If you have ever taken or taught a sociology class, you know that many students leave feeling like some problems are too deeply entrenched in our social structure to ever change. This, of course, is not true; social change is possible. But how?
In the United States, the legal system has been our go-to solution for many issues. Civil rights activists effectively used the courts to desegregate schools, and Congress passed several landmark bills guaranteeing voting rights and fair housing, for instance.
But the law is only one avenue to create change; there are many other ways that ordinary citizens can work to solve problems. We are accustomed to thinking that the best way to deal with problems like gang violence, for instance, would be to pass more laws to punish those involved in gangs more severely. But while people who act violently should be punished and incarcerated, prison alone will not stop people from joining gangs.
Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles, began working with gang members in 1984 when he was assigned to a church in one of the city’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. As Boyle describes in his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, presiding over the funerals of young person after young person moved him to take action.
The businesses are designed to help people who might not otherwise be employable learn skills that will enable them to lead law-abiding lives. One of the biggest challenges that people coming out of prison face is getting a job. As Boyle observed, many employers are not “felon friendly”. And particularly during these days of high unemployment, having a record can mean few options. (Check out the documentary A Hard Straight for an in-depth look at the challenges of staying out of prison while on parole).
Homeboy Industries is now overflowing with thousands of young people who want to leave gang life behind and find jobs. But like many non-profit institutions, Homeboy Industries is facing tough financial times, as the recession has reduced donations. They were recently forced to lay off 300 people--all of their paid staff. The organization’s small businesses are quite successful, earning about $2.5 million annually, but this is just a quarter of the organization’s operating budget. (In addition to job training, Homeboy Industries offers tattoo removal, mental health care and legal services). The organization is seeking about $5 million dollars in donations to re-hire their staff for this year.
If that seems like a lot of money, consider this: celebrities and other wealthy Angelenos just donated more than $12 million to buy the land around the Hollywood sign after a three month campaign to save it from developers. And the cost to incarcerate one inmate in a California prison averages $47,000 a year; at that rate, Homeboy Industries costs about the same as housing 212 inmates and yet serves thousands of young people.For the state’s 673 prisoners on death row, the cost rises to $90,000 per inmate each year. Perhaps that’s why the prison system costs California taxpayers nearly $8 billion, about 11 percent of the state's budget (a higher percentage than the state’s educational system receives).
Like many other states, California is facing a massive budget deficit of $20 billion. To alleviate this shortfall, the state plans to release many prisoners and will also cut social services, including aid for child welfare and foster care, the disabled, and the elderly. While these cuts might save money in the short term, in the long run we might see more problems—and possibly more crime—from these decisions.The vast majority of those incarcerated in California’s prisons (83 percent) are there for property crimes rather than violent crimes (14 percent), crimes like theft, drug distribution and drug possession, which in some cases may be the result of a lack of legitimate job opportunities.
It’s very possible that organizations like Homeboy Industries might save far more money than they cost. So why haven’t philanthropists rushed forward as they have for the Hollywood sign?
As Boyle notes, gang members are often viewed by others as “disposable” people who are undeserving of help. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell writes in What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures that we often prefer to fund programs for people we feel are morally deserving. And yet in his chapter on homelessness, “Million Dollar Murray,” Gladwell concludes that it may be cheaper to pay for housing for persistently homeless people than to provide services to manage homelessness.
This may not play well with the general public, who might see a down-on-her-luck single mother as more deserving of help than an alcoholic who has been on the streets for years. But Gladwell finds that in the long run the public health costs for the least sympathetic homeless people—those that might be heavy drinkers and resist working—are actually much higher if they stay on the streets than they would be if we found a way to house them. Likewise, heavily tattooed gang members with long criminal records may not be the most sympathetic of characters, but helping them get jobs will be cheaper than sending them to prison.
Addressing problems like gang violence are not easy, but they are also not impossible to deal with. What other problems can be addressed if we are willing to assist unsympathetic groups? How might we save money in the long run by doing so?