By Michael Shank

Michael Shank argues that the clear ties between inequality and crime should push D.C. to invest in housing and socioeconomic programs—not double down on policing.

Studies have long shown that the more inequality that exists in a society, the more violence there is. The greater the wealth gap, the greater the likelihood that there’s violent crime. Inequality is an easy generator of shame and guilt and a catalyst for violence.

If more unequal societies tend to have higher crime, and if inequality has a robust impact on violent crime, then why aren’t U.S. cities doing more to address this well-proven root cause?

Take the nation’s capital, as one example. According to a new study this year, the District of Columbia has the highest overall wealth inequality in the United States as well as rising (not falling) violent crime rates—and yet, that science seems to have little impact on how the local government determines policy.

Rather than doubling down on investments that reduce the median household-income gap, the homeownership-rate gap, and the poverty-rate gap, for example—which would have a preventative effect on violent crime—the city continues to invest in reactionary and punitive policies.

The nation’s capital already has one of the country’s largest police-per-capita rates, and the latest pursuit of a heavy-handed “Secure DC” bill is just another illustration of how off the mark the city is in tackling violent crime’s root cause. Secure DC, an omnibus package positioned as the District’s comprehensive answer to the crime crisis, does little to leave the city more secure because it does little to address any of the inequality above. Yes, these gaps require longer-term planning; but with this bill, the city is making clear where its spending priorities are: in reactive, not preventive, approaches.

Want a more secure city? Prioritize the city’s pervasive inequality problem and then tackle it. Currently, Black residents in the nation’s capital are earning 65% less than their white counterparts. Their poverty rate is more than 350% higher than their white counterparts. And they are more than 480% more likely to be unemployed compared to their white counterparts.

As if that wasn’t enough, one in three D.C. residents lives in food insecurity—which means they don’t know where their next meal is coming from—with nearly 20% of residents living in “severe food insecurity.” How does that land vis-à-vis racial inequality? Examine the data further: Half of the Black and Hispanic residents face food insecurity, and that’s compared to only 14% of their white counterparts.

Those are some devastating statistics.

In the city’s 2024 budget, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser tried to cut funding for programs that advanced racial justice and helped people meet their basic needs, and D.C.’s City Council left vital socioeconomic programs unfunded or underfunded. In slashing funding for key programs, it’s becoming apparent that the city’s leadership isn’t keen to tackle inequality and the root cause of violent crime.

City leadership, meanwhile, supported tax breaks for developers, which undermines the city’s equity efforts but illustrates well that when there’s a will there’s a way. If the city wanted to find and funnel funds to fix inequality in this city, it could. If the city wanted to address growing racial and economic inequities, it could.

What is D.C. doing instead? Throwing its attention and resources toward a bill that erroneously claims to be about violence prevention, and that criminal justice reform advocates say won’t keep the city safe. And while there are requests by council members that the bill address the root causes of crime, the Secure DC bill fails to do that. It doesn’t touch displacement or hunger or poverty or unemployment, for example.

The nation’s capital, instead, is scaling up “crime fighting” activities that, in fact, do little to prevent crime, according to the ACLU and other experts criticizing the latest security efforts. What the city will witness, with a move like this, is an escalation of police activity but with little concomitant attention, investment, and resources focused on the drivers of violence. With this kind of imbalance, the city is almost guaranteed to witness more violence, not less. There will be blowback.

There will be more police show of force and violence, certainly, so the city can claim credit for trying to crack down on violent crime—but little in terms of actually improving lives, tackling inequality, meeting basic human needs, or addressing these root causes of violent crime. This is about the “haves” rolling out a more stark and severe police state for the “have nots.” And, unfortunately, all that does is reinforce the very inequality that brought us this violence in the first place.

Micheal Shank is an adjunct professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.