Acton Institute Powerblog

6 ways looting hurts the poor

As riots broke out nationwide over the death of George Floyd, his family valiantly tried to reason with the mob.

Once again, the authorities should have listened to Floyd’s pleas.

“If his own family and blood are trying to deal with it and be positive about it, and go another route to seek justice, then why are you out here tearing up your community?” asked Terrence Floyd, George Floyd’s younger brother. “Because when you’re finished and turn around and want to go buy something, you done tore it up. So, now you messed up your own living arrangements.”

Looting and riots are sometimes presented as “a lashing-out against capitalism,” or even a form of reparations. But here are 6 ways looting most harms the poorest people.

1. It deprives poor and minority communities of essential services. As violent crowds pilfer products and do property damage, the stores close, temporarily or otherwise. Looting grocery stores in Chicago created new “food deserts.” Chicago’s CBS 2 reported that it saw Bronzeville “seniors taking buses, walking miles with only what their hands could carry.” Chicago Alderman David Moore said his district did not “have a pharmacy left.” Another alderman noted, “Our elderly, our vulnerable populations … aren’t going to be able to get food, get supplies, get their drugs.” Their concerns reverberated in New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, “These looters destroyed businesses that were essential to the community and the very people we are trying to help.” Their cry is embodied in the Minneapolis woman who tearfully told TV cameras, “I have nowhere to go now.” These riots underscore how businesses serve, rather than exploit, America’s neediest citizens.

2. It drives away businesses and jobs. Businesses do not invest in riot-prone cities for the same reason developers don’t build homes on the San Andreas Fault. They know destruction is inevitable. Those who took a chance are unlikely to return. “I’ve been on calls and text messages with people all day who fought hard to bring economic development to areas of the city, only to see the Walgreens, the CVS, the grocery store, everything vanish in an eye blink,” said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a May 30 conference call with city aldermen. “It’s going to take a Herculean effort on the part of all of us to convince businesses not to disappear, to come back.”

So far, the effort has been Sisyphean. Walmart and Target have not confirmed they will reopen their looted locations.

This is compounded when metropolitan police are ordered to stand down and let the looting proceed apace. One firm that’s not on the fence is 7-Sigma Inc., which decided to leave Minneapolis after 33 years and take more than 50 jobs with it. “They didn’t protect our people. We were all on our own,” owner Kris Wyrobek told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “The fire engine was just sitting there, but they wouldn’t do anything.”

3. It leads to a population drain. To see what the future holds, look to Detroit after the 1960s riots. The number of people fleeing the Motor City nearly quadrupled between 1964 and 1968. Since a city’s greatest asset is its people, economic contraction follows. “In the years after 1967, Detroit completed its gradual transformation from a city that was white, Catholic and largely prosperous to one that was increasingly black, Protestant and poor, because of the flight of wealth that accompanied the departure of upper- and middle-class whites,” reported the Detroit Free Press. The city’s median income fell by 35% between 1970 and 2006.

4. It erodes the tax base. Only one group consistently fails to flee violent neighborhoods: people who are too poor to leave. As median incomes and property values drop, the city’s tax base shrinks. That leaves urban centers with a population in greater need of government services and fewer resources to pay for them.

5. It causes long-term economic damage. There is strong evidence the economic harm of this riot will persist for decades, as it did following the riots of the late 1960s. The authors of a National Bureau of Economic Research study:

find a relative decline in median black family income of approximately 9 percent in cities that experienced severe riots relative to those that did not, controlling for several other relevant city characteristics. There is also some evidence of an adverse effect on adult male employment rates, particularly in the 1970s. Between 1960 and 1980, severe riot cities had relative declines in male employment rates of 4 to 7 percentage points. Individual-level data for the 1970s suggests that this decline was especially large for men under the age of 30.

6. It makes the church’s job harder. Pastor Corey Brooks of New Beginnings Church of Chicago works to give urban poor the skills to start over. He writes in The American Conservative that his ministry’s “work has paid off, and we have witnessed the power of a changed life. I have seen the excitement of young men who have turned away from violent gangs … for their new jobs.”

“The riots of this past week, however, have set us back in our ministry work and have done incalculable damage to our community,” he continues.

The young men he works with have been denied the meager employment opportunities they once had, and his church much pour its resources into helping the needy access essential services:

All of the CVS and Walgreens buildings were looted. The result is that we no longer have a pharmacy in our neighborhood. Church members are shuttling members of our community out to the suburbs to get their prescriptions and basic goods.

The grocery stores were also looted, leaving us without options to purchase local food.

The question lingers on many of our minds: Will these stores and pharmacies—so essential for daily living here—ever come back?

The good works of Pastor Brooks aimed at mitigating the long-term damage need all the prayer and support they can get.

(Photo credit: A resident jogs past a Baptist church vandalized by looters in Raleigh, North Carolina. Bryan Regan / Shutterstock.com.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.