Poverty and Crime:
Breaking the Vicious Cycle

Published Apr 2011 - Updated Apr 2013

Inequalities, poverty and crime - Photo courtesy of Muralidaran on flick

The unmistakable connection

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).

That's why having a business in a ghetto is rarely a good idea.

The vicious cycle of poverty and crime

International organisations also blame crime – including 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 and 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 is also 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.

Education, poverty and crime

poverty is a corporate government policy - photo courtesy of xiao zhuli

What kind of crime?

During the hard times that have hit Europe from 1975 to 1995, scholars noticed that unemployment among the uneducated youth spurred a massive tendency for theft and violence. In particular in France, the crime rate soared like never before. Ever watched the movie "La Haine" back from 1995? It was translated “Hatred” and “Hate” in the UK & US and has really become the classic of a generation.

Although the depicted segregation against immigrants in France roots back a few decades before 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 you spend at school the less violent you 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.

Why follow 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 at home.

This is a problem many governments are facing all over the world and they tend to react to demonstrations quite aggressively as they try to please certain groups of voters. By doing so they also forget that the very people they repress are also voters, and that trying to divide a nation will only bring more instability and more violence.

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?

Inequalities: income and unemployment

Poverty is not a crime - photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk

The effect of inequalities & 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 key? Re-building the social fabric

Because of heterogeneity, there’s a lot less communication (if any) between the residents which means that public policy should focus on structures of social integration and facilitating communication in order to help build a new social fabric, or at least a sense of neighborhood.

In this case more than ever, the local (neighborhoods) and the global (immigrants) both matter just as much and need to be integrated. Income inequalities generate pockets of poverty and crime concentrated in the same ghettos, not only between but also within ethnic groups.

The spectacle of wealth

It’s only when people witness the starkest wealth differences that they can start complaining about injustice. In fact, often times 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 first hand the massive inequalities between rich urban residents and themselves.

Property crimes vs. violent crimes

In a broader, social sense, inequalities generate more aggressive behaviour as a reaction to social bias and discrimination, which results in an increase in violent crimes. And while it’s been well-established that where poverty and police activity are strongly connected to property crime, they hardly have any impact on violence.

This is one (very) important lesson for governments: property crimes are correlated to hard times (i.e. poverty) but violent crimes are tied to the lack of social cohesion or harmony and can lead to riots and social unrest.

Unemployment means more property crimes

In the end, it’s no big surprise that unemployment is also connected with crime as it's an important factor of inequalities. It’s only recently that studies have revealed that unemployment causes not only higher property crimes but violent ones too.

Besides, joblessness has a deeper impact on the community because it destroys entire communities and whatever social cohesion that kept people living together in peace. This is a process that is all the more difficult to reverse. Eventually, it leaves a community completely helpless towards the growing cycle of poverty and crime.

Broken social contract

In Europe unemployment and income inequality have become the markers of social cohesion, or lack thereof. At very high levels, they indicate a fracture of the "social contract" . With an ever growing number of people who feel that the government has broken the social contract for many reasons (discrimination, lack of meritocracy). Hence they feel they can legitimately refuse to obey the rules of a society that will eventually abandon them to poverty and rather turn to crime out of frustration.

Thus the safety of private property and social order are seriously undermined and it’s even worse with the uneducated youth that has never perceived any kind of social contract at all since it has never benefited from public services (schools, social assistance) that ensure a certain equality of chances.

The "racial divide": segregation, poverty and crime

Incarcerated Americans: the impact of

“They acknowledged something that tough-on-crime rhetoric has too long ignored: almost everyone in prison will eventually return to society.”
(The Economist)

The failure of mass-incarceration

The flailing American policy of mass-incarceration coupled with long sentences has for two decades been proved quite a failed strategy for the war on crime over the long run. At the same time it also helped the US achieve the highest incarceration rate in the world throughout the 1990s. Kudos.

Recently tons of reports are revealing that even traditionally tough-on-crime republican states and their senators are turning their backs on this policy because of the unbearable cost on the public finances. So much money - quite a few billions per year and per state - that could go instead to infrastructures, education, healthcare and so on.

"Black crime" and poverty

However the whole problem here remains that of discrimination. Logically if an overwhelming majority of the poor in the US are black and poverty causes crime… then a lot of the criminals are black. Obviously, it’s the same in any country (the criminals also being the poor, that is).

And the association with an ethnic group is all the worse when the word "criminal" implies a moral value ("he's a bad person") while it should in fact be more of a social issue. In the end the mass-incarceration strategy has largely targeted the black population of the US and that in itself is a huge issue.

Discrimination, poverty and crime

It creates a peculiar sense of segregation by the system and a social bias against an entire ethnic group. What's even worse is that the habit of long-term prison sentences in the US has completely wiped out any chance of ever getting a job again for most of these people. So what do you do when you can’t get a job at all, hum?

Unemployment… leads to poverty and crime, here again. And the vicious cycle gets more vicious, sending older generations back to jail for another 20 years. Apparently some states in the US even start releasing prisoners on parole without real motive but to cut spending. And you know what? Over the long run it costs less to offer them an education for 10 years than to keep them in jail for life. The maths is in fact quite simple.

Tough on crime = more crime

A recent book by Todd Clear (Imprisoning Communities, Oxford University Press 2007) offers new evidence that over the years the tough-on-crime stance has actually contributed to fuel crime and second offenses. So in the long run the effect of imprisonment on crime is not that great. After all, what do you expect people to learn in prison? It’s certainly not by stuffing them into overcrowded cell blocks that criminals will learn about social values or the virtues of universal love.

So, why does Todd Clear accuse mass-incarceration of being “criminogenic”? Simply because its bias destroys entire communities and makes jail become a normal, inevitable step in people’s lives. Young blacks witness their fathers, brothers and uncles inevitably spend years in jail and think it's just the way life is for them.

On top of that, when you lock parents up for years (including for minor offenses), it deprives their children of basic life education. Eventually they miss on any form of education whatsoever as they tend to drop out of school quite early on. If no parent is around, who's gonna tell them to go to class every morning?

Rebuilding communities and confidence in institutions

At this point unemployment is already widespread, except this time poverty and crime are marked by violence because these kids lack sense of the most basic social norms and behaviors. One solution for Clear is to rebuild communities with community policing strategies so that justice works with the people rather than against them, and thus hoping that confidence in the system can gradually be brought back in.

Lead poisoning: aggravating poverty and crime?

urban poverty & segregation - photo courtesy of iamannamaldita

Lead & crime: clinical evidence

The relationship between lead poisoning and violence has long been established by medical studies and was then followed by social scientific ones to study the possibility of large-scale lead poisoning in the air, soil, water and food.

Most people involved in these studies are well aware this is a real problem, especially a few decades ago when lead-based paint and leaded gasoline were so common (forbidden since the 1970s in the US).

And there was indeed a direct impact on property and violent crime - revealed across thousands of cities - and the impact has been so much worse in poorer areas.

Impoverished communities more exposed to lead poisoning

The reason is that impoverished areas have had the least resources, be it in terms of public education on the risks of lead-based material or in financial means and resources to treat and prevent the poisoning epidemic .

Less money to replace the hazardous infrastructure such as old water pipes and wall paint, including protection from toxic dust during any renovation and basic health recommendations. Most of all, poor areas are often located nearby industrial ones, which are the best ones to find sky high lead levels in the air, soil and water. Yummy.

Breaking the cycle of poverty and crime

Unemployment and education

Public policies that aim to restructure the labor market in order to tackle structural unemployment have a clear-cut (positive) effect on income levels and economic growth. Decreasing unemployment remains central to breaking the cycle of poverty and crime and restoring some social harmony.

Other strategies such as education in prison, or even college-in-prison providing with real diplomas, have been extremely efficient at helping integrate ex-convicts in society and reducing recidivism. The biggest barrier to this type of initiative remains the dilemma of offering free education to criminals while many law-abiding citizens have a hard time paying for one. At least, providing education - or treatment for drug addicts - proves insanely cheaper than pure and simple long-term incarceration.

Housing for all

Other policies should focus on low-income housing as an opportunity to raise households' income and sense of social fairness. That is as long as the government doesn't create entire ghettos out of such social housing in a bid to separate the poor from the rest of the population. Maintaining quality social services and a well-functioning social ladder is key to building a just society in which every citizen if offered a chance to develop his own potential.

Building an efficient welfare system

Finally, higher levels of welfare assistance are strongly associated with crime reduction. Now that may seem controversial to some, but... it's not. Simply put, countries that integrate social welfare like the US in their "war on poverty" and claim that it's been useless disregard the fact that the war was never properly fought.

Consequence, the results are biased and policies highly inefficient because of lack of monitoring and improvement of the different strategies experimented. A failure doesn't always mean the idea was bad, but sometimes that you should just better the system step-by-step. That's how we, humans, learn.

Fighting poverty should be more a long term social justice plan, but welfare assistance has been disproportionately lower in the US than in other Western countries where welfare works much better. In many cases, poorly designed welfare policies has done damage to the very idea of welfare and led many countries to abandon welfare strategies to reduce poverty and crime.

And yet, studies have shown that the connection between welfare and poverty reduction is indisputable in many cases... But it often seems as though no one in our governments likes using all this research. So what's the point of even having universities like Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge and whatnot?

Given the outright correlation between poverty and crime, any policy serious about tackling crime has to take poverty reduction policies into account.

High poverty, low crime?

However, something radically new is happening right now in the US. With sky-high poverty levels and 1 in 4 children on food stamps, we're witnessing a remarkable statistical exception because crime has never been so low. Many studies tend to show that there are several reasons for this:

1) Community policing is working very well and new (smarter) ways of working against crime are very fruitful - as the police seem to have abandoned the era of filling quotas of arrests;

2) Communities and gangs seem to have stabilized and found common grounds to live in peace - each in its neighborhood.

While the relationship between poverty and crime holds true in the rest of the world, specialists still have to understand what is going on in the United States.

Recent articles were suggesting that as far as gangs are concerned, in most cities they have settled in their territories and "fought" for stability in order to increase their revenue from their illegal activities. Drugs contributing to less crime? Well, it's all about business in the end.

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