Legislative Groups Should Target Declining Communities, Disconnected Youth

As legislators gather in their working groups to study programs and budgets, they should also take note of long-term phenomena with significant impacts.

One of these is a downward spiral that can cripple communities. It’s named “The Iron Circle of Poverty.” It’s called the “iron circle” because it is extremely hard to break. Few communities have the talented leadership and sense of common purpose needed to do so. Without help from state leadership and resources, many will not.

Big events or a number of small sustained events can trigger the downward spiral. Loss of major employers and natural disasters are big events that can kick-off the spiral. Population declines, loss of locally owned businesses, lack of new capital investment, aging housing stock, escalating property taxes, an aging and unskilled workforce, middle to upper class residential flight (usually white), growing criminal activity, and declining schools are examples of trends that can aggregate over time and launch the spiral.

Once started, the downward spiral gains momentum as interconnected facets of the community weaken each other, e.g. the local economy slows, quality of life begins to decline, housing stock and infrastructure age without repair, schools deteriorate and qualified teachers leave, the workforce degrades, capital investment slows, job openings dry up, the economy slows further…. Around and around it goes, spiraling downward. Along the way, poverty and crime surge.

What is the state’s plan, its policies, and its resources that communities caught in the iron circle can access? Oh, there are pieces and parts, but no comprehensive help for downward spiraling communities. Some legislative working group should look into this.

Another long-term phenomenon of great impact is the escalation of violence and gang activity among at-risk youth. Too many are becoming disconnected from traditional pathways that lead to success as adults. They become easy prey for gangs and fall into behaviors that leave them even more disconnected. Community leaders tend to look to the juvenile part of our criminal justice system to rectify the problem. But often, the problem is too widespread and deep rooted for the juvenile system to handle, much less resolve.

Research shows that communities wanting to interrupt gang recruitment and cycles of violence for youth must institute a range of complementary programs. Early childhood education is one key component, but not the end all. After-school programs, summer youth programs, youth employment programs, and safe places and counseling for abused children are examples of other programs that together with early childhood education can have impact. But, the programs must reach most at-risk children, not just a small percentage, and must be sustained over time.

State leaders tend to look at early childhood education, juvenile justice, mental health, law enforcement, and youth programs as stand-alone programs. They need to be considered as complementary components of a vital system if we are to effectively deal with our growing disconnected youth problem.

Budgets and taxes are important topics for working groups, but so too are long-term phenomena that destroy communities and youth.

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