I have heard that question asked several times in my life, and for a long time I gave the wrong answer. Because they have a greater need for things is the most common answer. Other answers might include theories about resentment, having less to lose, or simple desperation. You might come up with more complex theories, like I did.
None of these are the correct answer.
As with any question or statement, you need to apply critical thinking, and one of the major elements of critical thinking is to question your assumptions. So, in the question, “Why do poor people commit more crimes than rich people,” what is the whopping huge assumption being made?
That poor people commit more crimes than rich people.
And, as it turns out, that assumption is patently false.
First, you have to ask, what is being measured? We have no numbers, no statistics on what crimes are actually committed. Many people commit crimes and are never found out. Can you use arrest records? No, for the simple reason that many people arrested are later found innocent, or charges are dropped against them. What we use to measure crime rates is convictions.
This is where the numbers fall to pieces: convictions are a horribly inaccurate way to judge what actual crimes have been committed, especially in terms of being rich or poor.
Here are the reasons for that:
Targeting and Arrests
First of all, police more easily assume that poor people commit more crimes, and target those people far more readily for search and arrest. Take New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” laws. You might expect that high-power Wall Street executives would be an obvious target, and would often be found to have drugs on their person. Unsurprisingly, there were the fewest stop-and-frisk searches in the financial district. Instead, the vast majority of searches were in Harlem.
Unsurprisingly, the areas with the highest incomes had the fewest searches, and the areas with the lowest income had to most searches.
Race also clearly plays a part. Between 49% and 61% of all stops were made on black people, who constituted 23% of the population. 8% to 12% of searches were of white people, who make up 40% of the population. Although the rate of marijuana use is roughly equal between black and white people, black people are arrest about four times more often than whites. Since race has a strong correlation to economic status, this has an impact on how things work out.
The reason may go beyond simple economic bias. Rich people have far better legal representation, and police officers might have a bias towards searching or arresting people who will help their conviction rate. The wealthy are also often well-connected, and police may get blowback for stopping a frisking a rich person.
Nor is it just simple stops and searches. White collar crime is infamously under-prosecuted. Despite massive corruption and crime that led to the 2008 Great Recession, almost no convictions were made. Despite fraud, embezzlement, and tax evasion are rampant, few arrests are made and even fewer cases end in a conviction. Just look at how long Donald Trump got away with a plethora of crimes—and, despite all the evidence available, is still getting away with them. Usually only the most egregious, high-profile cases are even considered for prosecution.
As a result, most suspicion and targeting is placed on poorer people. If you target one group more than another, it is completely unsurprising that the group more targeted will be arrested and convicted more often. However, it does not mean that they commit more crimes.
Having a Good Lawyer
This is a huge factor. Wealthy people can get the best legal representation, which can, far more often, lead to all charges being dropped, or a deal being made that will require only rehab or community service, while no conviction ever goes on their record. One famous example is George W. Bush, who was well known to use drugs in his youth. At one point, he mysterious “volunteered” to do community service, for no stated reason, shortly after it was rumored that he was arrested for drug possession. When they do go to trial, expensive expert witnesses and a host of other legal protections are used.
People of lesser means, meanwhile, have only what legal representation as they can afford, which is little or none. Those with none have to resort to public defenders, who are notoriously under-qualified, overworked, and underfunded. Stories abound of poor people who are likely innocent of crimes being convicted, and of rich people likely guilty getting off scot free.
This contributes heavily to the large disparity in conviction rates between the rich and poor.
Bail also plays a big part. If you are rich, bail is not a problem, and you can continue on with your life while your lawyers find ways to make your consequences as little as possible.
However, if you are poor, bail often makes it impossible for you to get out. Within days, you lose your job, and for most poor people that’s a harsh sentence in and of itself. Many poor people spend months or even years in jail waiting for a trial, some of them being incarcerated even longer than their sentence would be if they were found guilty.
It should therefore be no surprise that most poor people charged with crimes will plea to guilty convictions, even if they committed no crime at all.
One good example of this was in New York in 2018, when cops illicitly stopped a car with black occupants, one of whom had just been released from the hospital. The cops falsely claimed they smelled pot and demanded to search the vehicle. They demanded the occupants exit the car, but the injured man told them of his condition, and that it would be hard for him to get out. Impatient, the police brutally dragged the injured man from the vehicle and, when he struggled in pain, they charged him with resisting arrest and obstructing an officer. The man had to go back to the hospital for five days to recuperate from the injuries police did to him—all the time handcuffed to his bed. After a two-hour search, the police did not find any marijuana; facing an embarrassing situation, they planted some in the vehicle and charged the occupants with drug crimes. Unable to defend themselves (body cam footage was withheld for two years), they had no choice but to plead guilty to resisting and obstructing in exchange for the drug charges to be dropped. A conviction without a crime—one that would not have happened, certainly not successfully, with a wealthy person.
Sleeping Under Bridges
Then we have the laws themselves. There is a famous adage: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges.” Many laws are heavily biased in terms of economic status. It is commonly noted that if the punishment for a crime is a cash penalty, then the crime applies to poor people only. For example, there are laws requiring drug testing for public assistance, but none for the beneficiaries of corporate welfare or massive tax breaks. Being homeless can lead to being convicted of a number of crimes; sleeping in the street or in parked vehicles are the most common. Not being able to pay fines, often very steep for poor people, for offenses such as traffic tickets, civil offenses, and misdemeanor crimes can end in a conviction and jail time.
Most crime by rich people is masked by corporations. If you poison one person and they die, you get convicted. But if you own a corporation and you poison a whole city, you might be fined, for a much smaller amount than you profited by not cleaning up your waste. Wealthy people can steal, injure, and even kill, sometimes on mass scales, and never be arrested, much less convicted.
One significant example of this is how we treat the crime of theft. If a poor person commits a theft, from shoplifting to burglary to grand theft auto, they are charged and convicted. And yet, the most common form of theft goes totally unpunished—and is even rewarded. Unsurprisingly, it is the primary form of theft committed by rich people: wage theft.
If you take all other forms of theft—larceny, burglaries, auto theft, and robbery—and add them together, they are dwarfed by wage theft, which can total tens of billions of dollars in theft every year. This includes minimum wage violations, overtime violations, rest break and off-the-clock violations, in addition to simple underpayment. I myself have been the victim of three of those at various jobs, and many—perhaps most—workers have similar stories to tell.
And yet wage theft, while technically a crime, results in no convictions. This is because it is treated as a civil crime, and not a criminal offense. If you steal $100 from your employer, you can be arrested, convicted, and jailed. If your employer steals $100 from you, they are not even arrested, and usually they get away with it. You can only find redress through filing for public prosecutors to get your money back, which is rare, and takes years even if they do so, or by taking the case to court, which results in legal fees often dwarfing the amount that was stolen from you. Because it is so hard and expensive to get redress, employers usually get away with it scot-free—which explains why it is so rampant.
The Scale of Crimes
Finally, we have the way that convictions are counted. Stealing ten dollars from one person and a million dollars from a thousand people may both end up with a single conviction each.
If ten thousand criminals steal $100 each from ten thousand victims, for a total of $1 million, and are caught and convicted, that is counted as ten thousand separate crimes.
However, if one white-collar criminal steals $1 billion from a hundred thousand people, and is caught and convicted, that may be counted as only one conviction—despite stealing a thousand times more money from ten times as many people.
There are a number of possible variations of this, where poor people are convicted on the basis of minor infractions, while rich people are shielded for significant crimes.
Conclusion, and How to Handle the Issue
Unfortunately little of this at all is documented, so there are no numbers which can prove that wealthy people, per capita, commit more crime than poor people.
However, a very strong case can be made that this is in fact the truth—but because we use convictions as the measure, people always assume the opposite.
If anyone asks you why poor people commit more crime, the very first response would be to demand they provide evidence for their claim.
THEM: Poor people commit more crime than rich people.
YOU: Cite a source for that.
THEM: It’s a well-known fact.
YOU: Great. Then citing a source will be no problem for you. I’ll wait.
THEM (Whether or not they cite a source, probably not): Statistics prove this.
YOU: Statistics showing what?
THEM: That poor people commit more crimes.
YOU: So, all crimes can be known? No one ever gets away with one?
THEM: OK, arrests then.
YOU: All arrested people are guilty?
THEM: OK, convictions.
YOU: If your wealthy employer steals money from you in wage theft, will that person be convicted? Are wealthy people ever convicted for sleeping in their cars? Are wealthy people convicted if the corporation they own kills people? None of these are counted as convictions. Or how about the difference in availability to expensive legal representation, which results in many indictments failing or being pled out? Or how about profiling of poor people by police? How about the scale of crimes?
THEM: [At this point, they will do one of three things: (1) deny that any of that has an effect without any evidence; (2) try to focus on one small detail they think they can argue and never return to the primary assertion; or (3) change the subject entirely.]
Simply put, there is no argument that can be made aside from appealing to faulty assumptions.
However, anyone with any reason or sense of fairness will have to conclude that it is as the very least highly likely that rich people commit as much or likely more crime than poor people.