Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Does Poverty Cause Crime?

No, not in any meaningful sense.

The answer is qualified because, under laboratory conditions, where all other factors are isolated, there might, in some cases, be an association between poverty and crime. And even then, and association between two variables doesn't imply that one caused the other.

In any case, there are three things worth noting:

1. There is no correlation between crime and poverty associated with time.

If poverty caused crime, then crime would have been out of control during the Great Depression. In fact, if there was a direct relationship between the two, then the ever-increasing affluence of the United States should have caused a corresponding drop in crime over the last few decades. But crime grew very rapidly in the 1960s, and in fact corresponded with the billions of dollars spent by the "Great Society" to end poverty. It can almost make one think that that there was a correlation between the growth of welfare payments and the increases in crime.

2. There is no correlation between crime and poverty associated with place.

Chinatowns are among the poorest areas in the United States, but have little crime. Similarly, rural areas are poorer than urban areas, but have less crime. And West Virginia is one of the poorest, but also has relatively little crime.

3. Crime is cultural

Income levels are useless for predicting crime, but cultural patterns (assisted by biology) are excellent for predicting crime. As a proxy for culture, variables such as "ethnic group" or "race", gender, and age will yield fairly reliable results; a population comprised of people who are black, male, and young will generate more crime than a population who is white, female, and old, while controlling for affluence. (For that matter, black-male-young will generate more crime than black-female-young, white-male-young, or any other group where even one of the three black-male-young variables are changed.)

After the bulk of crime is explained by cultural patterns, there is probably a residual explanation that correlates with wealth. That is, among any cultural group, crime declines as wealth goes up. That might mean that "poverty" causes crime, or it might mean that criminals tend to be the sort of people who do not get rich, or it might mean that there is a third variable that makes some populations both poor and criminal. For example, it might be that while being poor might not have much influence on making criminals, being poor in the presence of rich people might "produce" criminals.

That is called "envy". And although envy is part of everyone's character, the decision to act on it is nevertheless an individual choice. No one needs to be a criminal.

8 comments:

Lexcen said...

You've barely scratched the surface.White collar crime, blue collar crime, crimes of passion and corporate crime.Then there's political crimes against human rights and individual freedoms.

Brevoort said...

Fair enough...let's call it "street crime" like holding up liquor stores, muggings, etc.

Lexcen said...

I forgot to mention sex crime. Just for the record.

Johnm said...

It's interesting that the "poverty causes crime" argument has morphed into "relative poverty causes crime". Clearly the initial argument has been won.

Anonymous said...

"the correlation between race and domestic violence is substantially reduced or disappears altogether when whites are compared to African Americans in similar ecological contexts"

http://caliber.ucpress.net/doi/abs/10.1525/sp.2004.51.3.326

There's one type of crime that appears to be independant of race.

JackR said...

"The strong correlation between poverty and violent crime means that those with the fewest resources are the most vulnerable. In some cases, the parents of homicide victims are very young. An enormous amount of preventive counseling is needed to keep them from exacting retribution while they struggle to get daycare, buy food, and arrange for the burial of a loved one."

http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc/publications/bulletins/gun_7_2001/gun3_2_01.html

Department of Justice - Office of Justice Programs, seems to think there is a correlation betwwen proverty and crime.

Stating that chinatowns have low crime rate does not answer the question of whether or not it is the poorest inhabitants of the area who commit the crime there.

Similary, rural areas have less crime than urban areas whilst beinging poorer. But which members of the poor rural community commit the crime there? The mildy poor, or the really poverty stricten.

Criminals are the only thing that causes crime, but what are the key factors that drive people to criminal acts? Surely poverty relative to your neighbours (not compared to folk in a distant city) is a major force.

faQster said...

Since Chinatowns have little crime, I would think that the question of which of Chinatownss' inhabitants are criminals is rather moot.

No doubt, the less affluent commit more crimes than the more-affluent. (And in the western world, we are all affluent to some degree.) But that does not demonstrate cause-and-effect. Perhaps the sort of person who is driven to violence does not have the discipline to hold a job where he can increase his wealth.

Of course, it's a stretch to say that anyone is "driven" to crime. The rapist can always just say "no" -- as they generally do when deciding whether to rape a female police officer.

Income Insurance said...

Yes, poverty causes crime. That is why government agencies should dig deep into the issue to resolve the root that causes poverty.