Monica Jorge

The Uvalde school massacre has brought a fresh wave of national grief at the human toll of gun violence in the United States. Parents of small children, looking forward to celebrating the end of the school year, are now planning funerals. Advocates are highlighting the need for gun safety laws, including bans under 21, background checks and protection orders. The current attention to the issue of gun violence is vital, as the toll of gun violence spans far beyond mass shootings. Most gun-related murders happen in cities like Hartford.

Consider Freddy’s story. In a focus group with University of Connecticut and COMPASS researchers, Freddy shared that since 2016, he has lost 20 friends to gun violence. “You could be with a person and the next morning you get a call and they gone. Like I been through that a few times this year, and that puts you into a depression and stuff, where you don’t have energy to do stuff on the daily.”

In Hartford, gun violence is a product of decades of racially targeted policies that created concentrated poverty. The gap between the rich and poor in the Hartford region is among the worst in the country. Advocating for gun safety laws is important. But to solve the gun violence epidemic, we must also implement policies that alleviate concentrated poverty.

Youth speak to the toll of living in poverty

COMPASS Youth Collaborative, a Hartford-based nonprofit, and Dr. Caitlin Elsaesser of the University of Connecticut School of Social Work have been collaborating for six years to document the challenges Hartford youth face related to gun violence. Recently, we asked 25 youth in focus groups about the stress they experience living in neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence. Knowing that young people are the experts in their own lives, we collaborated with community youth co-researchers throughout this research study.

Here’s what we learned: the stress that stems from living in poverty has a high cost. For example, many young people spoke about the stress of watching their parents struggle to make ends meet. One teen shared a story of working two jobs – on top of attending school and managing her social life – to support her family, since her mother’s minimum wage job doesn’t pay the bills. “I’m the older out of the girls, so when my mom goes through tough times, I have to be her support,” she said. “That stresses me out because I don’t wanna see my mom go through it alone and my siblings suffer.”

Neighborhood disadvantage is a root cause that affects a range of health problems, including toxic stress and engagement in violence. A large body of research connects neighborhood socioeconomic disadvantage – characterized partly by a high proportion of houses below the poverty line and limited economic opportunity – with gun violence.

Need for policies that invest in community

We want to be clear: the youth we work with demonstrate daily creativity, courage and commitment to their community while navigating these difficult conditions. Yet as long as youth are living in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, gun violence issues will continue. Local community leader Pastor AJ Johnson has shared a classic metaphor: If we see child after child drowning in a river, we could either pull one child out at a time – or we can look to where the flood is coming from.

Community leaders recently secured a long-sought victory when Connecticut passed legislation declaring racism a public health emergency. The bill underscored that racism shows up not just in police brutality, but in the brutal policies that systematically disinvest in communities like Hartford.

Structural inequities are rooted in racist policies that trace back centuries. Solving wealth disparities that persist today will involve a wide range of policies, including housing, employment, and education. COMPASS street outreach workers dedicate countless hours to support youth in crisis. COMPASS street outreach workers are in the business of saving lives, and we will continue to work tirelessly to do that.  But the gun violence we see is a symptom of poverty, and we must address the poverty crisis directly in order to make a lasting change.

Dr. Caitlin Elsaesser is an associate professor at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work. She is also a  member of the Connecticut Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network.

Jacquelyn Santiago Nazario is the CEO of the COMPASS Youth Collaborative.