My community in south London lives in the shadow of knife crime. Young people have been killed on our street and the threat of violence continually affects the young people we know and care about. As a father of three children, including two teenage boys, I am more anxious than ever about their safety.
Like all enduring social problems, knife crime is complex. If it wasn’t, it would get solved quickly. I find this model helpful in thinking about the combination of causes of the violence:
Of course, a key factor is the most obvious form of poverty – a basic lack of resources. Low income, insecure employment, zero-hour contracts and the lack of affordable housing all play a role in feeding the inequality which disaffects young people.
But in addition, there are the community resources which support and guide young people in the right direction. Exclusions from school may help improve exam statistics, but the cost is paid by communities affected by disillusioned young people cast adrift from the educational system. The Police are more stretched than ever and all statutory youth services have cut to the bone.
But equally as important as resources are relationships. Appreciation for the hard work of single mothers should never lead us to downplay the importance of fathers. Too many young men do not have consistent male role-models who show them how to contain and manage their anger and frustration.
Outside of families, we don’t have enough adults volunteering in youth groups and mentoring programmes. Our busyness means that we are not involved enough in the lives of others – we don’t know who the kids are who are hanging around the street corner. Too often, our only relationship with them is one of fear.
Most significantly, underneath both of these is an underlying poverty of identity. Many young people do not feel a sense of significance or worth about their own lives, let alone about others.
Many grow up in a context of poor boundaries around their behaviour. The result is not having a secure sense of identity and who they are. Many struggle to modulate themselves in conflict situations or empathise with others. Relationships within gangs, however fractured and fluid, can provide a sense of identity.
Debates around the causes of knife crime frequently turn into a blame game. Some will put all the fault on the government or the local council because they are seen to control the resources that can make a difference.
But the debate also needs to be more personal. This is a community problem. It requires a community response. What can each of us do to make a difference?
Two factors which I see as key to making a difference are sport and faith.
A sporting chance
Over the last 5 years, I have coached a youth cricket team and run an informal football club for a group of local kids who are now 14-15 years old.
Purely in itself, sport means very little. But what sport can teach people means a huge amount. Team work, resilience, courage, tenacity, coping with disappointment and failure are all qualities young people need to learn.
Adults can assist this learning process. They can referee a match to maintain fair boundaries and ensure arguments don’t boil over. They can coach and encourage a young person to develop their skills. Adults can role-model positive behaviour, so that whatever the result, they take a lead in shaking hands with opponents and handling defeat well.
On a train this week, I bumped into the dad of a boy I used to coach cricket to. He said what a difference being in the team had made to his son’s confidence. He said ‘cricket has helped him become a man’.
Faith in young people
Churches are by far the biggest employer of youth workers in the country and they have a massive role to play in this knife crime crisis. Churches have connections, trust and resources within local communities that few other institutions do. But most importantly, the gospel message is directly relevant to saving young people from the carnage of violence and crime.
I don’t believe that young people are not interested in faith. They may not want to sit through a long, boring services which says nothing to them about their life. But that doesn’t mean they are not interested in questions about purpose, forgiveness and the meaning of life. About half of my football club now go to a group at my church which is currently running the Youth Alpha course.
Faith can help young people develop positive relationships with others and find a renewed identity which is affirming and purposeful.
Danger and opportunity
We are currently in a crisis of violence in urban communities. The Chinese symbol for the word ‘crisis’ is made up of two words: danger and opportunity.
Of course there are many dangers in the situation, especially for young people. But there is also great opportunities for us all to play a constructive role. We can all do something, however small, to combat the poverty that leads to knife crime.
2 thoughts on “The poverty that creates knife crime”
I may be late to your post but I am not late to this issue, sadly.
Working as a youth worker for over fifteen years I have personally witnessed the harrowing effects of knife crime upon individuals, families and communities. I have given eulogies at funerals and buried young victims of violence that I have personally known. So this is not just a professional issue for me, it is a personal one. One to which I have given much time, thought & study.
I broadly agree with the model you present that identifies a threefold poverty deficit as a description of some of the causes of crime. However, I would refer you to the more extensive work of Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (& many others) in identifying the rising levels of inequality as the root cause of violence within many societies including ours. Indeed, “the most well-established cause of high levels of violence is the scale of economic [& social] inequality” (The Equality Trust). Poverty & inequality are closely correlated but are not the same & as you rightly wrote in your post, “knife crime is complex”.
I also agree that the solutions to this complex issue should involve individual/community responses. I genuinely wish more people like you were willing to sacrifice their time & resources to be a small part of the solution & not just complain about it. If I could replicate you I would.
At the same time as helping individually, I see nothing wrong with highlighting the unjust policies of any incumbent government or local institution that encourages or further perpetuates poverty or inequality. Some would call this ‘blaming others’, if that’s the case then I’m all for it.
Some institutions need to be openly blamed & shamed in order to hopefully stimulate change. As Dr Martin Luther King Jr. said, “certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned” (The Other America). I believe certain unjust conditions exist within our very own British society. They need to be called out & condemned.
By all means, let us challenge ourselves & other individuals within the church & local community to play their part but let us also be ready to challenge the unjust practices of political & financial institutions, two of the most significant drivers of inequality in the UK, “…poverty is primarily the consequence of the way society is organized and resources are allocated. The decisions over how to eradicate poverty in the end are political choices about the kind of society we want” (EAPN). In essence, bad political & economic choices create the ‘perfect storm’ for poverty to increase & consequently for knife crime to proliferate. Without an understanding of this evidenced-based meta-narrative people are quick to believe the subnarrative & focus on fixing the symptoms (gangs, drugs, drill music, lack of policing, lack of fathers) rather than the actual root problem (structural inequality). One could temporarily fix the former but if the latter is not properly dealt with the former will resurface. “Tackling poverty overwhelming[ly] benefits members of disadvantaged groups, but it also rests on [a] better understanding [if one knows] what drives the disproportionate prevalence of poverty within such groups in the first place” (Tackling Structural Inequality in the UK, The Resolution Foundation).
If we want to make a REAL difference to knife crime statistics & see a “massive and sustained reduction in inequality” (The Equality Trust) which evidence clearly suggests would lead to a substantial decline in high levels of violence it will take more than sport & faith alone (as good & impactful as they both are). It will also take those in power to shape policies by genuinely “paying attention to the needs of disadvantaged and marginalized populations” (Sustainable Development Goal #10). Doing anything less will only be addressing the “symptoms of a much greater underlying problem” (The Equality Trust). I have hope that we will eventually see real change, but until then we have an awfully long way to go.
Loving your posts BTW! 😊👍
I read this blog with interest. I work with an organisation that partners with churches, schools and community groups to build better communities through music and media. Over the summer, we worked with young people in East Ham. They wrote songs about the violence that they are witnessing and some of the issues here (especially male role models) came out in their creative work. We hope their voice and opinion can be heard wide and far, and the dutybearers do respond. As it is such a complex problem, I’d be keen to consider the issue of knife crime with more groups and how we can all support each other with various initiatives. Is this something you might be involved in or could point me in the right direction? Thanks for your blogs – always thought provoking!
PS – the work of the kids is via the following links: