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Crime and punishment

Friday, November 03, 2000

There's nothing like an argument over Section 8 housing to get the blood of liberals, moderates and conservatives spiking through the ceiling.

Several nights ago, while talking to a friend, a columnist for another newspaper, about our columns, I brought up Mayor Tom Murphy's threat to withhold rent subsidies for Section 8 housing until the zero-tolerance dispute between Neighborhood Legal Services and the city Housing Authority is resolved to his satisfaction.

I fully expected my friend, a successful businesswoman and motivational speaker, to side with me and all the heavenly angels on this one. There was silence on her end of the phone as I wound up my pitch:

Is it fair, I asked, for an entire family to be evicted from Section 8 housing because of the actions of a minor? Should law-abiding people suffer dislocation because a younger brother, son or daughter decides to deal in drugs or commit an act of violence near their home? Since when is collective punishment for the actions of an individual just?

The silence lingered, which surprised me. Because she was once a poor, single mother herself, I expected my friend to quickly flesh out my abstract protestations with real-world observations from the trenches. If anyone could make an eloquent defense of family values in the face of policies without pity, I assumed she would.

Instead, she asked me a question: "Are you responsible for your kids?"

"Of course I am," I said, mentally weighing other answers just in case.

"Very good," she said. "Now, if one or all three of your boys did something stupid in your neighborhood, like sell drugs or set fire to a playground, the cops would probably want to chat with the whole family, right?"

"I suppose," I said, "But as homeowners, my wife and I wouldn't face eviction if all of our boys were prosecuted and convicted. People living in Section 8 housing face additional burdens as citizens that middle-class folks like us don't have to worry about."

I could tell, even as I uttered the words, that what I was saying sounded nonsensical to her.

"I don't understand," she said, feigning confusion. "You're responsible for your kids, right? When I was a young mother, I had sole responsibility for my daughter. My income was irrelevant. Is there something about poverty today that exempts those living in Section 8 rentals from raising their kids? Do we have less expectations of poor people just because they're poor?"

I dragged out every extenuating circumstance I could think of, but my friend wouldn't hear of it. She wasn't impressed by the woes of a "single mom working two jobs with three kids at home alone." If that mom ends up at a homeless shelter with two of the kids because the third child thinks Al Pacino's "Scarface" is a worthy role model, well, too bad for that family.

"Tell me," she said, "how would you feel if someone living in Section 8 housing on your street was dealing drugs? You'd want to see that entire family given the boot, including the dog and cat, right? Nobody wants that stuff around their kids."

For every scenario I manufactured out of thin air, my friend countered with stories from her life. She was adamant that parental responsibility isn't diminished because a child is incorrigible, mentally slow or criminal-minded.

"I understand that poverty is a problem," she said drolly, "but every parent is responsible for raising a child the rest of us aren't afraid to pass on the street. We all have to do that, whatever our income. As ennobling as it may be to work several jobs at once, it really is a dereliction of duty if your child gets out of control and threatens the neighborhood."

The more I talked about individual guilt, rights and proportional justice, the more she stressed family responsibility and collective guilt. She did concede that parents could, theoretically, claim to know nothing of a young person's crimes, but that wouldn't make them "innocent," just irresponsible bystanders.

We never reached a consensus on the Section 8 question, but at least I walked away from the discussion less glib and more tuned in to my friend's sensibilities. Though I'll never agree with an eviction policy that punishes an entire family when only one person is guilty of a crime, I understand why others feel differently.

In any case, I'm used to losing arguments these days. Liberal pieties always sound hollow falling from my lips, even when they're true.

Tony Norman's email: tnorman@post-gazette.com

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