Story of a thesis (Part I)

In preparation for my thesis proposal seminar, I’ve decided to write for you a narrative of what I plan to do. I’ll be publishing them every Friday between now and the seminar in the middle of April. This is part one.

Let’s Talk About Baltimore

Baltimore is a city of about 600,000 people located in the mid-Atlantic state of Maryland. It is at the mouth of Patapsco river and right on the Chesapeake Bay. At it’s peak population in the 1950s and 1960s, about a million people lived in Baltimore. Since the 1968 riots — and some say because of them — the population in Baltimore began a steep decline. People who could move out of the city did, populating Baltimore County, Howard County, Harford County, and Anne Arundel County. Again, some claim that it was the riots that really made people run for the hills, so to speak. Others claim that it was the deep-seeded institutional racism and the inequities and inequalities that come with is that really accelerated Baltimore’s decline.

The answer for the decline, as it almost always is the case, is somewhere in between all the absolutist theories that people throw out there. We’ll talk about that later.

That “exodus” from Baltimore left the city with an enormous amount of empty homes and buildings. Every sociological study has pointed at that “urban blight” as a contributor to crime in the city. Many of those buildings became drug dens. Many others became places from which to plan and launch criminal enterprises like drug deals, gang activity, and robbery.

When you pair the wealthy people leaving behind very poor and disadvantaged people with urban blight and a decline of tax revenue from all this, you get a city in a lot of trouble. Then you throw in the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, and you have some negative effects that last until today and will probably continue for a few more generations even if everything that can be done is done. You have incarcerated men who leave their families. You have children growing up without one or both parents as one is in jail and the other (usually mom) having to work to make ends meet. And you have men who come out of jail and unable to get jobs because not a lot of places want to hire “ex-cons”.

Those children without parental supervision end up looking for a family of their own. Many of them find that family structure in gangs. Then they become aware of their poverty, and they become aware that drug trafficking and drug dealing brings in big money. While the risks are high in the drug trade, the benefits of money, “family” and social standing are attractive enough to get young men (for the most part) involved. This leads to a life of crime. This also leads to death.

Let’s Talk About Death

By far, the number one way in which people in Baltimore are being killed by someone else is with a gun. There isn’t even a contest with any of the other ways in which someone can kill someone else. How this happens is very complex. You have a mix of guns being bought legally and bring brought into Baltimore (since Maryland has pretty restrictive regulations for buying a gun), guns being stolen as part of other crimes, and guns being sold illegally in Baltimore. Then you have a mix of criminal activity, low police presence in many areas, and young men with poor impulse control due to their age and their social standing.

Yeah, it’s pretty bad, and not one single intervention can address all of these things. That’s not to say that people are not trying. I counted fifteen different programs from private and public organizations trying to curb violence. Most of these programs are aimed at young people in schools with hopes of setting them on the right path. Unfortunately, many of them have very limited opportunities once they get out of school (by graduation or by dropping out).

Last year (2015) was a historic year for Baltimore in terms of gun violence. There were 344 reported homicides, translating to a per capita rate of 55.1 homicides per 100,000 residents. This per capita rate is the highest since records have been kept, and the only time it came close was back during the crack cocaine epidemic and the ensuing drug wars. In terms of shootings, the numbers were even higher, with over 600 shootings reported in Baltimore. That’s almost two per day!

Let’s Talk About An Outbreak

As an epidemiologist, there is a set of steps that I take when I’m investigating an outbreak. And this is an outbreak in every sense of the word. It’s not just political rhetoric anymore. There really are more shootings and homicides in Baltimore than expected. One of the issues is that we (the people and the policymakers) are not treating it like an outbreak.

For gun violence to be treated like an outbreak, we need to bring the tools of epidemiology to the discussion and use them to enhance what other areas of study (like criminology and sociology) are finding out about what to do. Then we take it one step further and actually put into action whatever we find out. That is, we don’t file it away on some shelf.

So What’s The Plan?

The plan, dear reader, is to put to work the tools of epidemiology to better understand the outbreak of gun violence in Baltimore. To do this, it’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of data collection, and a lot of data analysis. It’s also going to take talking to a lot of people who are living through this to better understand what it happening. The main idea is that I will be focusing on understanding what makes a person a victim versus what makes them a perpetrator. That whole perpetrator thing has been done. We know why people do criminal things. It’s time to know why some people are more likely to be victims than others.

In the next few weeks, I’m going to write up my thoughts on the thesis proposal as follows:

I'm a doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

9 thoughts on “Story of a thesis (Part I)

  1. The biggest chunk of nonsense I’ve repeatedly heard, throughout my life, has been, “Get a job!”.
    Let’s do a numbers game. There are 500 jobs for 1000 applicants within range of the applicants.
    OK, 500 have jobs, 500 share a whole hell of a lot of nothing, but still have to survive in our country.
    “Why don’t you move?”, disingenuous in the extreme, moving costs money, save if you’re abandoning all of your possessions and walking and when flat broke, howinhell do you make a rent deposit? Here, in the real world, relocation is expensive, but the poor have magic to make it possible or something.

    I do object to the single parent household argument, as both of my parents lost their fathers when they were young. What was present for them, a path out of poverty through hard work. Of course, there were decent paying jobs back then. You know, civil construction projects, housing projects, ship building, preparation for WWII and supporting the war effort. After, building post-war housing and later, a superhighway system.

    What we’ve done is abandon our cities, let everything from city environments through highways rot and wonder why the I-35 bridge fell into the Mississippi river while it was full of traffic. Hint, the steel base plates that hold up the entire structure were rusted through and collapsed.
    Meanwhile, we forget where our food and products that we still do produce, come from. Lose those cities, no food, no new cars, no electronics, no repair parts and no power – the distribution systems are inside of those cities and without those cities, there is no management for the vast and decaying electrical grid that we rely upon.

    So, just when did we decide to abandon large numbers of people? People in our cities?
    Oh, that’s right, every poor person is simply a temporarily embarrassed millionaire. Even if such a thing actually rarely occurs, we’ll count on those millions, in a land of decreasing availability of opportunities.

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    • The whole thing is so complex and so messed-up. There’s not going to be a simple solution, or even “a” solution. Maybe there isn’t a solution but rather a set of things that can be done to ameliorate things… It’s going to be like D-Day, where a lot of people get hurt before people get better.

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      • There is indeed “a” solution, a solution with ten thousand components that interact synergistically and deleteriously. Finding the easy fix, impossible, as any fix is complex and blended.
        What that blend of fixes is is beyond me.

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  2. Ren, do you plan on putting your thesis into an easily accessible form for the people of Baltimore most affected by the violence? Do you think they may benefit from what you ultimately find out? Might it empower those who are most affected to contribute to changing things for the better?

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    • Not only am I going to do that, but I’m going to include those being affected as “key people” within my study. I will talk to them and interview them, and I will report back to them as it all progresses. I’ll have them as guests at the school of public health for any “research in progress” seminars and, of course, at the final defense seminar. Then I’ll stick around and see how Aim #3 goes. What’s Aim #3? You’ll have to stay tuned.

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    • That is a very highly biased and simplistic view of that program, a view aimed at blurring the objectives of it and its effectiveness. But, no, “they” haven’t talked about doing something similar in Baltimore.
      Although, to be honest, I’m getting paid every year to not commit a crime. The state and federal governments give me tax incentives to own my home. Having a home in a great neighborhood has kept me out of trouble. The government also paid about 50% of my education so far, also keeping me out of trouble. If they codified tax laws better, they’d cut tax evasion crimes by a huge percent. See what I did there?

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