The Common Good
September-October 1997

With Unconditional Love

by John DiIulio | September-October 1997

Criminologist John DiIulio explains why a God-centered and problem-focused approach is needed to save our youth.

Jim Wallis: What first drew you to the field of social policy?

John DiIulio: I grew up in a working-class/lower-middle-class neighborhood in a big city. Much of my scholarly work is in the field of American politics and public management. But no matter how much political philosophy I studied, I’ve always felt a visceral need to get closer to the action. For example, I’m not as much interested in the legislative process as I’m interested in how laws affect the lives of living, breathing citizens. So the social policy interest grows out of an interest in public policy implementation, and that comes out of an interest in what matters at the grassroots level.

Wallis: You talk a lot about the role of churches and how you think they are essential to effective social policy. Why?

DiIulio: I grew up as a Roman Catholic, attend church regularly, have three children who are being raised as Catholics, but I never considered myself a particularly religious person. Faith and spirituality have played only the most indirect, incidental role in the research I’ve done on youth crime, social service delivery, American politics, and public management.

A few years ago, however, I was trying to assess the independent effect of liquor outlets in high-crime urban neighborhoods. I discovered that, other things being equal, neighborhoods with a high concentration of liquor outlets had more crime, more delinquency, and more violence than otherwise comparable neighborhoods that did not. But there were other dots on the map—churches. In the language of standard economics, the question was, If a high concentration of liquor outlets has negative externalities, does a high concentration of church activity have positive externalities?

I spent six months learning a new literature. I discovered that some of the studies that had been done were, by the most rigorous social science standards, as powerful and as interesting as any I’ve seen in my 15 years of doing research. For example, in 1985, a Harvard economist named Richard Freeman did a study of the young-black-male unemployment rates in inner-city neighborhoods. With a very rigorous statistical analysis, Freeman discovered that kids who were churched in these neighborhoods were much more likely to escape poverty, to avoid problems with the law and drug abuse, to get jobs, and so forth than otherwise comparable kids who weren’t churched. There were lots of studies that came to the same conclusion. Churches do a great deal of good for considerably less resource investment than we pay via other institutional means. That’s the pure public policy analysis.

Wallis: So you didn’t come at this as a person of faith, wanting to show the relevance of faith for public policy. You came at it from the other direction and discovered empirically that church presence has an efficacious impact on social policy.

DiIulio: Right. I happen to be a person of faith, but that wasn’t the motivation.

There is one sense in which I should qualify that. In the early ’90s, we had a horrific increase in youth crime, from 1.7 million juvenile arrests in ’91 to 2.7 million in ’94, a horrible situation of kids killing kids, seemingly without remorse. Confronted with this problem, I cast about for examples of people who were doing something. The only people I found who were willing to go into these places that were dangerous and dirty and distracting and work with these kids in one-on-one outreach ministries were people of faith. To the extent that something was being done with this population of kids, it was being done through churches.

A faith or spiritual dimension of the empirical findings was the recognition that even the so-called juvenile superpredators are sinners, but also sinned against. Looking at the data, I have never seen a kid who was violent and remorseless and had criminally violated others in a heinous way who was not himself or herself also terribly sinned against—severely abused and neglected, growing up in genuinely dire conditions of material deprivation, having absolutely no positive adult-child relationship in their lives. This does not excuse the crime, but it tells us that you could feel somewhat convicted if you don’t do something to help them while they’re still in diapers, or at least before it’s too late.

Wallis: You quote a dictum from Roman sages: "What a society does to its children, its children will do to society."

DiIulio: I believe the Roman sages were right about that. There are some who say that this is just conventional liberal ideology coming to the surface, a belief that "there are no bad boys, only bad homes." Not to excuse what is happening or to overlook the behavioral pathologies, but the fact of the matter is that most of the very bad boys come from very bad homes, in very tough, impoverished neighborhoods, and they’re abused and neglected.

From the Roman perspective of citizenship, these people are fellow citizens, and they are entitled to our concern. If we are not going to be concerned about them, then I think we will reap what we sow. No unconditional love, no support, the streets are ugly, there is poverty, there is abuse, there still is racism that exists in the lives of these kids—if that is the environment in which they grow up, we should not be surprised that in some cases they return the favor.

Wallis: In very dramatic ways, you have explained what you think is coming—how the demographics are shifting, and how we face some pretty awful possibilities unless certain things are done with these kids. Play out that scenario for us.

DiIulio: We have 57 million kids in this country today who are age 15 or younger. By the year 2006, we’ll have about 30 million teen-agers, the largest number since 1975. Whichever risk factors you emphasize—either the liberal risk factors of kids growing up in poverty and joblessness or the conservative risk factors of kids growing up abused, neglected, or in single-parent families—we will have a larger population of kids at risk. We have a possibility by the year 2005 or 2006 of having the majority of children who live in urban neighborhoods being unable to read, inadequately taken care of, having almost no real employment prospects, and having been in effect abandoned by the rest of us.

I don’t think it is alarmist to believe that unless we are very, very dedicated to getting into these neighborhoods and doing significant ministering efforts with these children, we will have a terrible youth crime problem, but also a generation of kids who will be unable to function in a post-industrial economy. Why any citizen of this republic would not want to engage that problem, when we have a 7-to-10 year window of opportunity to engage it, is beyond me.

Wallis: You have identified the churches as foundational to what needs to be done. In fact, with Rev. Eugene Rivers, you are supporting efforts around "Campaign 2006," which is very much focused on this. Why are churches so critical to this effort, and what should they be doing?

DiIulio: Churches are critical to the effort because they alone are capable of addressing both the material and the spiritual dimensions of the problem. What Rev. Rivers has done in Boston with the Ten Point Coalition, and now with the National Ten Point Leadership Foundation, is something of a model. There are also a number of church networks here in Philadelphia, in metropolitan New York, in Washington, D.C., in Louisville, in Miami, in Detroit, and so on. They are providing a holistic youth outreach and community development effort. The kid is not an organism that needs to be made literate one hour and made to recreate the next and to deal with the problem of abuse and neglect the next. What the churches are capable of doing, I think uniquely, is looking at the whole range of problems that surround these at-risk children.

They’re also capable of doing it in a way that is unapologetic about the unconditional love that motivates it. You have pastors who can say, "The world may hate you, but I love you. God has something better for you. I don’t want you using those drugs; there is something better for you here. This is a safe haven, a place where you can recreate. This is a place where you can look for a summer job, where you can find positive peer influences. This is a place where you can have literacy training." There is no other institutional package like that for these kids.

Going to the churches also helps us transcend a number of the usual ideological and political categories. George Gallup Jr. tells us that more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God or some spiritual presence. More than 80 percent of African Americans believe the churches and spirituality can be efficacious in solving social problems. There is a foundation of public belief and support for working through churches. People are recognizing that we can have an intelligent discourse about church-state issues and yet tap into our churches and our faith communities as a way of helping our children.

Wallis: You’ve done a lot of work on crime, especially youth crime, and you’ve talked about the need for both incarceration and salvation. Some people think of you as a hard-liner, but you talk very sympathetically about kids. How do you speak of both these things?

DiIulio: For a number of years, my research focused on looking into who was really going to prison. There was a view that the system made disproportionate use of incarceration for the most petty offenders—first-time drug offenders or so-called nonviolent offenders. It was true that a lot of people who were going to prison had a latest crime of conviction that was a lesser offense. But I found that if you reconstructed their entire criminal histories, lo and behold, you found very few going to prison who had not done several felony crimes, often violent crimes, and often including violations of probation and parole. The empirical finding contradicted the conventional wisdom among criminologists and other experts.

We have more than 40 million criminal victimizations a year in this country. On any given day, we have three-quarters of the correctional population on probation or parole rather than incarcerated. In many states we have offenders who have committed two and three crimes—often including violent crimes—getting probation. I don’t have any philosophical qualms with saying that those people definitely ought to experience some period of incarceration, both for society’s good but in many cases also for their own good.

In the early ’90s, as I turned more to the question of juvenile crime, suddenly people were saying, He’s soft on crime. But you don’t take minnows and treat them like sharks. The system works well when it is sorting rationally among and between minnows and sharks. While I believe certain juveniles have to be incarcerated, there is no good philosophical or practical justification for incarcerating juveniles—including the worst juvenile superpredators—with adults. If we relax the federal restrictions on incarcerating kids with adults, we are going to have a lot more kids abused and assaulted in prison.

The fundamental problem is the problem of children in need of adults. They need teachers and coaches and parents and clergy and so forth, not adult felons.

Wallis: As you work with these practical policy areas, how do you sort out the normal arguments between liberals and conservatives on crime and social dysfunction? Where are the conservatives right, where are liberals right, and where are they both wrong?

DiIulio: Liberals still tend to emphasize the structural factors of poverty and joblessness, and conservatives tend to emphasize the problems of single-parent families. But when you get down to solutions, the liberal-conservative dialogue is being supplanted by a new dialogue between people who are problem-focused and people who are not.

People who are problem-focused look at the kids we’re dealing with, the nature of their problems, and how we get them from point A to point B. When you focus on the problem, it will quickly disabuse one of one’s ideological and theoretical notions. Within the community of problem-focused people, you find all kinds of unlikely allies and all kinds of strange bedfellows getting together to debate and discuss what is to be done.

On the Right, the people who are the least problem-focused are conventional libertarians, who believe that all problems were caused by government intervention and overreach, and all problems can therefore be solved by government withdrawal. They also have argued the notion that the root causes are cultural. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that these are cultural problems and at the same time say it is merely a case of welfare overspending. Criticisms of welfare are justified, but the extent to which it’s been implicated in all the various problems and pathologies in the inner city is not supported by the data.

Wallis: Why?

DiIulio: Take for example the alleged connection between welfare spending and rates of out-of-wedlock birth, in particular among blacks in the inner city. Once you do the statistical analysis right, the relationship between levels of welfare payment and rates of out-of-wedlock birth is ambiguous or non-existent.

I object strongly to the focus on welfare, welfare, welfare and out-of-wedlock births among low-income people when a bigger society-wide problem is divorce, divorce, divorce. There are, of course, good divorces and bad marriages. That’s a given. But there are more than 130 empirical studies on the negative social consequences of divorce. The reason you don’t hear as much from the Right about that is because we all have friends and family who’ve been divorced, and some of us have been ourselves. To people who’ve been divorced, that’s not seen as much of a problem, but in fact broken families are part of what’s hurting our children, and not just in the inner cities.

Wallis: So it’s easier to pick on the poor?

DiIulio: It’s easy to identify their social pathologies, but we have some pretty profound social pathologies of our own.

Wallis: You’ve said that the factor most critical in solving social problems is: Trust the solutions closest to the problem. Doesn’t this problem-centered approach begin to render the conservative-liberal debate almost irrelevant?

DiIulio: Yes, it removes old debates. If people are God-centered and problem-centered, I don’t care if they are Democrats or Republicans, Left or Right. I don’t care who they voted for, and I don’t particularly care how they define or articulate their politics. There is no partisan or ideological way to nurture a child who is without a parent, to show them love and affection, teach them to read, and introduce them to the Bible. That’s where the interesting stuff is happening, largely beneath the radar screen.

Wallis: How could that God-centered, problem-centered approach create some new and interesting alliances, and even open the door for some new policy directions?

DiIulio: There are people in our national political discourse from the Left, Right, and Center who are absolutely open to a dialogue about the capacity of faith communities to solve social and economic problems, and who are willing as part of the price of admission to this dialogue to leave all the old baggage at the door. The one non-negotiable aspect of this for a lot of people is that it would have to be a genuinely pro-poor effort.

My maternal grandmother’s family was on relief during the Great Depression. They went to church, they weren’t alcoholics, they weren’t using illegal drugs—they were poor, for reasons having nothing to do with their character or lack of effort. In that South Philadelphia neighborhood where my grandmother grew up, there are people who don’t like to work, just as there were during the Depression, but there are many more people who want to work but can’t because there aren’t jobs. Lots of people in these neighborhoods have a problem, and it’s called poverty, plain and simple.

Wallis: What consequences do you see from last year’s welfare bill?

DiIulio: I strongly opposed the welfare bill because I viewed that de-entitlement as tantamount to depriving citizenship. It said, in effect, we will make it now theoretically possible that kids can grow up without sufficient food, medicine, and shelter—basic life necessities. We simply cannot withdraw government from urban America, from our most distressed populations. While it would be wonderful if we had corporate, private, philanthropic, and church-based efforts that could solve that problem, we absolutely have to have public-private partnerships, and government must play a role.

Wallis: What are the most important questions for churches seeking to engage these issues?

DiIulio: Faith communities seeking to leverage effective action against social and economic problems need to speak the language of the political media and policy-making elite. They need to be willing to compete and play by the rules of the secular public policy system with respect to performance criteria.

If, for example, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has an interest in rehabilitating young drug offenders, people in churches should be willing to say, Here’s our program, here’s what we do—and not stand down on the question by using the Bible. The faith community should be willing to open itself to scrutiny, using concrete measures that can be audited not rationalized: Can you treat this population of young drug offenders, for example, as well or better than some otherwise comparable program? If the answer is yes, then be willing to run the program on that basis.

We’re not talking about having someone who doesn’t want to be in a faith-based program being coerced into it. Give people the option: You can go to Program X, which is faith-based, or you can go to the garden-variety secular program. Your choice. Voucherize it. It requires on the part of the public policy community a willingness to look with a sympathetic yet critical eye at churches. It requires on the part of faith communities a willingness to be evaluated and to play by the rules of the game.

The only good thing, in my view, that came out of the welfare reform bill was the charitable choice section, which opened up a new possibility of public discourse and dialogue between people who are God-centered and problem-centered and people who may not be God-centered but are also problem-centered. That is where the faith community needs to be in thinking about policy over the next 15 to 20 years.

Wallis: What’s the significance of the 7 percent decrease in crime around the country? Is the New York City "broken-window" approach to crime a factor in that?

DiIulio: I think it is a factor in New York’s case. The trend line clearly is down, roughly 3 percent a year over the last several years. The 7 percent drop announced recently was the largest drop in violent crime in many decades. New York accounts for fully a third of that drop. But there’s a great deal more crime today than is being counted, and relative to what many older Americans experienced in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and even into the early 1960s, we have historically high levels of crime.

Levels of juvenile violent crime, in particular, have not abated. In New York City, the increase in total felonies committed by kids rose 119 percent from ’86 to ’96. You have a simply horrific increase in crimes of violence. It has remained highly concentrated in a dozen or so big-city neighborhoods. In certain "badlands" we have populations of kids who are more likely to be victims of aggravated assault than they are to graduate from college. So we really do have a profound problem here.

The extent to which so-called quality of life policing or broken-window policing has mattered in New York is a matter of some debate. I believe that it has played an important role, but it has also increased the level of complaints about the police in some parts of New York, in particular in the minority communities. In Boston the same strategy has been employed, focused on youth crime, but with a much greater effort to engage the churches—in particular the Ten-Point Coalition folks—to make it a more community-spirited effort, rather than a confrontational, harassing effort.

Another part of the story, however, is incarceration. You can explain a significant fraction of the decrease in crime—somewhere between 10 to 15 percent, I would guesstimate—simply by the fact that in New York state we have incarcerated repeat criminals who elsewhere would have been out. A third of all violent crime in this country is committed by people who are on probation, parole, or pretrial release. If you have less probation, parole, or pretrial release, you’re going to have less violent crime.

But the biggest untold story of crime going down has been the work of the churches. I have seen what people are doing in the way of youth outreach ministries, sometimes around the clock it seems, literally taking kids off the streets—efforts like the much maligned midnight basketball program....

Wallis: Which you favor.

DiIulio: Which I favor. It’s a way of engaging kids in getting positive adult-child relationships, it’s not about improving your three-point shot. It’s about getting you off the street, getting you with an adult who’s going to be there for you in an authoritative but loving, considerate, for-real way.

Wallis: Your work on the causes of crime has focused more on what you call the "four Ms" than it has on policing methods or incarceration.

DiIulio: Absolutely. If we have more monitoring, more mentoring, and more ministering strategies, and if we’re grounded in some clear moral understanding of the nature of this problem—children in need of and entitled to adult care and supervision—we’re not going to have as bad a problem in the year 2006 as we’d otherwise have. Does that mean we don’t need police and prisons? No. We need them, and we will continue to need them. But coming off things like the presidents’ summit on volunteerism, we have an opportunity to corral some of our good, civic, volunteer efforts to save these at-risk children. It makes sense on every level—moral, intellectual, and practical.

On any given day, we have more than 520,000 cases on juvenile probation. Kids who need counseling or help don’t get it. Kids who really need to be held in secure confinement don’t get that. The failure to monitor, to provide accountability, is a big part of the problem. The mentoring is for the kids who really need the big brother or big sister, who need more than just someone looking over their shoulder and providing supervision—a step toward a more holistic approach. But the most holistic approach is the ministering approach, through the churches—which is when you can really do the monitoring and the mentoring in the context of doing spiritual and material ministry.

Wallis: And "moral" means it would also have a value base to it?

DiIulio: Yes. It has to say these kids are worth something. They may be convicted of crime, but we are convicted if we don’t intervene. If I fail to address the problem, or help mobilize resources around it, I’m convicted along with him. Putting aside religious or spiritual dimensions, if we don’t have that moral sense around the concept of common citizenship, there’s really no possibility for the problem-centered discourse.

Wallis: You have said you are going to devote a lot of your energy from now on to working with black churches in distressed neighborhoods. Why? And what can white churches do?

DiIulio: I’m focusing on the African-American inner-city ministries simply because that’s where I began and that’s where I’ve learned the most. I’ve really come to understand what’s going on at the street level. It’s also a demographic fact that working with and through the black churches, you’ll pick up a lot of kids who are living in neighborhoods with economic and social crises.

It’s important for white church people to play a constructive role that goes beyond just writing checks or giving moral support, though those things are important. I would love to see a genuine effort of volunteerism come out of the suburban churches. I would like to see, in particular, my own church reinvigorate its commitment to these neighborhoods. In many places, what were once predominantly white, working-class congregations have left, and African Americans, Asians, and others have come into these neighborhoods. I find it sad and distressing that Catholic churches and schools have been closed, when there’s great opportunity there. Where the schools have remained open, they’ve become great centers of social services.

White people of faith sometimes find it difficult to engage these issues because of the legacy of racism and questions of motivation and so forth. It’s important to be known by your works. What’s needed in these places, as far as I’m concerned, are hands and feet—volunteer efforts. It’s preferable that efforts with African-American children come out of churches that are black-led, black-staffed, black-run, and black-administered, but I’m not saying that there never should be a white person involved. I’d actually like to see more white participation in these churches.

It is very hard to get people who have moved to the suburbs to "get away from it all" to come back. Many of the congregations in the inner cities are commuting congregations, where even the congregants come in from the suburbs, drop money in the plate, and go home. People need to stay, whether they are white, black, or of whatever race or ethnicity. And they need to contribute. It can be something as simple as participating in a weekend Bible study program or giving a few hours a week. You could be a computer programmer or an accountant or a carpenter or an attorney. Even college professors are known to have some skills worth something other than hot air! Contribute these things through churches. It repays itself.

I’ve had more rewards in my two-year venture with African-American churches in the inner cities than I had in the previous 12 to 13 years. I’ve felt better about what my own career can mean in terms of making a positive contribution to society. That’s the kind of "selfish" return you get if you’re willing to engage in this way.

DiIulio, who has a Ph.D. in government from Harvard, is a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University and director of the Partnership for Research on Religion and At-Risk Youth. He was interviewed by Sojourners editor Jim Wallis this summer at his office in Philadelphia.

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