To address crime, the People’s Budget takes on income inequality, the housing crisis and other economic problems

A flag hangs upside down, signifying distress, at a homeless encampment along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

In the ongoing conversation around Minneapolis public safety, the central question is where to direct our city’s resources to effectively reduce crime. Some folks believe police reduce crime, so they support increasing or maintaining the police department’s budget. Some believe that crime prevention programs or initiatives for mental health responses are the way to make Minneapolis residents safer. Others talk about things like housing, health care access and good jobs as the path to a safe city. 

The budget debate this year reflected these different ways of thinking about safety. Mayor Jacob Frey and the pro-police group Safety Now Minneapolis think having more police on the street makes us safer, so that is where the mayor proposed directing 37% of our city’s general fund. The City Council responded to this proposal with a “Safety for All” budget, featuring a marquee mental health response program to demilitarize response to social and mental crises. This begins to walk the path towards public safety. Nonviolent and specialized response should be part of any functional public safety system.

But the Safety for All budget does nothing to actually reduce crime, it only allows us to respond to them more humanely. Only what we call The People’s Budget reflected the understanding that using public resources to improve the everyday conditions of the most marginalized in our city is the only real path to true safety for all.

It has long been established that economic conditions are closely connected to crime rates. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report showing that the likelihood of being a victim of violent crime is a function of household income, and that individuals from households at or below the federal poverty level had more than double the rate of violent victimization as individuals in high-income households. 

Data confirms again and again that the causes of crime are social and economic, which can be addressed through sufficient public investment. Unfortunately, there is also an abundance of unsupported theories about the causes of crime, some of which get far more attention that they deserve. Perhaps the most harmful of these theories eschews all evidence about the causes of crime, and instead explains crime in poorer Black neighborhoods as due to the inherent violence and criminality of Black people. 

To address this myth, researchers at Florida International University used the National Incident-Based Reporting System to look at violent crime rates across 91 cities in the U.S., and found that among multiple factors, interracial economic inequaliy — the income gap between Black and white families — was the strongest predictor of overall violent crime rates in a city, and even predicted rates of Black-on-Black crime.

With all eyes on Minneapolis, it’s time to get serious about looking at the causes of crime in our city and what it will take to change things. We need to look at data instead of trusting opinions based on fear and racist myths. 

Minneapolis consistently ranks among the worst racial income inequality in the country. Median household income was $36,000 for Black families in 2018, and $83,000 for white families. (And that’s before the pandemic recession hit Black families hardest.) 

About 25% of Black Minneapolitans own their homes, compared to a whopping 76% of white families, making our homeownership gap the third largest in the nation. Research has shown that this is a recipe for high rates of violent crime. It is these sorts of underlying inequalities that we need to address if we want to make our city safer.  

We celebrate the city’s recent investment in a mental health response unit, but we know that this isn’t enough. Placing resources into responses to harm does not change the conditions which make the harms possible in the first place. The People’s Budget seeks to provide the kinds of investments needed in housing, health care, mental health and other services to close the gap. It remains the strongest proposal on the table.