The Gang Tax

A few days ago, New York’s State Senate passed a bill making it illegal to recruit someone into a street gang.

In the never-ending fight by city officials and legislators to combat gangs, this is one of the latest efforts to outmaneuver gang members. Other similar initiatives have included: city ordinances that limit two or more gang members from hanging out in public space; school codes that ban the use of hats, clothing, and colors that signify gang membership; and public housing authorities that evict leaseholders who allow gang members (or any other so-called “criminal”) to live inside the housing unit.

These laws rarely lead to reductions in gang membership, gang violence, or gang crime. In fact, police officers I know find these ordinances and statutes a waste of time. Cops would much rather “control and contain” gang activity. Most officers who work in inner cities understand that you cannot eliminate gang activity entirely — arrest two gang members and you will find a dozen others waiting in line to take their places. Police know that gang members have great knowledge about local crimes, so they rely on a trade off: keep gangs isolated to particular areas, don’t let their criminal activities spill over into other spaces, and use high-ranking gang members for information.

This strategy actually prevents membership from expanding, at least in big cities where gangs are economically oriented. Beat cops who run the streets make sure that gang leaders don’t prey upon too many kids for recruiting purposes. In effect, this kind of policing limits the reach of gangs. It may not be socially desirable policing, but it works if you measure effectiveness by reductions in gang membership.

I called a few gang leaders in Chicago and asked them what the greatest obstacles to recruiting and retaining members are. Here are a few answers:

Michael (30 years old, African-American) was insistent that today’s gangs are mostly “drug crews,” i.e., businesses.

We always lose people to jobs. If a n–er in my crew gets a good job, he’s gone. So, as long as there ain’t no work for a brother, then we have no problem. Most of us have families, we’re not in school beating each other up, acting stupid. We’re out here on the streets trying to make our money. You got all these people telling us to get an education — I’m making thousands of dollars each month. Why do I need to go to school?

Darnell (32 years old, African-American) said police should be more creative.

Let’s say you catch one of us — I’d make the boy wear a dress and makeup. Maybe for two weeks. Let the boy go to school looking like a girl. Let him walk the streets looking like he’s gay. I guarantee you, we’d have a hard time holding on to n–rs if you do sh–t like that!

Jo-Jo (49 years old, half Puerto Rican, half black) said the cops should do:

… what they did when I was younger. Drop a Disciples off in Vicelords territory late at night. Let him get his a– kicked. And keep doing it! I remember growing up and all these cats used to get beat up. You know what? This would actually help me because it would get rid of a lot of these folks who do nothing for us except cause trouble. In fact, I’d be willing to work with the cops if they want to call me. Maybe we could help each other out?

My good friend Dorothy never ran a gang, but as an outreach worker who helps young people in the ghetto turn their lives around, she has pretty good insight. She recalled some of her own gang-intervention efforts in the 1990’s and came up with the following suggestion:

Tax the n–rs! That’s what I would do if I was the mayor. Don’t put them in jail, but take 50 percent of their money. You know what I mean? Find them on the streets if they’re misbehaving, grab half of their cash, and put it into a community fund. Let the block clubs have it, let the churches have the money. I guarantee you that a lot of brothers will think twice if you get to their pocketbooks.

Interesting thought. I wonder whether market forces might exert the kind of discipline required to limit the involvement of young people in gang-controlled drug economies. If, as Treasury Secretary Paulson reminds us, “market discipline” is sufficient to regulate the financial markets, perhaps it could be effective in the underground. Oh, yes, I forgot about Bear Stearns. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)


Hrm. You asked a group of gang leaders how to put gang leaders out of business? I'm inclined to suspect a conflict of interest here.


Also, if you allow gang activity - drugs sales - in a "free-zone," you increase the supply of drugs, forcing gang members to lower their prices. You reduce the profits of gang members and thus the incentive to sell drugs. And then, it's easier to provide social services to drug users and gang members since they're in a concentrated area. (OK, I've been watching Season 3 of The Wire...)


Since when is being taxed a disincentive for making money ?

That's just a thin excuse pharma companies and hedge fund managers use to threaten to take their ball and go home.

Grand Poobah of the Water Buffaloes

Whatever happened to Freedom of Assembly and Association?


Couldn't they come up with something better to waste their time on?


This law reeks unbelievably of unconstitutionality, as it is presented here, if you ask me! Anyone ever heard of the freedoms of assembly and expression?

B K Ray

Y'all is dancing mighty close to some unitended circumstances.

Really though, jobs are the best defense against gang. If they were taught to write computer code in 7th grade, there would be no gangs. If you can write code, no one cares about your grammar skills, no one cares about how low you wear your pants.

Feedback secrets

Real honest jobs are the real solutions to gang recruiting problems. Take a look at Detroit, MI where gang activities have risen astronomically in parallel to job losses from the auto industry layoffs and massive foreclosures. Many of the foreclosed homes are turned into drug houses, creating a never ending cycle of rampant crimes.


the quandry for a "tax the n-ers" policy is that neither democratic candidate could successfully push for it without being accused of playing the race card- and presumably, the republicans already have it as part of their contract with america

Dave Benner

Prior to the anti-recruitment law being passed I suppose it was perfectly legal to hire someone to break the law? Good law, way to tackle the issues.


"Find them on the streets if they're misbehaving, grab half of their cash, and put it into a community fund."

if money is provably connected to crime it can already be seized (actually asset forfeiture is so ridiculous at this point money or property doesn't even need to be provably connected to drug crime)

so what exactly is she suggesting? loosen asset forfeiture restrictions even more? give police carte blanche to take anyones money if they are "misbehaving?" genius.


Sudhir is my hero.

-GWU Econ

Dalai Lama

Shaun G #30, it's only "conspiracy" to majority rule.

Scot Boyd

I think Michael has the answer...if the question is "How do we limit participation of young people in drug economies?" then the answer is "Put them in a better economy."


Cutting out the profits of drug dealers seems to me to be a very good route to take. Taxing them and giving the community sounds great to me...obviously there are logistics to work out, but investing that money into other areas where young people can be active is always a necessity.


They should be hired by the local PD.


Milton Friedman and 500 other economists already endorsed a research paper suggesting that pot become legalized, taxed, and regulated ( They estimate $14 billion in savings and revenue from pot.

Cocaine and other harder drugs are both more profitable and more dangerous in the black market. Imagine the yields from ending those prohibitions.

But alcohol companies, tobacco companies, and pharmaceuticals (not to mention the D.E.A.) don't want to see this happen.

I guess they prefer to see people join gangs and sell drugs instead of get real jobs or go to school.


"keep gangs isolated to particular areas, don't let their criminal activities spill over into other spaces, " -- I love that. What this means is that people who are too poor to afford better living conditions get stuck with gangs. There are good, hardworking, honest decent people living in those "particular areas." But it's ok for them to be terrorized by gangs because they don't write for the NYT and aren't part of it's target audience.

Operation Safe Child

How long are we going to tolerate illegal gangs in our communities? What we need are grass roots efforts to eradicate gangs and the sale of illegal drugs. If we don't try, we all deserve what we get. We can start by disspelling some of the myths going around in our society. For instance, many people young and old believe that drug pushers make a lot of money. However, one U. of C. researcher found that gang members selling illegal drugs only made $3.50 per hour. In other words, gang members made less than half of the minimum wage. Gang members could make more money slinging hamburgers and they wouldn't have to go to jail for it. In addition, young people on the borderline need to know that every wrong doer gets caught, one way or another.
Operation Safe Child
P.O. Box 810
Maywood Illinois


So the endless cycle of the black market continues...