All my experience has driven me to seek to understand the relationship between cause and effect. Partly this stems from my upbringing -- first, as I sought escape from an insufferable situation, but later it was encouraged in my collegian years and then in the profession of arms I chose. So I was intrigued the other day when a friend shared this blog posting, NYC Turn of the Century Gangs by Eamon Loingsigh. I think it is an excellent post, and if you are interested in the Irish history in New York City I believe he is an author you should certainly look into; his latest book, Light of the Diddicoy, should be available on St. Patrick’s Day this year.
In his post he says he’s reached, “as [would] any other person with a sense of awareness,” the conclusion, that gangs existed, and continues to exist, because of poverty. That certainly seems a credible reason, but then I listen to Milton Friedman talk about the successes of America and our economic system and I wonder, is poverty truly a cause of the gangs, or are gangs a product of some far more complex social dynamic that is lost in the simplified explanation of poverty? I believe the latter to be true, and by blaming everything on poverty we can never understand the true human condition or correctly address the cause. For example, under the identical conditions of NYC, why does one individual turn to a gang, and another become the founder of a vast railroad empire and at the time of his death have the equivalent wealth of 1/87th of the gross national product? Both come from the same environment; yet one not only escapes, but also becomes a tycoon during the industrial revolution! Surely the conditions of poverty alone do not explain the choices made. I doubt for the majority of individuals trapped in those dire conditions criminal enterprise is really the path they follow.
Although it is out of favor today, I like the social needs framework proposed by Abraham Maslow to explain how humans are motivated and how their needs change as the security of their existence improves. This hierarchy sets a context for understanding a common set of human needs, and it is how an individual goes about fulfilling the need that helps explain the differences between those who are trapped by their poverty and those who can escape it. It also helps understand why just throwing money at the poor can never actually solve the problems of the impoverished and put an end to poverty.