Poverty and Crime

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If you’re like me, you have been instructed, from your youth on up, that crime is caused by “conditions” — meaning economic conditions, meaning poverty. You’ve also been told that crime can be reduced, or even eliminated, by the abolition of poverty — which, of course, can come only by means of massive government action.

These were some of the ruling theses of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which continues in its thousand institutional forms unto this day, more than four decades after he declared it.

The theses were always vulnerable, on their face. What do you mean by “crime”? Do you mean a Hollywood producer’s rape of a female staffer, who is too afraid to report the crime? Do you mean a party in West LA, where rich people snort a barrel of coke, and are never caught? Or do you mean a guy who’s pushing weed in Fresno, or a girl who’s arrested for prostitution on the streets of Grand Rapids? Do you mean crime that’s successfully prosecuted, or do you include crime that never gets recorded?

And the thesis has long been vulnerable to the evidence. Johnson’s War on Poverty immediately preceded an enormous wave of crime. The hundreds of billions of dollars that American communities spend on welfare has not demonstrably reduced the incidence of crime, however you want to define that term. Most serious analysts believe those dollars have increased it, by fostering a culture in which principles of individual responsibility are no longer considered necessary.

But wait a minute: what is “poverty,” anyhow? What’s the standard? What’s the definition? Was “poverty” the welfareless condition of virtually all Americans in the 1920s? If so, was it the lack of government welfare that induced millions of people to violate the Prohibition laws, and some thousands of them to kill and maim their fellow-citizens in pursuit of profits from that violation? In a larger sense: isn’t poverty relative? The poor of the 1950s were much richer in absolute terms than the poor of the 1920s, yet fewer people were sent to prison in the 1950s. The poor of the 1980s and 1990s were richer still; yet a much larger proportion of the populace went up the river in the 1980s and 1990s than in the 1950s.

Now comes the following announcement from a website in my town (voiceofsandiego.org), about the FBI’s new report on crime in America during 2010, the year of a great depression, especially here in far southern California:

“In San Diego, the number of violent crimes — murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — dropped 5.3% from the previous year and the number of property crimes — burglary, theft and vehicle theft — dropped 4.6%. (Nationwide, violent crime dropped 5.5% and property crimes were down 2.8%.)”

The author adds a reference to the prevailing wisdom:

“Nationwide crime declines in recent years have continued to puzzle criminologists, who expected worsening economic conditions to lead to more crime.”

Experts might be puzzled, but no one with any sense, or historical perspective, would suffer their fate. Officially recorded crime went down during the 1930s — the time of the Great Depression. Why shouldn’t it go down in 2010?

We can’t quantify the sources of crime, but we should know this: crime, and the definition of crime, has less to do with “economic conditions” than with community mores, individual opportunities, and (in a reverse sense) government action. When the government declares alcohol or drugs to be illegal, “crime” automatically results. But when individuals and communities hunker down in order to get through a period of relative poverty, crime may well diminish. Only God knows the exact linkages, but it’s not puzzling that people whose families are making less money than before may respond by doing something legitimately and dependably profitable rather than something criminal.

Indeed, as William Blake commented two centuries ago, the idea that poverty causes crime is a slander on poor people. It ought to be resisted by every person of generous mind, and especially by all of us — and there are many, many of us — who have struggled to come out on the other side of bad “economic conditions.”

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