Scholars rebut 2008 Atlantic article based on Memphis housing, crime patterns

Dallas Observer blogger Jim Schutze points out a scholarly rebuttal of a 2008 magazine piece that Memphians and particularly readers of my blog might remember: Hanna Rosin's "American Murder Mystery" for The Atlantic Monthly.

In that piece writer Hanna Rosin cited what she said were statistical clusters in Memphis in the first decade of this century to argue that crime was spiking wherever recipients of public housing subsidies settled after being pushed out of the old public housing projects. I remember reading it when it was new and finding it pretty disturbing.

But you know 2008 was a long time ago. If you're going to reach that far back for an argument to use today, you need to keep Googling. If an argument is that old, it's important to see what has happened to it since it was born.

In fact, what you find -- easily available all over the net today -- is solid evidence from serious scholars to show that Rosin's article was bull---- magazine journalism.

Writing at the National Housing Institute journal Shelterforce, urban policy scholars Peter Dreier and Xavier de Souza Briggs use slightly more elegant language, but manage to make a pretty devastating case against Rosin's piece. Namely, that the Hope VI and "Section 8" programs that Rosin cites involve only a couple to a few thousand households in a city of 650,000 people, and that there is no evidence given that families and individuals who were involved with those programs committed any of the crimes in question.

Some excerpts:

Rosin leads her story with the observations of one Memphis police officer, Lt. Doug Barnes, who sets the tone for the article. He reports that certain neighborhoods--which Rosin calls "suburban" but are actually within the Memphis city limits--used to be quite peaceful until the displaced families, gang members and violence moved in. This is asserted despite a long history from the early 1990s of high levels of crime in Memphis. It had high levels of crime long before the current spike.

She then reports Barnes' view of working in this largely African-American area. Barnes tells Rosin that "my job right now is to protect the people from all the animals." The "animals," we easily infer, are the drug dealers and other criminals, who the article confounds with former residents of public housing. Without providing any proof that the former residents of Memphis' public housing projects are responsible for the rise in crimes, the article uses this racist code language to stigmatize both the tenants and the programs. It is not guilt by association but by mere proximity.

One more:

Where do the families with Section 8 vouchers live? For cost and other reasons, a small share live outside the Memphis city limits. Rosin's notion that Section 8 families were bringing a crime wave to once-bucolic suburban neighborhoods is simply baseless.

There is some evidence that most Memphis families with Section 8 vouchers, including those displaced from public housing, moved to areas that were already on the decline, with rising crime rates, caused by private disinvestment and the exodus of middle income families to Memphis' suburbs. Comments by a Memphis resident, posted after Rosin's article appeared, challenge her notion that these areas were peaceful prior to the alleged influx of Section 8 families. "I do have to take exception to the notion that North Memphis or Frayser were little slices of heaven as late as 2000. It may be worse now, but it was pretty rough in those areas before."

The bottom line here is that journalists, even accomplished ones like Hanna Rosin, are notoriously bad with numbers and scientific data. 

She indicts a program, without any hint of direct or clear evidence, using the simple version of an ongoing mapping project by two University of Memphis researchers. Basic statistics textbooks tell us: correlation is not causality.

Those researchers, Richard Janikowski and Phyllis Betts, knew that their findings were explosive, as they said in a Commercial Appeal profile that came out soon after the Atlantic piece:

"You have to understand that this did not make us happy," said Betts. "On the other hand, if we're wrong, there's something else we have to figure out."

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