Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Backward Thinking

I was always taught that the BEST way to solve a problem is to prevent it from occurring. Once the problem is allowed to arise, things can get complicated quickly. For example, if I don't wish to cause a forest fire while camping, the best way to insure a forest fire doesn't start is to make darn sure my campfire is out completely before leaving the site.

This seems like commonsense; unfortunately, particularly in politics, this kind of object lesson is rarely copied. If we envision Congress as a group of people camping in a National Park, they tend to be the kind of campers who would casually walk away from a roaring campfire (during the middle of a drought, no less!) If someone said to them, "Hey, what are you doing? Do you realize you're setting up the circumstances that could easily lead to a major forest fire?"

The campers wouldn't blink. "There's nothing to worry about," they'd say. "We've already called the local fire department, the US Park Service, the US Forest Service and FEMA. Once our campfire spreads and becomes a roaring blaze, those folks can put it out."

This may seem like a very simplistic example, but I would argue it exemplifies the manner in which too many politicians think about society's problems. Instead of investing in strategies and programs that might avoid or, at least, curb potential problems from happening, politicians focus on what to do about problems AFTER they've been allowed to occur.

This past week there's been a lot of talk on Capitol Hill about the need for federal legislation to deal with an increase in gang-related crime. One strategy that has gained a lot of media attention is to federalize several crimes that include gang-related activities.

What I find so ironic about all this talk is that this is the same Congress that has backed away from adequate funding for social programs like education, social services and job training. It's like far too many of our elected representatives seem incapable of understanding the cause-and-effect in the upsurge of gang membership.

The poverty that has a vise-like grip on many of our inner cities is the breeding ground of gangs. Children who grow up in these breeding grounds see unemployment, crime, violence and an almost universal feeling of impotence all around them. Membership in a gang wipes away this feeling of powerlessness and, believe it or not, helps create a sense of identity and self-worth for many youth.

The BEST method for successfully mitigating the appeal of gang violence and gang-related crime is to provide these kids with a sense of hope for the future. And the BEST way to provide hope is through programs that lessen poverty, strengthen education, offer living wage jobs and job taining, and to give these children a genuine reason to reject the gang lifestyle.

Unfortunately, these "get tough on crime" initiatives ONLY deal with the problem AFTER it has occurred. It's almost like saying that these kids don't matter to society UNTIL they run afoul of the law. When they do that, then all of a sudden, we're more than willing to spend money to lock them up!

This pattern is repeated time and time again. We say we want a more peaceful world, yet the vast majority of our spending is on the military which deals with conflict AFTER it has arisen. Instead of spending money to prevent war or terrorism, we pour billions of dollars into the institutions that can only deal with these problems once they are problems.

The old saying still rings true. An ounce of prevention...


  1. Having variously worked for the California penal system, the old CETA work training program and HeadStart, should I ever win the MegaMillions Lotto, most of it would be spent bringing Montessori to as many Head Start programs as possible. I think it gives the most bang for the buck of any social program in existence.
    Get them while they are young and eager to learn and they will be aimed in the right direction.
    CETA was a good idea but so loosly administered it left room for cheating and graft in some areas.
    The Penal Systems are the most costly and the least effective in changing lives. Let's hear it for prison reform!!

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