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A Real Story of Two Americas

Doug Kern

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Something about the phrase "Two Americas" warms the heart of the left. In 1984, Mario Cuomo electrified the Democratic National Convention with his evocation of Two Americas -- the Haves and Have-Nots. In 2004, Democrat vice-presidential nominee John Edwards invoked that same vision of the Two Americas to illuminate his vision of the unified America that John Kerry's healing benedictions would inaugurate. In each speech, the ideology is as identical as the rhetoric: the terrible plight of the poor can be rectified only through a massive transferal of wealth, made possible through the expansion of a benevolent welfare state.

I have a story to tell about wealth and poverty, too. And I will call for additional government spending as well -- spending which, unlike the statism of the left, will help the poor, rather than reward their poverty.

Forget Two Americas. Consider this tale of two bicycles.

In my prosecuting days I knew a woman who, twenty-five years earlier, struggled to support herself and her two children on a fast-food worker's wages after her husband walked out on them. With few housing options, they lived in a cheap apartment in the old, bad part of town. Even on a salary just a hair's breadth above the minimum wage, my friend put aside enough money to buy her children two new, cheap bicycles for Christmas. Two weeks later, a couple punk teens stole the new bikes from my friend's front yard. She couldn't afford to replace them. Everyone knew who did it, but the police wouldn't bother to investigate petty thefts committed by juveniles. So her hard work and penny-pinching was for nothing, and her children had no Christmas presents at all that year. The end.

In America we have learned to live with a certain background level of crime, objecting only when it slinks away from the places where we expect to find it. Our complacency in the face of this crime is cowardly, miserly, and contemptible.

The divide in America isn't between rich and poor. It's between those who must live with the inescapable reality of crime on a daily basis, and those who don't. It's between those who would be scandalized if made the target of a violent crime, and those who have been victimized before and expect to be victimized again. It's between those who can buy new presents for their children to replace stolen ones, and those who can't.

One America is safe. One America is not.

Government statistics confirm that the average victim of crime tends to be young (under 24), black, male, single, urban, and poor. Crime is predominantly a problem for the struggling and marginalized. The left -- historically the champion of the struggling and marginalized -- sees the victimization of poverty so clearly. Why is the victimization of crime so opaque to them?

Poverty can be resolved through individual effort; crime cannot. We know what prevents poverty. Acquire as much education as you can, get a full-time job and work hard at it, get and stay married, and avoid substance abuse -- take these steps, and you won't be poor. Each step is within the abilities of even a below-average person. But how can individuals resolve crime? No amount of hard work or personal initiative will stop a mugger from waving a knife in your face. A responsible lifestyle won't put your car radio back after some thug steals it. For the crimes that afflict the poor, our society has only one approved solution: stop being poor, so you can move somewhere safe. Some solution.

Worse, crime corrodes the very ability of the poor to improve their own situation. Everyone knows that government corruption and incompetence leads to capital flight; no one wants to invest in a place where the rule of law is spotty and ill-enforced, because property rights become meaningless. The poor need investment opportunities more than anyone else -- but who wants to build anything in communities that aren't safe at night?

Hope is always crime's victim. What do you suppose my friend thought to herself, when she realized that her hard work could be irrevocably undone by a fleeting act of selfishness? Did she want to keep working hard -- or did she want to give up? Did she want to remain honest -- or take the easy, comfortable road of petty crime? A society that shrugs off such "minor" crimes is a society that mocks its working poor as suckers.

Whatever the long-term solution to crime may be, the short-term solutions are simple, obvious, and expensive. We need more: more prosecutors, more public defenders, more judges, more investigators, and more local jail space, to ensure that more criminals learn early and often that their crimes will be justly punished. Everyone in the criminal justice system knows that, under the status quo, ill-supervised probation and never-to-be-paid fines merely encourage bad guys to increase the severity of their predations.

In recent years, federal legislation has subsidized the hiring of more police officers. That's terrific, but what can the police accomplish if the bad guys get off with a slap on the wrist and a suspended sentence, once arrested and convicted? Rare is the jurisdiction in which misdemeanor property theft or damage results in jail time -- and yet such small-scale crimes are the very offenses that make life intolerable for America's poorest citizens. Too often, jail is not an option for misdemeanor-level offenses, as local jails overflow with probation violators and felons awaiting trial. The low-income localities that suffer most greatly from small-scale crimes often lack the resources to punish the criminals who torment them. Those places simply need more money to find, prosecute, and incarcerate criminals.

We should give it to them.

Yes, I am calling for bigger government. No, I don't like it. But the antonym of "intrusive government" is not "ineffective government." The greatest threat to civil liberties isn't the well-paid prosecutor with time to investigate and consider his cases; it's the overworked, underpaid prosecutor, desperate to secure convictions in order to manage his volume of cases. Moreover, when the system is overburdened, the "little" cases -- the simple assaults, the purse snatchings, the bike thefts -- are the first ones to be ignored. As these crimes affect the poor disproportionately, the property rights of vulnerable citizens disintegrate. Thus the divide between the Two Americas grows ever wider.

This issue shouldn't be a partisan one, and it isn't: both parties ignore it equally. John Kerry's website stakes out a perfectly uninspiring position on crime: hire more police, fight terrorism, and boldly enforce a "zero tolerance" policy against gangs. George W. Bush's website doesn't even set forth a position on crime. Although Bush touts his admirable efforts in supporting anti-crime legislation, it does not appear that he will devote a moment's effort towards fighting non-terror-related crime in a second term. Both parties are comfortable living in the Two Americas of unequal safety.

In the name of the Two Americas, we've spent untold trillions of dollars in the last forty years in order to vindicate the largely imaginary right of poor citizens to live on someone else's dime. It hasn't worked. Perhaps we should instead spend our money in defense of the real and fundamental right to unmolested ownership of self and property -- the right upon which the legitimacy of all governments is predicated. You want to help the poor? Don't subsidize their poverty. Subsidize their safety. Equality of opportunity begins with safe bikes in the front yard.

Oh, and as for my friend? She put herself and her children through school, eventually earning a master's degree. She now works as an advocate for victims of crime. My friend has figured out what really divides this nation. Maybe one day the swooning fans of the class-obsessed "Two Americas" will figure it out also.

Doug Stern is a lawyer. Read this article on the Tech Central Station website. Reprinted with permission of Tech Central Station.

Posted: 8/19/04

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