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Poverty and Crime

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NEW COMMENTS RECEIVED: Is there a connection?

(originally published Oct 12, 2013)
Poverty and crime have a very “intimate” relationship that has been described by experts from all fields, from sociologists to economists. The UN and the World Bank both rank crime high on the list of obstacles to a country’s development. This means that governments trying to deal with poverty often also have to face the issue of crime as they try to develop their country’s economy and society.

Crime prevents businesses from thriving by generating instability and uncertainty (at micro and macroeconomic levels). This is true in markets of all sizes, national, regional, municipal and even neighborhood-al (okay the word doesn’t exist). Which is why having a business in a ghetto is rarely a good idea, is it?

The whole world also blames crime and corruption for putting at risk Africa’s chances of development nowadays. The same goes for Latin America. Crime has this capacity to generate vicious cycles causing unemployment, economic downturns and instability. Poverty and crime combined together leave people with two choices: either take part in criminal activities or try to find legal but quite limited sources of income – when there are any available at all.

Unemployment = Poverty = Crime:

Starting from the 1970s, studies in the US pointed more and more at the link between unemployment, poverty and crime. After that other connections with income level, time spent at school, quality of neighborhood and education were revealed as well. Fresh research from the UK even indicates that economic cycles may affect variations in property and violent crimes.

But most importantly, what reveals the unmistakable connection between poverty and crime is that they’re both geographically concentrated – in a strikingly consistent way. In other words, where you find poverty (minority neighborhoods) is also exactly where you find crime. Of course this doesn’t include “softer” crimes such as corruption which causes massive damage to people’s lives but in a more indirect type of violence.

In the 1990s, the “first wave” (of immigrants) has rarely shown such outburst of violence. In theory the main difference with the first generation of these immigrants’ children is that they have spent much more time at school, as research has often concluded that education tends to reduce violent crime.

On average, the more time a youth spends at school the less violent he/she will become. Schools don’t just teach you about history or maths, they teach you how to live in society. But the real problem is: are kids in poor urban areas even going to school at all? Are they learning any social skills when being systematically discriminated against? Research dating back to 1966 – with the famous Coleman Report – shows integration into society is key to better grades and successful education.

What is the right path?

Why would anyone follow the “right path” (i.e. schools) if you see that your parents did so and are still jobless or at best exploited and humiliated? Or if your identity and your place in society are constantly questioned, often by the government itself? It certainly won’t help you feel good at home.

Does poverty causes crime?

In the countries where the social discrimination factor isn’t very strong, results have shown that less education meant more criminal offenses ranging from property crime to “casual” theft and drug-related offenses (again, mostly theft). But not violence. It appears that in fact, poverty itself is more tied with violence, criminal damage and also drug use – as a catalyst for violence.

There are huge consequences of this kind of research for public policy and the positive impact of keeping children in school and reducing poverty. But for that we would need governments to actually read the research their universities produce! It shouldn’t seem like too much of a stretch to argue that having kids actually graduate from school will in itself contribute to reduce poverty, no?

The effect of poverty and inequalities on mixed populations:

Another study across 20 cities in the US analyses how local inequalities and heterogeneous populations can influence crime rates. As ever more countries face problems related to immigration, policymakers should be aware that inequality, even within one ethnic group, is a major cause of crime.

It’s also crucial to take into account how many ethnic groups live within a single neighborhood to understand local dynamics. Some are more likely to clash against others, depending on where they live. When inequalities are great, crime goes over the roof both within and between different ethnic populations. The more heterogeneous, the more jealousy, the more misunderstandings and the more crime there can be in a given place.

The spectacle of wealth

It is generally when people witness the starkest wealth differences in society that they can begin complaining about injustice. In fact, often time’s crime is even worse within communities. Perhaps because it’s easier, but maybe also because inequalities are felt all the more intensely when it happens between people living in the same group.

For example, in China some 90,000 demonstrations occur every year and what the media never mention is that the bulk of it it happens at the “border” between urban and rural areas, where poor farmers can see firsthand the massive inequalities between rich urban residents and themselves.

The Cost Benefit Analysis:

As of recent, it cost $123,400 to incarcerate a youth in a correctional facility in Ohio and only $19,800 to send the same youth to Ohio State University. Under this scenario, the state of Ohio could send every youth to college all the way up to their Master’s degree in place of a single year in a juvenile facility.

But obviously, no tax payer is going to allow their hard earned money to provide a free education to an at-risk youth regardless of the $1,000,000 (return on investment) benefit to society that would follow after the youth completes his education and transitions successfully into the workforce. It is quite strange that communities never have to vote on some levy or special funds to keep paying for prison beds.

And finally, why does a state, county, or city (school district) have to be sued or forced to finally invest into the education of its youth, but rarely ever question building another prison to house the youth we know will be coming if we continue to not provide an adequate intervention to these youth at an early enough age to all collectively reap the benefits of supporting youth to become successful adults.