they can go to work and have kids who go to school. They can be self-sufficient and reach for the middle class.”
The results of Janikowski and Betts’ research is not merely unsettling to governmental officials who have spent time and money investing in a project that not only may have failed to make the very problem it was designed to solve better, but also may have made it worse. It also flies in the face of a philosophy of crime and human nature that often motivates such efforts. In a nutshell, it is a philosophy that maintains that humans are essentially good; thus, crime is fundamentally (i.e., at its heart) a sociological problem. Change people’s socio-economic circumstances for the better and they will not commit crimes.
While Christians should never minimize the devastating impact that extreme poverty has not only on whole communities, but also in the lives of individuals (especially young children), they should not be misled by a sociological Zeitgeist that entails a denial of what Scripture clearly teaches and this research confirms. Specifically, while crime may be exacerbated by adverse socio-economic conditions, crime is fundamentally (i.e., at its heart) a spiritual problem. Simply put, crime is a problem of the heart. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)