An Interview with Alan Singer: Child Abuse, Poverty and Stopping Violent Crime

Jan 22, 2018 by

An Interview with Alan Singer: Child Abuse, Poverty and Stopping Violent Crime

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Recently, you published something regarding your views on child abuse, poverty and violent crime. Can you summarize your piece for us?

You are referring to a piece I did, To Stop Violent Crime, Stop Child Abuse and Eliminate Poverty, for the Huffington Post. Economic hardships, especially homelessness, have been identified as common causes of adverse childhood experiences that can lead to adult anti-social and criminal behavior, particularly violence against women. Nationally, over one-fourth of children seventeen and under lives in a family that has experienced economic hardship either somewhat or very often. New York City recently announced that 10% of its student population, over 100,000 children, does not have a permanent residence. Schools may be safe-havens with caring adults, but this is not something they are equipped to address. Homelessness is an educational hardship today with potentially dire circumstances for the future.

2) First of all, there are various forms of child abuse – emotional, physical, sexual and of course neglect. Have you found any direct relationships between these things and violent crime?

I’m a teacher, a journalist, and an advocate. I don’t do primary research in this area, but it does exist. The New York Times is tracking people released from Connecticut prisons under a program to reduce incarceration and channel inmates back into society. Many end up being incarcerated again. A major reason is that people convicted of crimes often have complex and unresolved problems that date back to their childhoods. According to sociologist Christopher Wildeman, co-director of the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect, “Childhood trauma is a huge factor within the criminal justice system. It is among the most important things that shapes addictive and criminal behavior in adulthood.”

A number of psychological studies conducted during the last two decades have documented the lasting impact of “adverse childhood experiences” or ACEs on human personality and behavior. Traumatic events with long-lasting implications include emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. They can also include witnessing violence against your mother or other family members; living with substance abusers or someone who is mentally ill, suicidal, or criminal, and being the child of someone who is incarcerated.

These conditions cause stress that can disrupt early brain development. Serious, chronic stress, can also harm developing nervous and immune systems. The majority of mass shooters in the United States grew up in homes with a mixture of child abuse, domestic violence and drug or alcohol abuse. Though not all children growing up in homes with abuse become mass murderers, there is no question that focusing on trauma-exposed children should be one of this country’s highest priorities.

3) In terms of eradicating poverty, obviously it is a good idea. But as a social studies teacher, and somewhat of a historian, you and I both lived through Lyndon Baines Johnson’s ” War on Poverty” What did LBJ do wrong, and did we lose the war on poverty, and can we win this time around? And what would it take?

Johnson’s “War on Poverty” never got off the ground because of the cost of the War in Vietnam. There were both monetary costs and political costs. The political costs probably had the greatest impact. They cost Johnson his governing coalition and turned the Presidency over to Richard Nixon and the Republicans. With Nixon’s election, the “War on Poverty” became the “War on the Poor.” Part of the problem was that the “War on Poverty” became synonymous with civil rights for African Americans. White Southerners rebelled against the idea, even though it would have benefited them. Even many Northerner liberal whites shied away, believing injustice ended with passage of Civil Rights legislation. Martin Luther King recognized this shift in his speech and book, “Where do We Go from Here?” King also spoke about the corrosive impact of the War in Vietnam when he came out in opposition to the war.

I wish I had an easy answer to Martin Luther King’s question.

In 2004 I was protesting at the Republican national convention in New York City. We were penned in, standing in place, for a long time. A young woman asked me, “How long have we been marching?” I respond, “Over forty years.” She said, “Really?” “Yes,” I said, “I’ve been marching more than forty years.” Now it’s more than fifty.

Part of the difficulty we face today is that rightwing elements of the Republican Party, buttressed by the Supreme Court Citizens United decision and the unbridled wealth of its backers, controls all three branches of the federal government and a majority of state governments. It will take long sustained organizing efforts to rebuild a progressive movement committed to social justice and a “War on Poverty.” I suspect political and economic conditions will worsen in the near future. While that is never positive, and people will be hurt, it might lead to a new watershed in the way the Great Depression led to the New Deal and the emergence of the labor movement.

The recent vote in the Alabama special election for Senator is interesting and offers hope. A personally reprehensible candidate with extreme views was almost elected, but in the end was defeated by a coalition that included more liberal whites and energized black voters, especially black women.

4) Someone once said, “the poor will always be with us.” How are you going to define “poverty” so that we can have a good discussion?

I think you are paraphrasing Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:10). A similar phrase appears in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 15:11). “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.”

I think the answer is not to define poverty, but to define the qualities that provide individuals, especially children, with the possibility for a good life. In order to perform well in school and build for the future, children need health and dental care, adequate and healthy food, clothing, and a decent place to live. Parents or other caregivers need jobs that provide them with some satisfaction, purpose, and an adequate livelihood. There is an excellent, brief video available online, Wealth Inequality in the United States, that I use in classes. It graphically compares what Americans think the current distribution of wealth is with their “ideal” distribution, and the economic reality. That video is an excellent place to start.

5) Alan, while I certainly agree with many of your premises, we live in a very violent society – where there are a lot of “copycat” crimes being committed. Given all the violence on television, and in the movies – can you directly blame child abuse and neglect and poverty? 

I think you are really broadening the definition of child abuse and I agree with you. There are real problems with the transformation of culture with the latest media and electronic gaming. Every time I drive to work, I feel I am sharing the road with people who treat driving like a video game – speeding, swerving, and cutting people off, to score game points. I don’t know what to do about movies, television shows, and games that dehumanize people and promote violence.

But there are things we can address. CHIP, the United States’ Children’s Health Insurance Program, is running out of money. It currently provides health insurance to nine million children from working families. Sixteen states expect to deplete their CHIP reserve funds by the end of January. Three-quarters of the states will run out of CHIP money by March. The Republican controlled Congress and the Republican President have so far refused to fund CHIP, more intent on passing tax cuts for wealthy Americans. It may well be that the Republican Party is the largest child abuser in the United States. The same people are also the ones that fight against any regulation of weapons in the United States. Every time there is a mass killing, they declare, “It is not the time to talk.”

6) Many, many, of our politicians keep saying, “Education is the way out of poverty.” Agree or disagree?

Education can be a way out of poverty. Exceptional people have always taken advantage of education to improve their lives. Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas are good examples. But social policy should not be based on the ability of a select few to overcome insurmountable odds. Too often the idea that education is the road out of poverty becomes an excuse not to address social inequality. About one-third of the 1.1 children and teens that attend New York City schools live in poverty.

Over one hundred thousand, ten percent, were homeless at some point during the 2016-2017 school year. These students live on the street, in cars, in shelters, in abandoned buildings, in public housing double-ups, and in over-crowded deteriorating tenements with people they do not know.

They often don’t have basic food, clothing, and health care, or heat in the freezing winter and air-conditioning in the sweltering summer. Over 60 percent are chronically absent from school. How is education supposed to address this?

7) What have I neglected to ask? 

We need to return to Martin Luther King’s, question, “Where do we go from here?” In Ethics of the Fathers, the Jewish philosopher and religious leader Hillel the Elder wrote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” He is also credited with the idea of a Golden Rule, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” I think we need to work to build a society based on these two ideals.

I invite your readers to follow my Huffington Post blogs and they can also follow me on twitter.

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