Is It Nitpicking to Say We Don't Know for Sure That Poverty Causes Crime?

Categories: Schutze

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Dallas Observer
State Senator Royce West says there is "little dispute" poverty causes crime. I say there's major dispute.
Maybe this is nitpicking. Sometimes you see a nit that just begs to be picked. Yesterday on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News, State Senator Royce West was talking some kind of stuff about who should be the new city manager, and down toward the bottom of his piece he tossed out this remark:

"There is little dispute that root causes of crime lie in poverty and lack of opportunity -- the lack of meaningful employment for some."

Now, why can't I just let that lie? I know what he means. Poverty is bad. Chronic unemployment is bad. I agree with all that. It's a lot of why I think the school reform issue is so important: Teaching kids to be fully literate by the end of third grade would be a huge step toward resolving those problems.

But ...

There is lots of dispute about poverty being the root cause of crime. Tons. The idea that poverty causes crime is an expression of an ideology of the 1960s. One of the architects was the late Richard Cloward, a professor of political science at City University of New York. Cloward and the late Lloyd E. Ohlin, a criminal justice professor at the Harvard Law School, published a book in 1960 called Delinquency and Opportunity in which they argued that urban gang crime is a rational response to poverty and a kind of social critique of discrimination.

Their work was very influential, not just in academic circles but at the level of White House policy and congressional action over the next two decades. The problem was that history came along and proved them dead wrong in addition to their being actually dead. During the 2008-2009 Great Recession, crime rates in America not only drooped but plummeted, just when they should have been sky-rocketing had the Cloward-Ohlin thesis been correct.

Heather Mac Donald, absolutely not one of my favorite writers, a regular on Hannity for God's sake, wrote what was nevertheless a pretty damned incisive piece for The Wall Street Journal three years ago in which she pretty well completely took apart the Cloward-Ohlin doctrine of crime as a response to poverty, using numbers from the Great Recession to prove her point. I'm not sure she got very far in her attempt to explain what did make crime come down -- something about better police computers, and, yeah, who knows?

I have been looking back at David Leonhardt's recent series in The New York Times on upward mobility in America, reporting on findings of a major new study by the Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard and UC-Berkley. One of the most striking findings of the study is that lives of crime and lives of poverty are indeed bound up together and they do indeed have powerful links to lack of economic opportunity, but in a much more localized way than previously thought. It's almost all about the place.

Crime and poverty are most frequent in tough poor neighborhoods where kids don't see much else. The best way to improve people's lives and bring down those corrosive crime rates is to pluck people out of those intensely negative environments and sprinkle them around in healthier atmospheres.

The slowest, worst way to cure crime in the really high-crime South Dallas neighborhoods, in other words, would be to make it easier for people to stay there. The best thing a new city manager could do for South Dallas and the city would be anything to continue the current trend, which is for people to move out of the worst areas. So you tell me. Is that a nit?

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88 comments
bullard.randyj
bullard.randyj

Thomas Sowell's writings on the factors that drive poverty and crime in black America I think is some of the best work out there.  It may not be politically palatable, but the man speaks truth.

bvckvs
bvckvs topcommenter

Actually, the belief doesn't come from Poli Sci, it comes from psychology.

It's been proved conclusively that folks who grow up in an impoverished environment, with no legal way of making a better life for themselves will, almost without exception, find an illegal way.

What makes you uncomfortable about that truth is your Christian upbringing - which tells you that people are good or bad, and that their nature causes them to do bad things, regardless of their environment.

That belief was pervasive in our Christian culture - until Maslow and the humanists of the 1960's, 70's and 80's.  They proved the faith-based psychologists wrong, that environment really does make all the difference.


smichaelclark591
smichaelclark591

Don Hill and all his goons were not poor or uneducated. Nor was Fantroy or Al Lipscom or JWP

AtoZ
AtoZ

Once again Mr. Schutze pulls back to curtain to reveal his hyper-simplistic master plan:  "The best way to improve people's lives and bring down those corrosive crime rates is to pluck people out of those intensely negative environments and sprinkle them around in healthier atmospheres."

Of course it is, for the few initial individuals "plucked."  A sudden improvement in circumstances and resources?  Of course that will improve the recipient's life.  But Schutze fails to see that this kind of plan only benefits the initial few pluckees.  Mathematically, the benefits of plucking fade into an unsustainable illusion, long term.  You can always pluck the person who's standing last in line, and put them at the head of the line.  But each time you do that, you've just put someone else at the end of the line.  And so on, and so on.  Keep plucking, and eventually your first pluckee is at the end of the line again!  It never stops, and gets nowhere.  Schutze's idea sounds like it benefits everyone, with no losers, when you first hear about it.  But so does a Pyramid scheme, to the uninitiated.  Schutze's "pluck and sprinkle" idea, implemented in the real world, through more than one or two iterations, ends up as sensible as a Ponzi scheme.

Never mind that as a general proposition, as demonstrated throughout human history, no one likes to be "plucked and sprinkled," be it in terms of war, strife, or mere socio-economic experimentation.   

No, what's really ridiculous is that Schutze again wholly avoids the question of who gets plucked and who doesn't, under his benevolent scheme.  Because it's not possible to answer it.  (Note that Schutze's own term, "plucked," indicates someone outside the equation doing the plucking.  No connotation whatsoever that the person in question is actively engaged in, or even desires, their own relocation.)  How do you select the best candidates for relocation?  And once you've relocated them, doesn't the next tier of candidates then ratchet upward, to "deserve" your benevolent plucking?  Etc., etc., until the "bad" neighborhood is empty?  But if you do completely relocate the entire neighborhood, you've also plucked and sprinkled the most hardened criminal element (the very thing that was to be avoided in the first place), so that can't be what you mean, right?  

So, do you mean to leave the "worst" people in a given neighborhood behind, to drown in their own miserable circumstances?  If so, who appointed you ultimate arbiter of human value and potential?

Or do you indeed mean to completely empty a neighborhood, meaning that you, self-appointed Grand Poohbah People Plucker, in your infinite wisdom, decided certain kinds of people simply can't be trusted to group themselves as they please?

It must be one of the two.  Once you begin plucking, you either pluck part way through a neighborhood, or you pluck all the way, until no people are left.  There are only those two alternatives.  Which is it?

doublecheese
doublecheese

It isn't that poverty creates crime.  It's that the vast majority of poverty and crime themselves have the same cause.  That is, the complete and utter breakdown of the family (libs, go ahead and roll your eyes).  Absentee fatherism to be more precise.  Whether or not a father is present is the number one correlating factor in whether a child will grow up in poverty and/or end up in prison.  The statistics show this conclusively.  

It's easy to see how that is a big cause of poverty.  Dad's not there to make money, and single moms struggle to make ends meet.  The behavioral aspect is a bit more interesting.  I think a look at the animal kingdom may be enlightening.  Adolescent male elephants that don't have a strong male figure in the herd will often pack up and behave badly.  Badly in that they terrorize other elephants and other animals.  They tear shit up and kill other animals for the fun of it.  This isn't normal elephant behavior, male or female.  But something happens when they don't have a mature bull elephant "teachnig" them what a "real bull" is and how to be one.  This has been observed in a number of social animal species.  

Gangy
Gangy

Jim, you'll enjoy reading Chris Hayes' book, "Twilight of the Elites:  America After Meritocracy".  He has interesting points and facts on poverty, schools, and crime. 

paulpsycho78
paulpsycho78

How about the fact that there are 2500 felonies in texas.  How about the fact that the US puts more people in prison then North Korea, or Russia, or China?  5% world population - 25% of the world's prison/parole/probation population -  How about the fact that once a felon is released Mcdonalds wont hire him - How about the fact that the simple fact of being arrested (even if you are not indicted) for something is held against you by some employers?  Beware the prison industrial complex

paulpsycho78
paulpsycho78

This is a country were I can rob a gas station with a gun for $400 and get 5-15 years, But if I steal a hundred grand through a computer I'd get 18 months. What a country.

PerryMoore
PerryMoore

The reasons that people commit crimes depend on the nature of the crimes. I commit crimes fairly often, but none of them have a damn thing to do with greed, my level of education,where I live, or how I was raised. Violent crimes and victimless crimes are two different things, and the reasons that people commit them are also entirely different.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

What kind of crime we talking about here, Jim? Only drugs, street violence? Or do we include ALL crimes, from Enron-style grand larceny to child molestation?

It's not poverty that causes crime. It's not neighborhood or even lack of education. The notion that crime is caused by this or that circumstance is probably the most dangerous illusion of the left.

Lorlee
Lorlee

I think that the emphasis on property crime skews our views.  Those white collar folks, computer hackers and bankers toll on the economy is something we don't focus enough attention on and is massive making the "crime" we do focus on pale in comparison.  We need to shift our attention to the really big fish.

Threeboys
Threeboys

I'd be interested to know what is the correlation between lack of education, poverty and crime rates?  I'd be willing to bet that the three factors are more closely related than just poverty and crime.

Sotiredofitall
Sotiredofitall topcommenter

"The slowest, worst way to cure crime in the really high-crime South Dallas neighborhoods, in other words, would be to make it easier for people to stay there."   Probably the most important point of the article.  

Obummer
Obummer

Yo da presidency iz nahh place fo' amateurs.

everlastingphelps
everlastingphelps topcommenter

As for what really caused the drop in crime, there is a very strong correlation with the rise and fall of crime to the addition of lead to gasoline (and therefore to our air as engine exhausts.)  When they started leading gas, then crime skyrocketed as those who were born and raised in that environment hit their Prime Criminality Ages.  After gas was unleaded and those who were raised in it were either killed or incarcerated as a result of that criminality, then the crime rate began to drop off.  There's a clear 16 year offset in the two graphs.

everlastingphelps
everlastingphelps topcommenter

Poverty does not cause crime.  Poverty is correlated with crime, because crime always causes poverty.  The destructive wake that crime leaves will always lead to poverty.

Not all poor places are crime ridden, but all crime ridden places are poor.

animas
animas

Well actually, Mr. Schutze is leaving the question open and sites (as well as praises) Heather McDonald's piece in the WSJ three years ago regarding relatively low crime rates in the general population during the Great Depression.  Similar studies of decreased incidence of severe mental illness (schizophrenia-eg) during times of shared national crises (Great Depression, WWII)  have been documented and  acknowledged for many years.  Perhaps this contradictory phenomenon is only fleeting and may be due to a communal need for coherence in the face of shared austerity/sacrifice.

bvckvs
bvckvs topcommenter

@doublecheese 

The problem with that is that it's not true.  In many families without fathers, the children grow up to be perfectly fine - so lack of a father figure is not what causes crime and poverty. If it was, it would cause it all the time, not just some times.

This kind of false claim comes a lot from fathers who have lost the right to see their children because of their own bad behavior. 

animas
animas

Wrong!  This is a country where a crooked Georgetown, Tx  prosecutor and judge can send an innocent man to jail for 25 years and get only ten days in jail plus 500 hours of community service in exchange for dropping all further litigation against him.  (Oh--he was disbarred BTW, but probably gets to keep his pension).  Is it "nitpicking" to say that "public service" leads to crime?

observist
observist topcommenter

@paulpsycho78 Who would you rather have walking around your neighborhood or standing next to you in line at Chipotle - the guy who knows how to use a computer to quietly steal $100k, or the guy willing to kill for $400? (i.e. about the value of the cell phone in your pocket.
)

bvckvs
bvckvs topcommenter

@PerryMoore 

I like the part where you say that the crimes you commit don't have anything to do with who you are... as if they were being committed by someone else.

bvckvs
bvckvs topcommenter

@bmarvel 

Enron-scale crimes aren't very common - and are thus statistically insignificant.

The crimes that matter to every day working folks are not so rare.


casiepierce
casiepierce

@bmarvel "... history came along and proved them dead wrong..."

I did not read that Jim was actually buying into this "illusion". 

greg.busby214
greg.busby214

@everlastingphelps There are also studies that show that living in dwellings with lead-based paint leads to violent behavior begetting increased crime.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@animas  

It could be things like the depression and WWII cause people to focus on other things.


I know that as a child, nuclear warfare from the Russians was the big bogeyman.  Now it is terrorists.


And terrorists are being replaced by "climate change".

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin topcommenter

I changed my mind, I dont want to be mean today yet

observist
observist topcommenter

@Sotiredofitall @everlastingphelps  Clearly the fall in crime is attributable to the rise of realistic FPS video games as an opiate/outlet for young men's violent impulses.  Violent crime peaked in 1993, the year Doom was released.

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin topcommenter

@Myrna.Minkoff-Katz C'mon Myrna, get that cat registered as a service animal.  Im sure the commentartiat here can come up with a good malady for you.

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

@ScottsMerkin  There's only one prob.  Arrowhead won't allow cats inside the stadium and I don't know how to break it to her.  God only knows what kind of hellacious fit she'll have.

animas
animas

"personally I believe that it is fluorination in the water supply"

(Gen. Jack  Ripper--"Dr. Strangelove")

Sotiredofitall
Sotiredofitall topcommenter

@observist @Sotiredofitall @everlastingphelps I'm switching to the sun spot theory

"A growing number of scientists, health care professionals, and concerned citizens argue that these invisible frequencies are responsible for a host of various health problems. Meanwhile, the largest polluter has gone unnoticed: the Sun. At certain times, the Sun's activity can also aggravate mental health problems. "  National Council on Geocosmic Research

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