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What Explains Violence In U.S. Impoverished Neighborhoods

The Newhallville neighborhood of New Haven, Ct., is representative of a persistent U.S. problem fully formed working-class neighborhoods without any well-paying work, writes Nicholas Dawidoff in The Atlantic.

Although much of the U.S. experienced sharp declines in gun violence after the early 1990s, isolated, impoverished neighborhoods like Newhallville remained relatively dangerous. In recent years, they’ve become more so.

Last month, JAMA Network Open published a study evaluating the well over 1 million gun-violence fatalities in the U.S. since 1990, saying that from 2004 to 2021, deaths by firearms increased by 45.5 percent. Black men are the disproportionate victims, dying of firearm homicide at a rate 22.5 times higher than other Americans.

The political right tends to call gun violence part of a cultural apocalypse arising from liberal tolerance for criminals in the post–George Floyd years. The left prefers to avoid talking about it at all.

Ivan Kuzyk, a systems engineer working for the state of Connecticut, ran a research unit thinking about how to reduce the surfeit of young men who were dying on the streets of New Haven, Hartford, and Bridgeport.

Kuzyk discussed shifting pockets of residential poverty where fear of gunfire is part of daily life for people who can’t afford to live anywhere else. His 2018 study of people arrested for serious crimes as juveniles found that 30 percent suffered from fetal drug or alcohol syndrome, and another 30 percent had been removed from their families because of abuse or neglect.

Such traumatic childhood experiences, along with exposure to violence, indicated an increased likelihood of being a victim or a perpetrator of gun violence. “What I came to appreciate,” he said, “dealing with a lot of people who committed murder, was that they weren’t sociopaths. They had empathy. But for them, it was kill or be killed.”

Scholars such as Yale’s Tracey Meares and Northwestern University’s Andrew Papachristos have found that most of the violence plaguing New Haven and other afflicted cities takes place in poorer neighborhoods among small groups of people who know one another.

From January 2015 to November 2021, there were 634 shootings in New Haven; fewer than 100 have been solved. Fatal gunfire might be statistically rare even in such beleaguered places, but the effect resembles that of shark attacks in beach towns. After a couple of incidents, everyone is terrified.

Under a new chief committed to progressive community policing, New Haven’s murder total has fallen this year, but young men remain at serious risk. On December 9, two people were shot in Newhallville, one fatally. On December 20, a teenager known for mowing his elderly neighbors’ lawns was riding his bicycle when a car slowed, a handgun was raised, and he was killed.

The pipeline from Newhallville to Connecticut’s prisons was so well established that, as of 2015, only three neighborhood streets did not have a formerly incarcerated person living on them. Many people who’d been to prison for committing a violent crime cited the hopelessness they saw around themselves as kids, their exposure to violence at a young age—they described themselves as “a product of my environment.”

People who commit violent crimes, Kuzyk said, were typically driven by alienation, by the feeling that they lived far outside perceived norms.

A leading Black New Haven criminal-defense and civil-rights lawyer, Michael Jefferson, said that among his clients, a lack of sources of meaning, and a persistent sense of being endangered, wore on people until they valued neither their own life nor the lives of others. Their interactions with the only official city representatives they saw on a regular basis, the police, could deepen this anomie.

Anthony Campbell, Yale’s chief of police, says his mother was a corrections officer at the Rikers Island jail; his father was in and out of prison. When Campbell became the first member of his family to attend college, he joined the Yale class of 1995. He later received a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School. He joined the New Haven Police Department and became its second Black chief, before returning to Yale.

Discussing the implications for young people living close by an elite college and yet a world away he said, “When you can walk three minutes, make a right, and see nothing but wealth and security and well-being, happiness, people with future outlooks hopeful and bright, and you’re looking over your shoulder because you might be harmed—you worry about eating, rent—that wealth becomes a magnifying glass that takes any light and turns it into a laser beam that cuts you to the core."

One intelligent, academically motivated Newhallville teen became neighborhood-famous for shooting people before being murdered himself. The explanation a young man who knew him offered was: “Where he came from, they glorify violence. People want recognition. It goes from carrying a gun to shooting at people to shooting people to killing people. There’s a [feeling of] you don’t give a fuck anymore. Shoot somebody. It’s nothing.” A person who knew him said, “Violence is normalized in his world because poverty is violent. [He’s] only the extreme version.”

A young Black man from Newhallville named Bobby said that growing up in his neighborhood, “You feel the harm.” He was referring to kids he knew who were hungry on a regular basis, whose (working) mothers were getting repeatedly evicted. When Bobby tried remembering how many kids he grew up with who’d been shot, he lost count.

Bobby described how inequality could contribute to homicidal rage: “You’re living in the rusty, dirty neighborhood, and then [you see] mansions, and we’re struggling—it adds a level of anger.” Scholars and locals agreed that in neighborhoods where economic opportunity is severely limited, a gun is a source of power and prestige.

Bobby was sentenced to a 38-year prison term for a murder he hadn’t committed. At 16, Bobby was arrested after an elderly man was killed not far from his home. Forensic evidence and local people suggested that the likely shooter was, in fact, the neighborhood-famous teenage shooter.

After serving nine years, Bobby’s conviction was overturned, and he was set free. His challenge became trying to find a well-paying job with a résumé that said only prison.

Bobby left prison without marketable skills and, though innocent, found himself treated like any other former prisoner. He eventually got some compensation from the state, but in the meantime, he searched for a job. He was rejected over and over, even for a position as the person responsible for collecting the scattered, empty shopping carts in a Home Depot parking lot. Many people leave prison with the best intentions but eventually resort to crime because they can’t get hired.


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