Why the United States Has Failed to Solve Its Youth Gang Problem

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Have we made any progress?

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In 1990 Walter Miller examined the question of why the United States has not only failed to solve its gang problem, but has failed to keep it from getting worse, despite the implementation of numerous programs and the allocation of millions of dollars directed specifically for alleviating gang problems. Miller accounts for this failure as a consequence of major procedural and policy deficiencies. He rather strongly states that the primary reason for the ineffective handling of the youth gang problem in the United States is the lack of a comprehensive national gang control strategy. In effect, he concludes, that national efforts since the demise of John F. Kennedy's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime have diminished despite the increasing seriousness of the problem.

So the question becomes – Has anything changed since Miller’s critique?

The problem begins, according to Miller, with the conceptualization of the problem as a local, rather than a national issue, thus limiting resources available to address the problem. From this faulty conceptualization spring a multitude of logistical difficulties, including the lack of a centralized source of basic information and demographic statistics, repeated implementation of similar programs despite evidence of their ineffectiveness and the unavailability of funding to develop, implement and evaluate local programs. Additionally, allocating only a proportion of the general operating budget for local criminal justice agencies virtually ensures a 'back burner' status for programs targeting high risk youth and gangs. Miller attributes these poor policy decisions to a systematic denial of the problem of gang behavior and its consequences for all of society.

Additionally, this issue has long been the target of debate between liberal and conservatives, who view the problem from widely different perspectives. Conservatives hold an 'individual responsibility' orientation which "blames youth gang problems on personal failings of gang members, their families and their communities, related to a general decline in public morality" (p. 272). Conversely, the liberals hold a 'social injustice' view which "blames gang problems on discriminatory and exploitative policies by the larger society that fosters inequality, race discrimination and blocked opportunities" (p. 272). These opposing views, and the subsequent implications for intervention, result in a political impasse in terms of policy development.

Miller also addresses the decline of effective evaluation of gang control efforts as a contributing factor in the failure of American programs in reducing gang problems. He cites examples of the continued implementation of programs without the supporting evidence to validate their effectiveness and argues that in the absence of hard evidence, program proponents make exaggerated claims of success. In order to develop more effective intervention programs, it is absolutely necessary to distinguish successful and unsuccessful efforts.

Miller further criticizes the social structure with regard to the allocation of resources and the establishment of gang control as a national priority. He concludes that since it is not the middle-class neighborhoods, but rather the slums, ghettos and barrios which are typically plagued by gang problems, the issues are deferred to criminal justice agencies at the local level and given little national attention. In short, he states, "Gang control is a low national priority in large part because those with good access to resources put a low priority on gang problems and those who put a high priority on gang problems have poor access to resources" (P. 276).

Throughout his critique, Miller implies that the gang problem has thus far been handled in a haphazard and 'hit-or-miss' fashion. He points out that there is not a single organized agency in the United States which focuses national attention on the problem of youth gangs. Although federal agencies have supported local measures to combat the problems of gangs, this support has been "sporadic, unrelated to any coherent strategy and scattered among various agencies without effective coordination" (p. 277).

Miller made several recommendations regarding the implementation of an effective gang control strategy for the United States. He proposed the development of a comprehensive national strategy which includes the establishment of a federal office of youth and gang control which would assure adequate allocation of resources and consideration of these issues as national priority. Additionally, he stressed the need for accurate information and sound programs based on thoroughly evaluated methods of gang control. In general, he concluded that our nation must end the denial and consider gang control as a matter of national priority.

While social problems like this are always complex and multi-faceted, we must examine whether or not we have learned from insights such as Miller’s, and whether they have made any true impact on working toward solving the problems. If we have, good, let’s forge on. If we have not, why not? And what do we really need to do about his lack of progress?

Personally, I fully agree with both the criticisms and proposals of Miller laid out in his critique. For too long our nation has, at best, given lip service to the problems of troubled youth. Policy makers have virtually ignored the issue of gangs except to scoff at the dilemmas of the inner cities and pass the problem to the already overtaxed local agencies. Other than JFK's program outlined in the chapter, our government has done little to develop a comprehensive program with specific objectives to reduce gang prevalence and gang-related behavior. The few attempts made at addressing such problems, such as the infamous "War on Drugs" have been initially introduced with vigor and determination only to fall to ruin due to haphazard implementation and maintenance.

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The problems associated with gangs are simply too serious and have too many far-reaching ramifications to ignore this way. Fearful and frustrated, our nation has chosen to bury its head in the sand and give thanks that the problem is over in "that neighborhood" and not in one's own community. However, problems which affect the youth of our nation affect us all. This is not an issue affecting just a few "bad" neighborhoods. Like it or not, these neighborhoods are our own backyards.

Miller's proposal calling for a federal agency specifically oriented to youth and youth gang problems is long overdue. A centralized, powerful office is needed to secure resources, affect legislation and maintain national awareness regarding the problems of gangs and gang behavior. Our government has offices and committees to address every major area of social impact. And yet, there is not an agency dedicated to solving this serious and growing issue.

Our current policies simply have not worked. The individual juvenile justice systems have not been effective in handling this problem on a local level. The research is fraught with examples of programs and interventions which at first appeared as a glorious solution only to later prove ineffective in the long run. Both our youth and our neighborhoods deserve a concentrated, long-term effort to develop and follow through with truly effective programs.

Perhaps gangs and the problems associated with them will never completely be erased as a social problem. There are certainly no easy answers. However, we owe it to ourselves, our children and the future generations to do what we can to combat these ever-growing problems. In the words of John F. Kennedy, "There are risks and costs to a program of action, but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction".


Miller, W. B. (1990). Why the United States Has Failed to Solve Its Youth Gang Problem. In Huff, C. R. (Ed.). (1990). Gangs in America. Newbury Park: Sage.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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