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When City Streets Really Are War Zones

Aaron Chalfin and Brandon del Pozo

September 27, 2023

Young men living in some parts of Chicago would have been safer fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Young men living in some parts of Chicago would have been safer fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq.

In 2020, U.S. cities experienced a 30% increase in homicides relative to 2019, with firearms becoming the leading cause of death for children, adolescents and young adults for the first time in our nation’s history. Since the darkest days of the pandemic and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder that summer, U.S. homicides have stabilized — and have recently begun to fall — but they continue to remain well above their pre-pandemic levels.  

Despite the tumultuous years since the pandemic first turned up on our shores, it bears mentioning that national homicide rates remain well below their apex in 1990. However, this is not true in all communities. In a number of cities, including Chicago, homicide rates in the poorest communities are, in fact, higher than they were during the peak of the crack epidemic in the early 1990s. At the same time, because the recent increases in violence have been intensively concentrated in the city’s most disadvantaged communities, the most affluent communities continue to remain historically safe.

In other words, national homicide rates tell us little about the actual risks faced by individuals living in our most vulnerable communities. For these people, appeals to national data which average homicides over all types of communities — urban and rural, affluent and poor alike — are not relevant, and, in fact, could be highly misleading. If we want to understand the experiences of the Americans whose lives are the most affected by violence, we need to zero in on the small number of neighborhoods in the small number of U.S. cities that are most exposed to endemic violence.

What sort of risks do people living in America’s most violent neighborhoods actually face? Along with our colleague, Alex Knorre, we sought to answer that question through an analysis of the death rates of young men, aged 20-29, living in some of the most disadvantaged urban neighborhoods in the United States. We did so by comparing detailed geographic data collected by local law enforcement agencies on the incidence and demography of gun violence with estimates of the demographic composition of ZIP codes from the U.S. Census. While the national homicide rate is approximately 6 per 100,000 residents — implying that the average American faces an annual murder risk of 1 in 17,000 — lethal violence is far higher in Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. In the city’s West Side neighborhood of Garfield Park, from 2020 to 2021, among men aged 20-29, the annual risk of being shot was nearly 6%. Among the shooting victims who die, this translates to an annual risk of firearm death of approximately 1 in 67, a risk that is more than 250 times higher than that of the average American. It is a risk that is experienced by these men year after year, and which is therefore subject to the cruel mathematics of compounding.

A young man living in Garfield Park in 2020 or 2021 faced a risk of firearm homicide that was more than three times greater than the risk of all-cause combat death faced by soldiers who were deployed to Afghanistan.

In order to make better sense of these statistics, a couple of benchmarks may be helpful. Every year, U.S. demographers calculate life expectancy using an updated period life table, which documents the share of people who have reached a given age in the prior year but who did not survive to the current year. In technical terms, the life table reports age-specific death rates. On average, a 25-year-old man living in the United States has a 99.8% probability of living to see 26. It is not until their 60s that the average U.S. male faces a general mortality risk comparable to the risk of firearm homicide faced by young men in the most disadvantaged communities in Chicago. In short, young men in these communities have been fast-forwarded through the prime years of their life to face the same annual life expectancy as much older men.

We can also compare the risk of death or injury from firearms among young men in these neighborhoods to the risk faced by U.S. soldiers serving in recent war zones. Being a soldier deployed overseas to war carries substantial risks, and it is reasonable to expect that civilians living far from the battle lines would be at lower risk than soldiers deployed to a combat zone.

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But as we report in our paper recently published in JAMA Network Open, a young man living in Garfield Park in 2020 or 2021 faced a risk of firearm homicide that was more than three times greater than the risk of all-cause combat death faced by soldiers who were deployed to Afghanistan, and almost four times greater than the risk of combat death among soldiers who were deployed to Iraq, during the recent U.S. wars in those regions. In the top 10% of the city’s most violent ZIP codes, living in Chicago remained more than twice as risky for young men as serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, not only exceeding the average risk faced by all soldiers deployed to war, but even exceeding the risk among those soldiers who served in one of the Army’s most heavily engaged combat brigades fighting at the height of Iraq’s surge. 

This is an unhappy set of findings, and so it may be useful to contrast these results with those from New York City, which, even today, remains one of the safest major cities in the United States. In New York City, young men living in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the city’s most violent ZIP code, faced a risk of gunshot injury or mortality of less than 0.7%, or 75-80% lower than the risk faced by U.S. soldiers who served abroad during the war in Afghanistan. While these young men remain at heightened risk to experience serious violence, these statistics are far less sobering than those from Garfield Park.

Young men in these communities have been fast-forwarded through the prime years of their lives to face the same annual life expectancy as much older men.

New York City offers us a valuable lesson: that the levels of lethal violence faced by individuals living in cities like Chicago are neither inevitable nor intractable. In 1990, “Hold On,” by Wilson Phillips, topped the Billboard singles chart, and New York City and Chicago had virtually identical homicide rates of approximately 30 murders per 100,000 residents. In 2022, Chicago’s homicide rate stood at just shy of 26 per 100,000 residents, a modest decline since its peak relative to 1990. By contrast, New York’s homicide rate had declined by more than 80%, to just 4.8 per 100,000 residents. While the reasons for the different experiences of two of America’s largest cities are multifaceted and complex, the evidence suggests that public policy, including investments in effective policing and social services, likely played a role. Translating this lesson into action may mean the difference between life and death for the residents of major American cities that face aggregate homicide rates comparable to or even greater than Chicago. They include New Orleans, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, Milwaukee, Memphis, Cincinnati and Kansas City, Missouri.

We didn’t invent the idea that violence in Chicago’s most afflicted areas might be comparable to the Iraq War. Long before we wrote our paper, the city already had the moniker “Chiraq.” When Spike Lee directed a movie by the same name, “Chiraq” entered our lexicon as a powerful trope for the violence in the city. The movie is a romantic comedy inspired by Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” an ancient Greek comedy about women who withheld sex from their romantic partners to force an end to the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta. In Spike Lee’s version, the setting is a gang war on Chicago’s South Side. Sadly, our research suggests that the film adaptation has a strong basis in fact that makes its title all too accurate.

Lethal violence is permanently scarring generations of young men, and the trauma-informed approach we take toward veterans should guide our response. Is it any wonder men who grow up in these neighborhoods have a hard time adjusting to stable work and family lives or are more susceptible to addiction and mental illness? A true commitment to equity in America means addressing root causes while supporting proven policies that will reduce violence today, including those that involve the police. Time is of the essence. We are a nation with communities of young men who would have faced fewer fatal risks if they had fought as soldiers in our most recent foreign wars. For them, Chiraq isn’t a trope, it’s their home.