Robert Crutchfield couldn’t tell you exactly how he got from the Pittsburgh projects to a professorship at the University of Washington.
When I asked him, he said he wanted to credit his mother, but decades of his own sociology research have taught him how difficult it is to chart the path of a human life.
One factor, or two or three aren’t enough to explain entirely who thrives and who doesn’t.
Crutchfield has some thoughts about what’s most important, but in his new book, the message he works hardest to get across is the importance of viewing individuals in context.
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The book is “Get A Job: Labor Markets, Economic Opportunity, and Crime.” In it Crutchfield touches on a host of social issues, but running through the book is his theory that in the battle against crime, two weapons are especially potent — for adults a good job, and for children a good school experience.
Tuesday, before we sat down to talk, he had sent off a note to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray about the mayor’s initiative for at-risk kids. “If I could talk with the mayor, I’d tell him, don’t get jobs for kids, get jobs for their parents.”
(Of course, some kinds of jobs are good for some children under some circumstances. The book abounds in caveats and exceptions, but all I have room for here are the central ideas.)
The web of disadvantage that can lead to delinquency and crime is best addressed when parents have a good job.
Work determines so much for adults (and by extension for their children): where they live, their lifestyle, who they’ll be around and even how their children will see them and their own prospects in the world.
Parents can preach doing the right thing to get ahead, but kids can see whether that is working for the parent.
Crutchfield writes a lot about labor stratification. Having a job is good, but not all jobs are created equal, especially when it comes to crime prevention. There are two sectors of the labor market, primary and secondary jobs.
Primary jobs pay a decent wage, offer benefits and allow people to build a better future.
People who have primary jobs are more likely to stay out of trouble to protect their job.
People in secondary jobs don’t have much to protect and indeed may be so drained by the job that they are glad to go out after work with friends to alter their brain chemistry and maybe blow off steam.
They might also look for opportunities to augment their meager pay with activities that are not part of the formal economy.
The book is full of studies that have shaped Crutchfield’s ideas about the relationship between work and crime, but it is also seasoned with Crutchfield’s personal experiences.
His parents were separated when Crutchfield was 9. That’s when his mother moved him and his two brothers into the Pittsburgh projects. She cleaned houses for a living, and was a quiet, powerful force in the lives of her sons.
They were deeply involved in their church, and she was at every parent-teacher meeting. She had high expectations, and neighbors knew she wanted them to let her know anytime one of the boys was misbehaving.
All three brothers went to college, but it could have turned out differently if many other factors had not been in place.
“My inclination is to talk about her as a superwoman,” Crutchfield said, but, he added, that would be a mistake. “Too often we expect parents to be super people who can overcome all the difficulties society throws at them. She had help and she had support and we were lucky,” he said.
“We do a disservice for disadvantaged and struggling parents in the inner city when we just say you need to be a better parent, you should just work harder … nonsense.”
The social context in which they live matters, he said. Success shouldn’t have to rely on luck.
Before Crutchfield earned his doctorate, he worked three years as a probation officer, which gave him a close view of people beyond data points.
Most of them were OK people whose lives were very much affected by the social context in which they lived, the characteristics of the neighborhood, the kinds of jobs available and the quality of schools.
He said efforts to prevent people turning to crime need to address the web of factors that make it difficult for so many to achieve the kind of life most people want.
The solutions begin with asking the right questions. Are job-creation tax breaks tied only to good jobs?
Does the transportation system get people to where the work is? Are schools working for most students? Are parents supported?
Questions like those derive from an accurate understanding of how inequality and disadvantage affect lives. That is the first step toward erasing those effects — crime, poverty, disease and more.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org