Poverty and Crime
I wanted to touch on this subject because I hear so little in-depth discussion about the issue. It’s somewhat of a political-correctness third rail to talk about. There’s little doubt that there is more crime in poverty, even if one factors in the large amount of white-collar crime that goes uninvestigated, unprosecuted and under-punished. But to suggest a connection between poverty and crime is to draw sharp and impassioned criticism, accusations of economic bigotry and racism. Stating that there is a connection makes it sound like you are saying that poor people are innately criminal, which also suggests that they are innately poor. So most people tend to stay off the topic, especially in talking-head mode, where lengthy explanations don’t fit or work particularly well. But I thought I’d express my own theory on the matter, unresearched and unproven as it may be.
The way I see it, all of us exist on a spectrum of likelihood to commit a wrong. Some people will commit a wrong no matter what, even if they have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Other people would never commit a wrong, no matter how bad or desperate their situation may be. Most people live between those two extremes, with a variety of situational variables determining our exact location in that range. One way to refer to it is your “price”–what’s your price for doing something wrong? If someone asked you to commit a crime, how high a price would they have to offer for you to actually consider and possibly do it? Of course, the variables matter a lot: what kind of crime? What chance is there of being caught? What are your circumstances–are you well-off, justing getting by, desperately poor? Do you have needs or desires that cannot be met within your current means, and what are they?
This defines your place on that scale. We all like to think we’re way at the “never commit a crime” end, but then again, how many of us are in desperate situations? And that’s the defining variable when it comes to the connection between poverty and crime: whether things are good or bad for you.
Take the “likelihood to commit a wrong” spectrum, and add the dimension of “how well off are you.” If all of us were enjoying the best life, well-off, happy, hopeful and not needful of anything, the crime rate would be close to zero, as few people would have their “need to commit a wrong” trigger pulled. But go to the other end of the “well-off” scale, where all of us are in dire straits, desperate for food, needful of anything and everything, especially providing for children and other loved ones. Or it could be emotional strain, stress, or passion of the moment. There would still be some who never commit a crime, but there’s no denying that a lot more of us would be committing wrongs, our conditions for doing so having been met.
And so we exist between those extremes; but as our situations become more grave, hopeless and despairing, our triggers are pulled. And that’s why there would be more crime in a poverty-ridden area: not because the people there are more bent on crime, but because the situation of poverty brings more of us over that line. Take the people of a poor community and the people of a wealthy community and reverse their fortunes, and the results will be the same–those put in poverty will have more reason to commit a wrong. It’s not innate, it’s situational.
One interesting side discussion on this issue is, what keeps us from doing wrong? Is it fear of punishment, a sense of absolute morality, a desire not to harm or wrong others, or simple self-respect? More likely, of course, a combination of two or more of the above, if not a combination of all in differing degrees. This is where I have less respect for the whole “you’ll go to Hell if you sin” philosophy: it allows for empty morality, for someone who whose ethicality is weak and only kept in check by fear. But the concept of Hell is a different discussion, for a different time.