In low-income urban neighborhoods, daily exposure to violence is a reality for many young people.

The massacres in Aurora, Colorado, and in Newtown, Connecticut, have sparked a national debate over gun control and the long-term impacts of violence on children and communities. Within this national conversation, however, we should highlight the compounding impact that daily exposure to violence and concentrated poverty have on young people in our nation’s urban neighborhoods.

President Obama recently addressed this topic during his speech on gun violence at a South Side Chicago high school. Persistent crime in a neighborhood increases the likelihood that a resident will become a victim of a crime, participate in deviant behavior, and have mental health problems.

We talked to teenagers living in low-income communities in Chicago and in Washington, D.C., and learned firsthand about the debilitating impacts of violence. Young people described their lives as "difficult" because of the constant fear of being shot, stabbed, or killed.

"Can't nobody really feel safe too many places because there's just so much going on," Britney, a teenager living in Chicago’s South Side, told us. "People don't care who they killing nowadays."

Many teenagers isolated themselves or engaged in delinquent behavior such as using drugs, fighting and joining or assisting local gangs to survive their neighborhood’s violence. Living in perpetual fear and isolation has had devastating consequences on these kids.

Grassroots programs such as Beautiful U, Yes U, and the Benning Terrace Soldiers in Washington, D.C., have helped young people navigate their challenging environments. But these programs often lack the funding and staff capacity to meet their community’s overwhelming needs. This is not a coincidence. Due to the enduring impacts of poverty and racial segregation, low-income areas—where crime tends to be highest—often do not have the social services and supports available in more affluent communities.

Without social services and youth programs, teens often become bored. They may turn untapped potential into risky behavior, like selling drugs. One young man in Chicago described this phenomenon.

Youth: But [my neighborhood] just changed maybe like after the third year.... It just got even worser, you know, like no activities....I liked those activities, something to do for the kids….And I ended up started selling drugs at the age of 12 or 13 years old, so.

Interviewer: Why did you start?

Youth: Just in the environment I was in.…you know, just something to do.

To interrupt the cycle of crime in low-income communities and the generations of youth severely traumatized by their exposure to violence, we must do more than enact laws to deter crime. We also must intervene by funding programs and activities to help youth cope with the psychological effects of violence and to provide healthy, enriching alternatives to delinquent behavior.

Top image: Photo by Flickr user abjam77. This post originally appeared on the Urban Institute's MetroTrends blog, an Atlantic partner site.


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