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Poverty and Crime

December 2nd, 2005

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.

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  1. Paul
    December 2nd, 2005 at 05:08 | #1

    Staying away from the moral implications (hell, heaven, karma, etc)… I do think that it’s worth noting that it’s not so much “how well off are you”, but how well off you THINK you are.

    For example, the Muslim minority group members that were rioting and causing all kinds of trouble in France over the past month or so are FAR better off than the majority of the people who’re still living in the nations that they emigrated from.

    But they *feel* particularly helpless. If you were to go to them and say “look, you’ve got housing; you’ve got food; you’ve got medical care and transportation, and if you were back in Morocco or Egypt you wouldn’t have any of that” it wouldn’t make much of a dent in how they *feel*. In France, they still feel like they’re helpless, at the mercy of others, and desperately poor.

    I’m not excusing their rioting; I’m a firm believer in keeping some order in society, and wouldn’t have any problems with (for example) the cops or even the military going in there and cleaning house to get things back in line.

    My point is that it’s far better to root out and prevent the causes for this kind of behavior PRIOR to it becoming a problem.

    In his book “The World Is Flat”, Thomas Friedman makes the point that being “middle class” is as much a state of mind as anything.

    It’s a state of mind where you think that you *can* get a better life, generally by working hard and investing in your education and your future. You *can* wind up providing a better life and future for your children.

    So what’s “poverty” and “middle class” depends, at least some of the time, on where you live and what the general standards are around you, not on objective measures that are the same around the world.

    The income, living conditions, etc of someone who is “middle class” in India would probably be seen (and THINK OF themselves) as being fairly “poor” in St Louis, and hence the guy in St Louis would be more likely to go out and do some crime.

    The unemployment rate for the rioters in France was sky high- over half, I believe, is what some of the news reports were saying. Wouldn’t it make a lot of sense to just get these guys some friggin jobs? Give them some hope, something to do with their time?

    So when it comes to poverty and crime, it’s as much about helping people find some hope as it is about “fighting crime” with lots of punishment and enforcement.

    The majority of “the poor” in westernized, industrialized cultures are definitely far better off by most basic measures than “the poor” in, say, Africa or much of Asia.

    But if they feel just as helpless, I think their internal barriers to crime go down.

    I guess what I think it comes down to is that there’s a mix of things that go into slowing our urge for crime. If, as a society, we simply don’t think something is cool- say, for civil servants to extract bribes from people just to accomplish day-to-day things- we have higher barriers to doing it. But in some nations, that’s almost an accepted way of doing business, and you budget for the bribes you’re going to have to pay to get something done.

    Likewise, we can raise people’s internal barriers to doing crime by having tougher punishment. We can also raise those barriers by helping people to believe that they are not in a desperate situation, that there is hope, that with some hard work (ie, doing something other than crime) they CAN and WILL “get ahead”.

    Plainly, the second choice- helping people feel like they’re “middle class”, not poverty-stricken- is a more humane and better way to reduce crime.

    Seattle, WA

  2. December 2nd, 2005 at 10:10 | #2

    Yea… in the nature vs nurture debate for criminal behavior I personally believe it’s more nurture but maybe a bit of nature thrown in. Also it depends on the crime though — I would guess that different types of crime land on different points on the nature vs nurture scale.

  3. Luis
    December 2nd, 2005 at 10:23 | #3

    Paul: Excellent point. It is without doubt a matter of perspective. Poverty in a country like the U.S. can be like opulence elsewhere. Relative success or relative poverty are the ends of the scale–but the scale exists nonetheless, fixed or floating as it may be.

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