Home > Corrections, Criminal Justice, Culture, Government, Judiciary, Legislation, Police, Politics > Friends… And the Cause of Crime? (Part 2)

Friends… And the Cause of Crime? (Part 2)

Does poverty cause crime?

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, and she recently wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal that garnered quite a range of responses. Tom, over at Responsibility, was kind enough to send me a link. I think Mac Donald’s title pretty much covers the premise of her article: A Crime Theory Demolished: If poverty is the root cause of lawlessness, why did crime rates fall when joblessness increased? (WSJ, 20100104). This actually raises the specter of crime theories – there are a number of them. They are worth mentioning simply because the “root causes” notion of poverty is so well embedded in popular belief (even amongst law enforcement practitioners) that other theories are simply not a part of the conversation.

Perhaps the only theory (apart from “I’m poor, that’s why I…”) that is also a part of the vernacular is the so-called Classical Theory. I say “so-called” because criminal justice text-book authors have chosen that label. Essentially, this theory boils down to free-will, a choice. Though much is made of the “age” of this theory, there are plenty of modern day advocates (e.g. Stafford & Warr, Patternoster, Cornish & Clarke, and a few others) who have provided a new label: Rational Choice or Deterrence Theories. This newer version emphasizes the notion of a “costs v. benefits” analysis, but it still is heavy on the free-will concept. Those are just two theories that are a part of popular dialogue; however, there are a host of others that are not a part of our community conversation:

  1. Positivist – crime is caused or determined by biological, psychological, sociological factors. Claims to use science to determine the factors associated with crime.
  2. Trait Theory – this theory believes that criminals differ from non-criminals on a number of biological and psychological traits, and in conjunction with the environment… well, cause crime.
  3. Anomie / Social Disorganization Theory – as communities break down, informal social controls fail to control crime and criminal cultures emerge.
  4. Differential Association, General Strain, Strain, Control, Control/Balance, Feminist, Postmodernist, Chaos Theory…. You get the idea – lots. Most have some basis for deserving a portion of the “market share” he he he.

I’m a fan of eclecticism, because sometimes, one explanation just isn’t enough. Of course, people from both the right and the left say moderates are simply unable to get the fence post… So, let me remove the fence post from my posterior and say I think Mac Donald is right. As theories of crime go, I believe the notion that “the root cause of crime lies in the income inequality and social injustice” (WSJ, 20100104) has been thoroughly discredited. This is especially true if we remember the difference between causation and correlation. As comments and emails have made plain in response to the last post on this subject, while many readers doubt poverty is the “cause” of crime, they do believe it plays a part in the scheme of things criminal.

Thanks largely to Johnson’s “Great Society” brain trust, this particular brand of “root cause” theory was widely accepted and turned into public policy. These ideas did enough damage that some strange conclusions were drawn, as Mac Donald points out:

If crime was a rational response to income inequality, the thinking went, government can best fight it through social services and wealth redistribution, not through arrests and incarceration. Even law enforcement officials came to embrace the root causes theory, which let them off the hook for rising lawlessness. Through the late 1980s, the FBI’s annual national crime report included the disclaimer that “criminal homicide is largely a societal problem which is beyond the control of the police.” Policing, it was understood, can only respond to crime after the fact; preventing it is the domain of government welfare programs (WSJ, 20100104). (Added emphasis is emphatically mine.)

Despite what many on the left continue to claim, data-driven policing continues to be effective in combating crime. Mac Donald’s article is worth the read for that alone, because she amply demonstrates the effectiveness of the “Compstat” mentality and makes it plain that:

mentality is the opposite of root causes excuse-making; it holds that policing can and must control crime for the sake of urban economic viability. More and more police chiefs have adopted the Compstat philosophy of crime-fighting and the information-based policing techniques that it spawned. Their success in lowering crime shows that the government can control antisocial behavior and provide public safety through enforcing the rule of law. Moreover, the state has the moral right and obligation to do so, regardless of economic conditions or income inequality (WSJ, 20100104).

She follows this up with a warning, and it is prudent – crime rates could still be affected by public safety funding cuts driven by the recession.

With all that being said, I think it’s worth noting that Mac Donald still runs a little loose with her observations. Even if national crime statistics are better than ever, it is also true that there is a substantial positive correlation between poverty stricken areas and crime rates. The bottom line here is that crime tends to be heavier in low income areas than in more upscale neighborhoods. Using a national statistic to “demolish” a local phenomenon isn’t quite true to the use of those statistics – and Mac Donald should know better than to be that misleading.

I suppose the final critique here is that unemployment, the basis for Mac Donald’s tag line in the title, is NOT poverty. Consider the number of households with more than one income, the number of unemployment claims being filed, and the few who are sustaining themselves on odd jobs and savings – with those considerations in mind, equating unemployment with poverty at this point approaches being disingenuous.

Just in case you weren’t sure, I do believe crime is a choice. Having grown up in what passes for poverty here in the United States, I don’t believe it causes crime… though it does limit one’s choices. On the other hand, perhaps my grandmother was right (being a voracious reader, I’m sure she was quoting someone): “We’re not poor, we’re broke. Huge difference. Being broke we can change, being poor is a state of mind.”

P.S.     Tune in next time when we show how engineering students living in Europe, waiting on their next check from home, were somehow living in squalor and utter wretchedness, and decide to fly a few planes into some buildings because they were… poor?

Cheers all!

  1. Jeff
    January 11th, 2010 at 20:16 | #1

    Allow me to instantly transform into an uncaring bigot… while I only have a pathetic two and a half years of dealing with juvenile offenders under my belt, I can say without a doubt that, overwhelmingly, the offenders are poor. Now I have a special case: Fairfax county is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. So why are there so many poor offenders?

    When I say poor, I mean they are at the lower end of the economic scale, not destitute. Allow me to run through a few more commonalities. They live in trailer parks, apartment complexes, or housing projects. They lack education and, in fact, view education as a sign of weakness. They hold the belief that their parents have been oppressed in some way, shape, or form. They are minority (more Latino than Black in Fairfax). About three-fourths of them are in, “chill with,” or glorify gangs.

    The belief your people have been oppressed, whether it was truly believed or merely used as an excuse for mediocrity, contributes to a sense of debt. Someone owes you something. You don’t owe, THEY owe. And who cares about them, because they wronged you with oppression in the first place. And when you took back what they owed you, they did you another wrong by arresting you. Can’t they see you’re just getting back what’s yours?

    Where does this belief that you’ve been oppressed get its momentum? I have my opinions on this. I’m sure you’ll find yours.

    I apologize if this offends, but these themes run at very high percentages. The odd-man-out is the white kid who either huffed or did meth. Everyone’s got a very different story, but it’s akin to cooking different recipes from the same list of ingredients. It’s still all just bologna.

    I’ll probably regret this tomorrow morning… back to my schoolwork.

  2. January 12th, 2010 at 09:28 | #2

    I know nothing, repeat, nothing about crime theory. I have, however, a sneaking suspicion that what I am about to write will be contrary to most crime theory and will likely offend many.

    A Professor of mine, many years ago had a theory that there was more crime in America because we were a society made up of risk takers, outliers, and misfits. Those who ventured across oceans to come to America came because they were forced (slaves), deported, couldn’t do what they chose to do (practice an unacceptable religion, etc.), or their situation was such that they felt it was worth the risk to try something different, way different. He made the assumption that a very large part of our Society was made up of those who lacked a respect for ruling authority and law. Hence we had more people willing to risk going against that law and the society that supported the law. I tend to believe he is onto something.

    I also believe that the breakdown of society is a big factor in crime. Most societies are constructed to maintain a certain order. Much of this is done through peer pressure. But, peer pressure will affect crime in two way, in my opinion. One, when there is sufficient peer pressure as in small towns where everyone knows one another, it is more difficult to break the societal norms (laws). Also, in big cities, there is more anonymity and fewer peers to apply the pressure to adhere to societal norms. Two, is the situation when there is peer pressure to break down societal norms (break laws) as occurs in gangs. As Jeff, above, comments, this can be a very big cause in antisocial behavior, law breaking.

    I, too, believe Crime is a choice, but, pending the environment (rural, urban, gang, no gang) can be a simple case of risk taking (or avoidance of gang violence) or a more complex case of weighing risks and rewards.

    To put it in fewer words: Crime seems to me to be as complex as any other human emotion, action, or desire. That is why it deserves study. That, and the fact that, by and large, we want our neighbors to act as we do and want to understand how to keep them from acting out against societal norms.

    .-= tom Vail´s last blog ..National Referendum on Health Care? =-.

  3. Jeff
    January 12th, 2010 at 22:24 | #3

    @tom Vail
    For someone who claims to “know nothing, repeat, nothing about crime theory,” you have some very interesting ideas. By interesting I mean I’m going to have to think about them for a while. I’m not sure if it’s because there are truths there I don’t want to admit to or what, but the theory you put forth makes me a little uncomfortable. Very thought-provoking post, Tom.

  4. Mr. Grim
    January 14th, 2010 at 11:24 | #4

    Okay, I wasn’t going to comment on this one mainly because the topic is really out of my area of knowledge. But, as I hope will become clear as I write, even though I really probably shouldn’t comment, I want to.

    As with most any topic I may comment on, it is not based on books, papers, statistics or common paradigms. It is instead an opinion formed purely on my observations of the society (a.k.a the people) I am forced to share this world with.

    I would like to back things away from those who actually broke rules of sufficient stature to deserve punishment through our criminal justice system for a minute. Instead, I would like to point my pudgy finger at what I term “the rule-breakers”.

    “Who are the rule-breakers,” you may ask?

    Why, it is all of us. You, me, Hell just about anyone you may know qualifies as a “rule-breaker”.

    Little things, Like parking in a fire zone whle you jump out to use the ATM. You know you’re not supposed to, but you do it anyway. Or driving 70 MPH on a 65 MPH zone. Bah, it’s a stupid rule anyway. Or throwing that candy wrapper in a nearby bush instead of shoving it in your pocket until you can find a garbage can. Meh, it’s paper, sort of, it’ll biodegrade.

    Stupid little rules.

    But rules nonetheless.

    We know they exist. We know we should probably follow them. But we don’t. We choose not to.


    Well, a certain friend of mine once said something to the nature of, “If I think a rule or law is stupid or unnecessary, I won’t follow it.” Please note that the quotes are to indicate dialogue and are not meant to indicate the statement is verbatim.

    If a rule or law is indeed stupid or unnecessary, should we not, as a group, use our democratic process to change or repeal the rule or law? Is that not what our founders had in mind when they formed this nation?

    I see others that break rules that rely completely on the notion of, “Well, everyone else is doing it, why can’t I?” Like my grandma use to ask me when I was a wee whelp, “If everyone else was eating dog shit, would you grab a spoon?” God, I miss my grandma sometimes!

    Still others appear to just be so inconsiderate that they put themselves above everyone else and consequently, the rules as well. The same friend I mentioned above can attest to that. Something about a guy cutting in line, a fist fight and both combatants being removed from the establishment without being able to conclude the business they were there for to begin with.

    In the end, I do personally believe that whether a hardened criminal or a simple “rule-breaker” it is indeed all about choice. You know the possible consequences of your actions, and weigh the risk versus the supposed gain. Then a choice is made and action is taken.

    So, yes, crime is a choice by those that commit it. By I do believ Mr. Vail’s college professor at least clipped the head of the nail when he broght up the risk-taker factor. This entire nation was built upon taking risks. It is in our blood to do so. Hell, our greatest examples of the American Way were all huge risk takers. We view those that take big risks (and succeed) as heroes and we tend to view those that refuse to take risks as cowards.

    But all in all, I believe it is all about personal choice.

    People commit crimes because, in the end, they wanted to.

  5. January 15th, 2010 at 09:54 | #5

    @Jeff Though I realize it’s fashionable to label people like you racist, especially when you observe what seems to be a statistical disparity in the make up of your inmate/offender/resident population, I think it’s done because it’s so much FUN to point a finger and scream “racist!”

    Kidding aside, this is an old pet peeve, but misusing statistical information is unfortunately a commonplace. There is an excellent article in Next American City entitled “Crime’s Bottom Line.” Though from the left, it seems to have some reasonable attempts at demonstrating that while poverty may not CAUSE crime, it is a very important CORRELATE of crime. Sometimes the author’s answers are unsatisfying, but he at least attempts an answer. The author also identifies Fairfax County as one of the wealthiest counties in the nation – with a benefit:

    D.C. suburbs, such as Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County and Fairfax County, ranked among the nation’s wealthiest counties in 2004, while the District’s poverty rate, roughly one-fifth of the population, remained stagnant. In February, D.C. posted an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent, while in Fairfax County it was a mere 4.7 percent.

    While this does not explain the cause of crime, I do believe it helps provide avenues for explaining Fairfax County’s lower crime rates in terms of index crime. A murder a year for each of 2006-8, while D.C. had 169, 181, and 186. Fairfax County has a little over a million people, and D.C. doesn’t quite make it to 600,000. The comparisons are just as startling for the other index crimes.

    Still, Tom’s comments provide more in the way of foundational work to build answers on than does Ben Adler @ New American City. Moreover, your comments on beliefs about oppression and entitlement play a factor in Tom’s explanation as well. Mr. Grim’s comments on his grandmother’s aphorism, like mine, go at least part of the way toward explaining some of the beliefs and consequent actions people take. Recent immigrant stock, old immigrant stock, and slave stock will most certainly imbibe different cognitive structures from their families and environments.

    By the way, I don’t find it offensive. I find it extraordinarily useful to help refine my thinking on these subjects. I tend to believe that a dispersed network of ideas will likely produce better results than single source ideas!

    Thanks for the comments,

  6. January 15th, 2010 at 17:27 | #6

    @Mr. Grim , @tom Vail , and @Jeff See Friends… on Crime (Part 3) …it took a bit to follow through on all the good ideas.

%d bloggers like this: