Guest Column: Crime and economic growth — chicken or the egg?

By Paul Gorski

I’m writing in response to Michael Kleen’s recent “Keepin’ it Kleen” column “Crime smothers economic recovery” (May 16-22 issue of The Rock River Times).

Kleen’s main point appears to be that “crime and the economy are intimately connected,” and I fully agree. I also agree that Rockford’s decision to turn off street lights was short-sighted, but I do not agree that crime will necessarily “smother” our economic recovery.

Residents do not want to live or shop in high-crime areas, and businesses do not want to locate to such areas. So, crime can hurt economic growth. But a poor economy can also foster a high-crime climate.

Which comes first: crime or bad economy? In our community, I think we have a little of both. And in our case, better-paying jobs would help lower the crime rate.

Kleen seems baffled as to why Aurora, Ill., has a lower crime rate than Rockford, believing they are similar communities. Rockford and Aurora, with its population more than 190,000, are not that similar. One of the most significant Aurora-Rockford differences is Aurora’s median home price of almost $171,000, compared to Rockford’s $93,000. Since property taxes are the major source for police funding, Aurora simply has a larger tax base to pay for more police and fire services.

Rockford also has a higher poverty rate than Aurora. While median household incomes are similar between the two cities, the median income for individuals is higher in Aurora, which means more people are working in each Rockford home to achieve the same household income level.

Aurora is a fast-growing community of employed people, many of whom commute by train to Chicago for better-paying jobs. The jobs aren’t in Aurora, but you can get to a good-paying job via a 50-minute train ride.

Yes, we must take positive steps to reduce crime, but we must go after better-paying jobs that will help drive down the crime rate. Rockford residents don’t have the option of a 50-minute train commute to Chicago for work, so we need to create good jobs here.

Local leaders can’t simply target warehouse and fast-food jobs, and we can’t rely on increased landfill revenue to fill government coffers. We need to think big, we need to plan for success. We need to create a new economy. As Kleen points out, “Winnebago County has been in the top five Illinois counties in terms of both crime and unemployment rates for more than a decade.” I think we can both agree that’s not the plan we want for the next 10 years.

Paul Gorski is a Cherry Valley Township resident and a former Winnebago County board member.

From the May 23-29, 2012, issue

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