Mass shootings draw critical attention to the cost of gun violence and the importance of gun regulation. But in divested neighborhoods in cities like Hartford, the gun violence crisis is unfolding and won’t be solved by gun laws alone. Poverty and violence caused by systemic racism will have to be addressed.
The Uvalde school massacre has sparked a new wave of national grief over the human toll of gun violence in the United States. Parents of young children, eager to celebrate the end of the school year, are now planning funerals. Advocates point to the need for gun safety laws, including under-21 bans, background checks and protective orders. Current attention to the issue of gun violence is vital, as the toll of gun violence extends far beyond mass shootings. Most gun-related murders happen in cities like Hartford.
Consider Freddy’s story. In a focus group with researchers from the University of Connecticut and COMPASS, Freddy shared that since 2016 he had lost 20 friends to gun violence. “You could be with one person and the next morning you get a call and they’re gone. Like I’ve been through that a couple of times this year, and it puts you in a depression and everything, where you don’t have the energy to do everyday things.
In Hartford, gun violence is the product of decades of racially targeted policies that have created concentrated poverty. The gap between rich and poor in the Hartford area is among the worst in the country. It is important to defend gun safety laws. But to solve the epidemic of gun violence, we must also implement policies that alleviate concentrated poverty.
Young people talk about the cost of living in poverty
COMPASS Youth Collaborative, a non-profit organization based in Hartford, has been collaborating for 6 years with my department at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work to document the challenges young people in Hartford face with gun violence . Recently, we interviewed 25 young people in focus groups about the stress they experience in neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence. Knowing that young people are the experts on their own lives, we collaborated with young community co-researchers throughout this research study.
Here’s what we’ve learned: The stress of living in poverty comes at a high cost. For example, many young people spoke of the stress of watching their parents struggle to make ends meet. A teenage girl has shared the story of working two jobs – in addition to going to school and managing her social life – to support her family, since her mother’s minimum-wage job doesn’t pay the bills . “I’m the eldest of the daughters, so when my mum is going through hard times, I have to be her support,” she said. “It stresses me out because I don’t want to see my mum go through this alone and my siblings suffer.”
Neighborhood disadvantage is a root cause that affects a range of health issues, including toxic stress and engagement in violence. A large body of research links neighborhood socioeconomic disadvantage—characterized in part by a high proportion of homes below the poverty line and limited economic opportunity—and gun violence.
Need for policies that invest in the community
We want to be clear: the young people we work with show creativity, courage and daily commitment to their community while navigating these difficult conditions. Yet, as long as young people live in neighborhoods where poverty is concentrated, problems of gun violence will continue. Local community leader Pastor AJ Johnson shared a classic metaphor: If we see one child after another drowning in a river, we can either pull one child out at a time or watch where the water is coming from. ‘flood.
Community leaders recently won a long-awaited victory when Connecticut passed legislation declaring racism a public health emergency. The bill pointed out that racism manifests not just in police brutality, but in brutal policies that systematically disinvest in communities like Hartford.
Structural inequalities are rooted in racist policies that date back centuries. Addressing the wealth disparities that persist today will involve a wide range of policies, including housing, jobs, and education. COMPASS street workers spend countless hours supporting youth in crisis. COMPASS outreach workers are on a mission to save lives, and we will continue to work tirelessly to achieve that. But the gun violence we see is a symptom of poverty, and we must tackle the poverty crisis directly in order to bring about lasting change.
dr. Caitlin Elsaesser is an associate professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Connecticut.