Crime, Poverty, and Economic Inequality

The idea that poverty is related to a whole series of other misfortunes such as illness, despair, and crime is not a new one. The Bible contains many references to poverty, for example. God judged the kings of Israel by their treatment of the poor. Jesus seemed to favor the poor and their company over that of the rich and powerful. The Catholic Church has always held the position that the poor "deserved" alms or charity and did not treat the poor unkindly.

The idea that the poor are somehow disreputable can be traced back in European society to the birth of Calvinism and the Protestant work ethic. As pointed out by Max Weber, as Calvin's followers sought a sign from God that they were indeed among God's predestined elite, they hit upon the notion that God's blessing might be demonstrated through success in a worldly calling or profession. Thus, business success was the sign of God's blessing. On the other hand, the poor could certainly not be considered members of the elect. The idea that the poor were lazy and refused to "pick themselves up by their own bootstraps" became predominant over the older perspective that the poor were "closer to God."

Based on the premise that the poor are lazy and refuse to work hard, it is not too far of a stretch to argue that they will "choose" crime because it is the easy way out. This is similar to the argument frequently made about welfare. Many believe that if offered handouts such as welfare the lower classes will never go to work. Contemporary conservative authors such as George Gilder and Charles Murray advocate the elimination of welfare as an "incentive" for the poor to return to work. Welfare, which has its origins in Elizabethan poor laws [England], was always based on the concept that subsidies to the able-bodied must be kept lower than the lowest paid wage earners, Otherwise, those at the bottom of society would never work since they had no incentive.

Of course, there are a number of other explanations for why poverty and criminal behavior might be related other than those based on the utilitarian rational calculus approach advocated by classical free will theorists. It is possible, for example, that poverty is related to other factors such as resentment, malnutrition, or low intelligence, and that it is these factors which ultimately produce crime. If severe malnutrition (or eating lead-based paint) produces lifelong brain damage, then the long-term effect may be increased rates of crime among these at-risk populations.

However, besides these indirect models, a number of direct correlations between crime and poverty have been expounded upon. For example, if poverty and crime are related, then those societies with higher rates of poverty should have higher crime rates. Similarly, crime should rise during periods of economic depression and decrease whenever economic conditions and opportunities improve. Crime rates should also be higher in poor communities v. middle- and upper-class neighborhoods.

Attempts to statistically study these questions can be traced back to early 19th century France and the work of Guerry and Quetelet. Since the time of Guerry and Quetelet many criminologists have studied the relationship between poverty and crime. However, the findings of such studies depend significantly on how the measure of what constitutes poverty is operationalized.

Differences between (1) poverty, (2) social inequality, and (3) relative depravation have been operationalized

(1) Poverty has often been defined according to an economic standard. A "poverty line" is drawn based upon income considered necessary to meet basic living standards. While all such standards are arbitrary, the percent of the population living below the poverty line is often used as a measure of social stability.

(2) Social Inequality (def): a comparison between the material level of those who have the least in society and the material level of other groups. Sociologists, political scientists, and economists often divide the population up into 5ths and compare them on income, wealth, etc. Historical comparisons are also done to determine long-term changes in the percentages of wealth or income each fifth has access to. Overall the long-term trend was an upward one for the bottom fifths through 1980 when the trend reversed itself; some say as a result of the introduction of "trickle-down economics" and the concurrent attack on welfare.

Economic inequality models are also used for cross-cultural comparisons. Nations in which everyone is relatively poor such as many third world countries have little social inequality. Communist or socialist societies attempted to minimize economic inequality but still allowed a rather substantial gap between party leaders and officials [the new class] and the rest of the population.

(3) Relative deprivation has a psychological component to it. It is based on the perception that there is a large distinction between the quality of life available to the poor and the middle classes and the wealthy. Feelings of resentment and injustice must be present for relative depravation to be a significant factor. This phenomenon is thought to be particularly acute in large cities where the wide gap between the wealthy and the poor is readily apparent everyday. The image is one of poor people looking into the store windows of Bloomingdales or Neiman Marcus and finding themselves unable to afford to purchase anything.

Are unemployment (and other measures of poverty) and crime statistically linkable? (2) Social inequality and crime? (3) Relative deprivation and crime?

(1) Unemployment has been used as a way to measure the relationship between poverty and crime because unemployment goes up or down with periods of economic depression or prosperity respectively. The study of the relationship between unemployment and crime has produced considerable controversy. What are some of the specific findings of research in this area? Within criminology, the conclusion is that there is either no relationship between unemployment and crime or that the relationship (which correlations show is sometimes positive and sometimes negative) is ultimately insignificant. Other measures of poverty have been employed as well. Many studies of this phenomenon measure poverty by analyzing factors such as the number of poor people who live in specific neighborhoods or by operationalizing structural poverty [measures of infant mortality, low educational achievement, the number of one-parent families, etc.]

Results of these studies have also proved inconsistent and in some cases contradictory. For example, Cho studied the relationship between the number of people living below the poverty line in major cities and the commission of the FBI's seven index crimes. He found no relationship, meaning that those cities that had a higher percentage of their population living below the poverty line could not be correlated with higher crime rates. On the other hand, Ehrlich found a positive correlation when he used a different method of operationalizing poverty. Ehrlich found that as the percentage of households receiving less than half of the median family income increased or decreased in 1940, 1950, and 1960 the number of property crimes similarly responded. Since these were periods of overall decrease in the percentage of families falling below the 1/2 median income figure he found that property crimes decreased proportionally. Structural poverty and homicide [particularly acquaintance homicides] were found to be correlated by Loftin and Hill, Messner, and Smith and Parker. It appears that in bad economic times acquaintance homicides go up, possibly as a result of being unable to cope with such stressful situations and then lashing out as those closest around them.

2) Social inequality and crime:

Cross-cultural studies have similarly found higher homicide rates in nations characterized by a greater degree of economic inequality. However, the correlation did not hold true for property crimes. American studies of economic inequality have found it to be a more significant variable than poverty. These studies often use cities or historical eras for comparison purposes. Cities with higher rates of economic inequality are compared to those with less differentiation. Cities like New York and Los Angeles have much wider gaps between the rich and poor than cities in less prosperous parts of the country like Appalachia or the Deep South (Alabama, Mississippi).

(3) Relative deprivation:

It has proved extremely difficult to study the relationship between relative deprivation and crime because the former is so difficult to operationalize. It would require interview-type data collection that is not typically used in this subfield of criminology. Economic studies typically use already existent databases that can be easily manipulated with computer statistical programs such as SPSS. How does one measure feelings that economic inequalities are unjust? While very few Americans are truly wealthy, the overwhelming majority do not feel that the current system is fundamentally unjust if we gage it by programs such as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Those at the bottom appear to more frequently complain that American society in racially unjust rather than blame social class differences for their plight.

Why does there appear to be so much confusion within the contemporary study of whether crime and economics are related?

The fact that these studies are based on 2 contradictory theoretical assumptions: (1) the relation between economic conditions and crime is an inverse one (2) the relation between economic conditions and crime is a positive one As economic conditions improve crime increases because criminality is an extension of normal economic activity. For example, people with more disposable income will be able to spend that money on illegal activities like drugs, gambling, prostitution, etc. As underground organizations emerge to meet these needs they create even more crime (i.e. turf wars among drug dealing organizations). Periods of depression should see a decrease in crime. Plascowe felt he could justify this model as a long-term historical explanation because while the quality of life has risen dramatically for all in western societies, so has the crime rate. Durkheim also supported this view.