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Greg Berman

March 28, 2023

A roundup of recent research on cities

A roundup of recent research on cities

Every month, we are flooded with dozens of new studies and scholarly reports on topics of interest to us. In this new column, we attempt to make sense of this flood of information and analysis. Our roundup is not intended to be exhaustive or evaluative; this isn’t necessarily the best research of the past few months, but rather a handful of pieces that we found particularly thought-provoking. If you have suggestions for inclusion in future columns, please send them to info@vitalcitynyc.org.

Policing Gun Violence: Strategic Reforms for Controlling Our Most Pressing Crime Problem

In this new book from Oxford University Press, scholars Anthony Braga and Philip J. Cook (also a Vital City contributor) focus on violence associated with routine assaults and robberies. They look at three forms of intervention in particular: proactive policing in crime hot spots, focused deterrence that targets violent gangs, and efforts to increase the arrest and prosecution of those who engage in shootings. They argue that policing can have a positive impact on violence while also respecting the rights of individuals and the priorities of local communities. Along the way, they make the case that effective law enforcement is “a vital component of a just society.”  

The Bottom Line: “We are entirely supportive of addressing the fundamental socioeconomic conditions that are associated with serious violence. Reversing systemic racism, growing economic inequality, and child poverty is in the public interest, regardless of whether there is a direct connection to crime and violence. But we are confident that serious violent crime rates can change dramatically even without fundamental social change. Recent history proves the point. During the Great Crime Drop, from 1993 to 2014, the national homicide rate halved, led by reductions in gun violence. Yet this dramatic improvement in public safety was not the result of improvements in the usual list of root-cause conditions.”

The Academic Effects of Chronic Exposure to Neighborhood Violence 

In an article in Urban Studies journal, a team of researchers (including Vital City contributor Patrick Sharkey) examines the impact of chronic exposure to violence on educational outcomes. The research focuses on New York City, where in 2010 almost half of NYC’s fourth-to-eighth-graders lived on a block where a homicide or felony assault occurred. Using data from the NYC Department of Education, the research team was able to look at the individual records of all students enrolled for at least three years in NYC public schools in grades 3–8 between the school years of 2004–2005 and 2009–2010.

Students exposed to violent crime perform worse on reading tests.

The findings suggest that the negative effects of violent crime on test scores increase with the number of exposures. And because Black students disproportionately experience repeated exposures to violence, this phenomenon effectively widens the Black–white test score gap. 

The Bottom Line: “We find that students exposed to violent crime perform worse on reading tests. More importantly, we find that chronic neighborhood violence is especially harmful. Children repeatedly exposed to violent crime over a one-year period score lower on standardized tests, and the marginal effects of added crime grow with the number of exposures. … Students who experience violent crime on a regular basis become more sensitized to violence than students for whom neighborhood crime may be an isolated event and their academic performance suffers accordingly. That is, the negative effect of community violence builds with repeated exposure, potentially resulting in lasting deficits in academic performance for children living within the most violent urban neighborhoods.”

Strong Neighborhoods: Key to Reviving America and Building a Flourishing Society

Seth Kaplan, a visiting fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, asks why efforts to improve American neighborhoods over the past few decades have mostly failed. Echoing Robert Putnam (of “Bowling Alone” fame), Kaplan surveys the literature and finds a decline in civic engagement and social trust in the United States. Kaplan argues that many government, nonprofit and philanthropic initiatives to improve neighborhood life have erred by targeting specific goals (e.g., improving health or educational outcomes) rather than building local institutions. 

Kaplan is skeptical of top-down efforts to fix neighborhoods. Arguing for subsidiarity — decentralizing authority and pushing decision-making as close as possible to the neighborhood level — Kaplan believes that change efforts should focus on encouraging on-the-ground experimentation and “incrementally enhancing place-based social systems.”

The Bottom Line: “Institutions — some formal like families, churches and schools; others informal like associations and study groups — play a crucial role in determining the neighborhood’s social dynamics by how they shape relationships, norms, and networks, especially across various class, race, faith, and political divides. Institutions determine how safe a neighborhood is, how likely neighbors are to support one another, what kind of influences youth receive day in and day out, whether people come together to tackle common problems, and whether residents can influence government. … Because institutions provide frameworks and structures for neighbors to relate, interact, and work together, they encourage constructive behavior and penalize unconstructive behavior.”

‘We wanted to see if there was any empirical basis to the trope of “Chiraq” — and unfortunately there is.’

Comparing Risks of Firearm-Related Death and Injury Among Young Adult Males in Selected US Cities With Wartime Service in Iraq and Afghanistan

Crime-plagued neighborhoods are often referred to as “war zones.” A team of researchers (including Vital City contributors Brandon del Pozo and Aaron Chalfin) attempted to see if there is any truth to this rhetoric. Sadly, they found that young men residing in the most violent Chicago and Philadelphia neighborhoods have a notably higher risk of firearm-related death than U.S. military personnel who served during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (In modestly good news, the study did not find a similar effect in Los Angeles or New York.) Del Pozo told reporters, “‘Chiraq’ is a cultural trope. We wanted to see if there was any empirical basis to the trope — and unfortunately there is.”

The Bottom Line: “The risk of violent death and injury observed in the zip codes studied was almost entirely borne by individuals from minoritized racial and ethnic groups: Black and Hispanic males represented 96.2% of those who were fatally shot and 97.3% of those who experienced nonfatal injury.”

Effect of Abandoned Housing Interventions on Gun Violence, Perceptions of Safety, and Substance Use in Black Neighborhoods

In JAMA Internal Medicine, a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania (including Issue 3 advisory board member John MacDonald) looks at the impact of improving abandoned housing in Philadelphia. In a randomized controlled trial, more than 250 abandoned houses were divided into three groups: One group received “full remediation” (installing working windows and doors, cleaning trash, weeding); one group received trash cleanup and weeding only; and the third was a control group that received no intervention. 

While crime rates rose in the areas surrounding all three groups, they rose less in the vicinity of the repaired homes. In particular, the remediated houses were associated with substantial drops in nearby weapons violations and gun assaults. In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, lead author Eugenia South said the results suggest that “the places and spaces around us matter for our health and well-being.” 

The Bottom Line: “In this cluster randomized controlled trial among low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods, inexpensive, straightforward abandoned housing remediation was directly linked to significant relative reductions in weapons violations and gun assaults, and suggestive reductions in shootings.”

Respondents were unaware of the progress that has been made over the past generation.

Are Progressives in Denial About Progress? Yes, but So Is Almost Everyone Else

This study, published by Gregory Mitchell and Philip E. Tetlock in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, looks at how Americans perceive social change. A representative sample of 1,054 adults was asked to complete a web-based survey with 24 questions about trends in teen pregnancy, poverty, incarceration and other areas where societal outcomes have improved over the past 20 years. Their responses were exceedingly inaccurate: Not a single question was answered correctly by a majority of respondents, and the best score (achieved by a single participant) was 11 correct answers out of 24. Tellingly, the errors in perception were “overwhelmingly in the direction of unwarranted pessimism”: Respondents were unaware of the progress that has been made over the past generation.

The Bottom Line: “Americans not only fail to appreciate the substantial gains made by women, minorities, and all Americans with respect to poverty, health, education, and incarceration over the past 20 years — they erroneously believe that things are getting worse. This unwarranted pessimism shows up among the rich and poor, young and old, liberals and conservatives, women and men, and persons of all races. In short, negative illusions about progress appear more widespread than positive illusions.”

Lasting Scars: The Impact of Depression in Early Adulthood on Subsequent Labor Market Outcomes

In this working paper from the Brookings Institution, researchers look at the impact of early-adulthood depression (ages 27–35) on work-related outcomes at age 50. A primary source of data is the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, a series of interviews that included more than 12,000 American young people born between 1957 and 1964. Respondents were between the ages of 14 and 22 when first interviewed in 1979 and 53 to 62 years old when last interviewed in 2018.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the paper finds that depression in early adulthood, even of a mild to moderate variety, has consistently negative effects on labor market outcomes down the road. People who have suffered from depression earn less and work fewer hours.

The Bottom Line: “We find strong evidence that depression in early adulthood has a negative impact on labor market outcomes over the life course. Part of this negative impact can be attributed to early depression’s disruption of human capital accumulation. At age 50, people who experience depression at ages 27–35 have accumulated lower levels of non-routine cognitive analytical and interpersonal skills. Their occupations at ages 27–35 see less wage growth in subsequent years and, at age 50, they are employed in occupations with substantially lower average wages. Early adulthood depression also has a negative effect on subsequent labor market outcomes because depression experienced early in life, as currently managed, frequently recurs or persists into later life. Thus, at age 50, people with early depression are less likely to be employed and more likely to drop out of the labor market and receive disability benefits.”

Is Bail Reform Causing an Increase in Crime?

This study, commissioned by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, looks at 11 jurisdictions that have enacted bail reforms in recent years in order to answer one of the most contentious questions currently facing criminal justice policymakers: Does reducing pretrial detention and eliminating money considerations from pretrial-release decision-making harm public safety?  

The answer, based on examining changes in crime levels in the year immediately after reforms were implemented, will excite neither bail reform critics nor advocates: “Violent crime trends after reforms present no clear or obvious pattern.” In six jurisdictions, violent crime decreased after reforms. In the others, it increased. The authors, Don Stemen and David Olson, conclude from these findings that “bail reform and crime are not strongly linked.”

The Bottom Line: “Increases in the number of people released pretrial due to bail reforms led to additional crimes. However, evaluations in Cook County, Harris County, Philadelphia and New Jersey show that this number is relatively small. Moreover, the crimes committed by the additional defendants released under bail reforms accounted for just 0.4% to 3.2% of all arrests or cases charged in these jurisdictions in the years after reforms. And, in Cook County, one of the two reform cases for which information on both violent and non-violent arrests is available, released defendants contributed relatively few additional violent crimes — accounting for just 30 additional violent arrests in the year after reforms, or 0.6% of all violent arrests.”