It’s not about race, it’s poverty

Knife crime in London is up and tackling the root of the problem is complex, here’s why it’s about poverty, not race.

Earlier this year, releases from the UK’s Metropolitan Police showed that the number of incidents of knife crime in England and Wales reached 32,448, an increase of 14% from the previous year. In London, the increase was even greater, with knife crime rising by 24% in one year alone. That’s 12,704 recorded incidents from 2016-2017.

In the war against knife crime there are some truly complex challenges we face. Firstly the nuanced reasons that cause people the carry knives in the first place. Then we have the £600m in cuts that the Metropolitan Police have faced under 2010- present day Conservative government. In a time where resources are needed, these cuts are more stifling then ever.

The Met has openly said that the police cannot work in silos on this; and that we need to start working closely with communities to understand motivations, and one of these issues is very clearly poverty. I have written previously about the grave poverty statistics affecting the UK public. One third of the UK public are living in poverty, and even those in full time work aren’t exempt, with in-work poverty sadly affecting 3.8million people.

Despite the previous reports from the Met drawing correlations between ethnicity and knife crime, I believe that to be a limiting justification for the knife crime epidemic in the UK. Let’s look at gangs in the UK as an example, a 2009 report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) showed that the ethnicity of the gangs was in fact, mostly reflective of the population of the respective area. For example they found that Glasgow and Liverpool are predominantly White, whereas gang members in Manchester and London are predominantly Black. Providing the support for my argument that race isn’t what is driving the act of knife crime.

If we also look at the relationship that gangs have with the education system: the same study found those same people are more likely to be disillusioned and excluded from the education system. Often holding no, or poor qualifications. The types of work available to these groups are naturally low wage. So of course, the prospect of becoming a drug dealer in a gang for instance, becomes a more attractive proposition.

Studies have found that disenchanted young people, with a lack of belonging to society are more susceptible to joining gangs and thus knife crime. Within the structure of gangs comes value to these individuals: it’s own rules, a set code of practice and above all a strong feeling of belonging with rules that are attainable. For a gang member living in poverty, it may be more attainable to go through with a violent initiation in gang than to contemplate the prospect of getting good job for a plethora of reasons: poor education qualifications, lack of role models, low wage jobs, poor self-esteem – that can often comes from living in poverty – and probably most depressing of all, the belief that there are no other viable options.

So how can we incept this point before the next crisis happens? Unfortunately the tactic of stop and search is not a long term or an effective enough solution. Although it may help take knives away from potential offenders in a short term fashion – the Met reported 400 arrests off the back of a fortnight crackdown on knife crime last April/May – an increase of this approach can cause feelings of unjust and anger in communities. More importantly it does not solve knife crime. These are deep issues that need to be tackled at their root.

Temi Mwale, Chief Executive of 4Front, a social enterprise that works with young people in Tottenham recently supported this argument by explaining: “you can take 20, 50, 100 knives off a young person, but there’s always going to be a ready supply of knives for them to get: all they have to do is go to their kitchen drawer.” She also expresses a need to address these issues at the core. A previous King’s College report Knife Crime, supports this sentiment also, recommending that government must tackle the underlying causes of knife crime, being: “violence, fear and insecurity”, which are products of inequality, poverty and social disaffection.

To tackle inequality, we have to pay attention to quality of life. Yes, the stats show that overall youth employment, the primary group for committing knife crime has come down in the last year, from 13.7% to 12.4%. However what about the 72% of 18- to 21-year-olds who earn below the ‘living wage’? Or the 3.8 million people working full time but experiencing some form of poverty? Worse still, the 27.5% of young black people out of work, which is double the figure than for their Caucasian counterparts. We must seek to bridge this gap, whether it is financial support for the government, increase in wages or providing higher paid jobs in Britain.

We also need resources. Safe spaces for young people outside of school. From 2013-2014 alone, more than £103m of funding has been cut from youth services. Between 2012-2014 350 youth centres closed and at least 35,000 hours of outreach work by youth workers were cut. A report from Unison shows that the number for youth centre closures is now even higher, at 603. When we are looking to opt for a strategy of preventing knife crime, how can 93% of English councils cutting services for teenagers be a step in the right direction? Children’s social care, family support services, adoption services,  youth justice teams, Sure Start centres, child protection services , looked-after children services have all suffered. And as the Unison report puts it: “More and more young people are falling through the gaps left by a lack of services.”

The evidence is clear that we need to pay attention to our young people. We cannot starve them of services and then despair when the affects of living in poverty and inequality force their hands, setting themselves up for a life that doesn’t have to be that way. I personally want to see a government that pays attention to these stark statistics and understands the magnitude and complexity of the affect of UK poverty.

Further reading

BBC News: Gun crime in London increases by 42%

King’s College report: Tackle knife crime’s underlying causes

Guardian: Met warns of steep rise in London gun and knife crime

Evening Standard: Met Police expands specialist knife crime squad

Center for Social Justice: Dying to Belong

Unision: A future at risk, Cuts in youth services

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