One of the first clues that this Columbia-educated, liberal, Democrat, New York Jew had that there was something wrong at the heart of progressive/left-wing thought was when I read and was taught over and over that “poverty causes crime.”
I knew from the first that this was dogma, not truth.
How did I know?
First, I thought about the world that I knew best — my own. My paternal grandparents were extremely poor immigrants from Russia. They lived in a small apartment in Brooklyn where they raised four children, none of whom, of course, ever had their own room. Moreover, my grandfather was a tailor, and as such made little during normal years, and next to nothing during the Great Depression.
They were considerably poorer than the vast majority of Americans who lived below the poverty line as it existed when I was in college and graduate school. And they would have regarded most of those designated poor today as middle class, if not rich by the standards of their day.
That is worth remembering whenever an American claims that violent crime in America is caused by poverty. The poor who commit murder, rape and robbery are not only not starving, they have far more material things than the word “poverty” suggests.
According to the U.S Department of Energy’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey for 2005 (the last year I could find in detail — but it doesn’t matter what year because those who say that poverty causes crime have said it for a hundred years and continue to say it), among all poor households:
Over 99 percent have a refrigerator, television, and stove or oven. Eighty-one percent have a microwave; 75 percent have air conditioning; 67 percent have a second TV; 64 percent have a clothes washer; 38 percent have a personal computer.
As for homelessness, one-half of one percent living under the poverty line have lost their homes and live in shelters.
Seventy-five percent of the poor have a car or truck. Only 10 percent live in mobile homes or trailers, half live in detached single-family houses or townhouses, and 40 percent live in apartments. Forty-two percent of all poor households own their home, the average of which is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage and a porch or patio.
According to a recent Census Bureau report, 80.9 percent of households below the poverty level have cellphones.
When the left talks about the poor, they don’t mention these statistics because what matters to the left is inequality, not poverty.
But that is another subject. Our subject is the question: Given these statistics, why do the poor who commit violent crime do so? Clearly it is not because they lack the basic necessities of life.
Now I didn’t know any of these statistics back in college and graduate school. So how did I know that “poverty causes crime” was a lie?
I thought about my grandparents, and I could not imagine my grandfather robbing anyone, let alone raping or murdering.
Why not? Because it was unimaginable. They were people whose values rendered such behaviors all but impossible.
But there was another reason.
I was as certain as one could be that if I were poor in America, I wouldn’t rob, rape or murder.
Which leads me to wonder about people who believe that “poverty causes crime.”
When people say this, there are only two possibilities. One is that, on some level of consciousness, they think that if they were poor, they would commit violent crimes. My hunch is that this is often the case. Just as the whites who say all whites are racist are obviously speaking about themselves, those who claim that poverty leads to violence may well be speaking about themselves, too.
The other possibility is that they are not speaking about themselves, in which case they would have to admit that poor Americans who rob, rape or murder are morally inferior to themselves.
Which, of course, happens to be true. People (of any income level) who rob, rape and murder do so because they lack a functioning conscience and moral self-control. It is not material poverty that causes violent crime, but poor character. But the “poverty causes crime” advocates refuse to acknowledge this because such an acknowledgment blames criminals — rather than American society — for poor peoples’ violent crimes.
And that they won’t admit. Because once they do, they will have begun the journey toward affirming conservatism and Judeo-Christian values, both of which are rooted in the belief that values, not economics, determine moral behavior.
This column was originally posted on Townhall.com.
Poverty and Crime
Crime exists everywhere in the United States - in rural and urban areas, in the East and West, and among all types of people. This has led many government officials, especially those in urban areas, to focus largely on the reduction of crime among their respective constituencies and has led others to speculate on the factors that influence the amount of crime and how those factors can be controlled
In the US, urban crime is often perceived as a problem amid areas with high poverty levels. This may be the case; however, many other factors, such as unemployment, population density, minority population, age distribution, and locality in the US, are correlated with crime and affect poverty as well. When these factors are controlled for, how much does poverty affect crime? Knowing more accurately how poverty affects crime can help us know if focusing on the reduction of poverty can aid in crime reduction or if money and effort should go to other areas.
Poverty's effects on crime can be explained through a variety of reasons. There is a higher rate of mental illness in the poor than in the rich (Brill 40). Poverty can lead to high levels of stress that in turn may lead individuals to commit theft, robbery, or other violent acts. Moreover, poverty may lead to an actual or perceived inferior education, which would cause youth to count on less access to quality schools, jobs, and role models, decreasing the opportunity costs of crime and increasing the probability of youth spending time on the street associating with gangs, etc (Ludwig 1).
Crime offers a way in which impoverished people can obtain material goods that they cannot attain through legitimate means. Often threat or force can help them acquire even more goods, this induces them to commit violent acts such as robbery, which is the second most common violent crime. For many impoverished people, the prize that crime yields may outweigh the risk of being caught, especially given that their opportunity cost is lower than that of a wealthier person. Thus, poverty should increase crime rates.
However, many other factors influence crime and are correlated with poverty as well. Higher unemployment would certainly increase poverty and at the same time lead to more crime due to depression associated with being unemployed. Personal income per capita, which is inversely correlated with the poverty level, still may increase crime since greater wealth means greater benefits to thieves and robbers. Furthermore, because of social class gaps, personal income per capita rates may not affect poverty to a great extent (the income may be concentrated in a small percentage of the population). It might even accentuate the difference between the upper and lower classes, thereby inducing more crime.
Variations in the composition of population can affect crime in different ways. First, adolescents are often responsible for crimes committed. "The poor delinquent child... is more apt to be expelled from school or have a police record than a well-to-do delinquent..." (Brill 40). A higher percentage of inhabitants under the age of twenty-five may lead to higher crime rates. On the other hand, the elderly, because of their possessions and vulnerability, are believed to be the most frequent victims of crime.
The degree of minority population in an area is also correlated with poverty due to the disproportional amount of minorities living in impoverished urban areas. In addition, racism towards minorities can lead to lower wages and fewer jobs, resulting in higher poverty rates. In 1995, all Metropolitan Areas with unemployment rates over 12% also had a population composed of at least 30% minorities.
Geographic regions within the US have different characteristics and therefore lead to differing levels of both crime and poverty. The 1999 UCR report, for example, indicates that law enforcement personnel varied between 2.5 and 4.3 persons per 1000 population among differing regions of the US. Climate, associated with geographical location, is also believed to affect crime - more temperate climates being positively correlated with crime. Cultural factors such as recreational activities, religious characteristics, and family cohesiveness are all associated with geographic regions of the US and influence crime.
Because of the manner in which population density influences living conditions (ie: houses vs. apartment complexes), it is also likely to be correlated with both poverty and crime. Studies have found that "more densely populated neighborhoods tend to be poorer, have higher percentages of persons in the age range of 12 to 20, have larger concentrations of single-parent households, and larger nonwhite populations" (Short 52).
This study first examines how poverty affects crime in the simple regression model. Then, controlling for the aforementioned factors - race, unemployment, personal income, population density, geographic location, and age distribution - it again examines the relationship between crime and poverty and how this relationship is influenced when these factors are held constant.
All the data used in this study come from the 1997-1998 State and Metropolitan Area Data Book from the Bureau of the Census. The data covers 322 Metropolitan Areas, including 245 MSA's, 17 CMSA's, 15 PMSA's, and 12 NEMSA's (which are essentially MA's of different sizes and characteristics). Each MA contains a population of at least 100,000 inhabitants of which fifty percent or more live in urban areas. Seventeen of the 322 MA's have been eliminated due to a deficiency in the data.
Since this study is based on crime in urban areas, these data provide an excellent resource for determining the causes of crime. Data from larger areas (such as states) would be too general and too many conflicting characteristics within the area would be incorporated into the data. The Metropolitan Areas provide a sample composed of similar makeup, but with sufficient variation to provide a good model. Each area has different poverty levels, population density, etc.
List and Description of variables
total number of the seven index crimes reported to police per 100,000 inhabitants
total number of the four violent crimes reported to police per 100,000 inhabitants
thousands of inhabitants per square mile
Pop. Under 25
percentage of population under 25 years old
Pop. Over 65
percentage of population over 65 years old
percentage of population below the poverty level
percentage of population unemployed
percentage of black population
percentage of Asian and Pacific Islander population
percentage of Hispanic population; may be of any race
PI per Capita
personal income per capita measured in thousands of US (1995) dollars
Dummy Variables - Regions of the US
New England: ME, NH, VT, MA, RI, CT
Middle Atlantic: NY, NJ, PA
South Atlantic: DE, MD, DC, VA, WV, NC, SC, GA, FL
East North Central: OH, IN, IL, MI, WI
West North Central: MN, IA, MO, ND, SD, NE, KS
East South Central: KY, TN, AL, MS
West South Central: AR, LA, OK, TX
Pacific: WA, OR, CA, AK, HI
Mountain: MT, ID, WY, CO, NM, AZ, UT, NV
The population data from the Data Book are based on the assumption that "population change can be represented by administrative data in a statistical model." The Bureau of the Census conducts a nationwide census every ten years. It then uses data from documents that somehow reflect the change in the population - birth and death certificates for example - to estimate how the population is changing and what its current level is. This paper includes independent variables based on population density, race/ethnic group, and age which are taken from this data (State and Metropolitan Area Data Book A-1).
The Data Book obtains crime data from the Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which consists of data voluntarily submitted to either the FBI or state UCR Programs by law enforcement agencies across the United States. The two dependent variables in this study are based on this data. "Total Crime" represents the seven index crimes: murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft. These are known as "index crimes" because of their seriousness, frequency of occurrence, and likelihood of being reported to police. "Violent Crime" represents the four violent crimes as defined by the UCR program: murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The crime data are reported as crime rates - the number of crimes committed per 100,000 inhabitants. Although Violent Crime is incorporated into Total Crime, it is used in this study to determine if poverty has effects specific to violent crimes; it also provides a second data set to observe. (A-9)
Unemployment data are based on the Current Population Survey, which are annual averages of monthly figures. The unemployed "are all civilians who did not work during the survey week, who were available for work during the survey week (except for temporary illness), and who made specific efforts to find a job in the prior 4 weeks. Persons waiting to be recalled to a job from which they had been laid off also are counted as unemployed" (A-11).
Personal Income per Capita figures, as found in the Data Book, were taken from the Survey of Current Business conducted by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis. They consist of the personal income received by, or on behalf of, all members of the area less personal contributions for social insurance. That total is then divided by the resident population. The figures provide a picture of the overall wealth of the area.
Poverty data is based on the Current Population Survey as well. "Families and persons were classified as below poverty level if their total family income or unrelated individual income was less than the poverty threshold specified for the applicable family size, age of householder, and number of related children under 18 present" (A-12).
PI per Capita
The first analysis will examine two simple regressions of total crime and violent crime on poverty. These reflect the affect that poverty has on crime before controlling for other variables.
Total Crime = β0 + β1(poverty) + є
R-square = 0.1421, R-square Adjusted = 0.1392
Standard Error of the Estimate-Sigma = 1659.5
Violent Crime = α0 + α1(poverty) + є
R-square = 0.1439, R-square Adjusted = 0.1411
Standard Error of the Estimate-Sigma = 302.83
In both regressions, the estimated coefficient of poverty is very significant. These regressions show that a one percent increase in the population below poverty level will lead to an increase of about 135 total crimes and about 25 violent crimes.
Now the regressions of total and violent crime will be expanded to include all of the previously mentioned variables. The models have been reported with heteroskedasticity-robust standard errors. The geographic region that has been left out is the South Atlantic. In addition, Caucasians are not included in the race/ethnic group list.
R-square = 0.4363, R-square Adjusted =� 0.4029
R-square = 0.4727, R-square Adjusted = 0.4414
Standard Error of the Estimate-Sigma = 1382.2
Standard Error of the Estimate-Sigma = 244.21
PI per Capita*
PI per Capita*