No one welcomes the sight of school buses rolling on Mississippi roads more than law enforcement officers. The start of the fall semester means the number of auto, home and business burglary reports they write per shift will drop like a rock.
That sounds sad, but it makes a cheerful point: At least many of the thieves victimizing thousands of people, mostly in larger Mississippi towns, are not drug-crazed, hardened criminals. They’re high school, junior high and, yes, elementary kids who (1) have never learned to respect other people’s property and (2) have nothing better to do.
Think about it. Mississippi’s annual summer spike in petty (and not-so-petty) thefts is a product of boredom.
The trend is not new and solutions have been attempted. Mayors now make pitches for summer jobs funding to Congress on the premise that the jobs keep juveniles out of jail. Yes, there was a day when summer jobs were mostly about helping young people save for college. But that was then and this is now. “Then” is not coming back.
Mississippi, because of its proportion of people dependent on charity, is well ahead of other states in the number of generations for whom assistance programs have been a lifelong reality. As former President Bill Clinton often said and as President Barack Obama often says, people have a basic need for hope. “Keep Hope Alive” is the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s mantra.
The question is how.
What national leaders probably know, but rarely mention, is that people who depend on public and private assistance for housing, food, health care and everything else have a hard time developing “hope,” much less any sense of pride or self-esteem. Some may show bravado, but it’s shallow or false.
As an emotion, hope comes from seeing a better future. For children whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have lived on aid, that’s not easy.
The result is their personalities are often dominated by indifference (nothing matters) too often joined by anger, hostility, defiance.
Normally when this topic is raised, everyone sings the same chorus that “parents are not doing their jobs” or “parents are irresponsible.” Fine, but that’s a diagnosis, not a solution. And in terms of their outlook on life, the parents are not much different than their children. This doesn’t mean the parents are bad or uncaring. Many try, really hard, to battle against the tide. Some win. But an increasing number do not.
In addition to summer jobs programs, there are myriad other forms of outreach by church and community groups. They do commendable work, but can’t turn around lives of young people who have no reason to believe their futures are anything but grim.
Another response is that young miscreants should be punished, that “discipline” will cure the situation. Most larger communities already have kiddie jails. But, again, what does incarceration mean to someone with no sense of shame and nowhere else to be? For one subset of misguided (or unguided) youths, being picked up by the police and doing time is a validation. It proves a teen is “for real.”
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan was best known for serving in the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from New York. By training, however, he was a sociologist who, early in his career, was instrumental in scripting the War On Poverty as an appointee in the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations.
From the start, Moynihan agreed social programs were needed, but said cultural consequences were inevitable. That observation and others culminated in The Moynihan Report, for which he was accused of blaming the victim for not breaking the cycle of dependence.
More relevant today is that more than 20 years ago Moynihan predicted it would take 20 years or longer to reverse any bad effects of well-intended social programs. That doesn’t mean there’s no hope. It means there’s no quick, snap-of-the-fingers fix.
Most youths are still as directed and focused as they ever were. Teachers, counselors and social workers are doing great work – but against a wall of resistance and self-delusion.
To paraphrase, Moynihan said when we decide to deal with what’s on our societal plate rather than what we wish was on our plate, the situation would improve.
Until then, lock up – and be grateful school is back in session.
Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.