Does Poverty Lead (Directly) to Crime?

A lot of people insist No. Poverty does not lead directly to crime, they say.

Personally though, I believe definitely Yes, for one simple reason. You never see the Rockefellers robbing a liquor store, or stealing a loaf of bread. But I could be wrong.

What do the rest of you think?


The kind of financial crimes the Rockefellers are more likely to commit aren’t taken seriously (fraud, white collar, tax evasion, etc). That or they bought off enough politicians to make what used to be a crime in the past now legal.

Part of the problem is surveillance. Middle class whites use drugs at roughly (I believe) the same rates as poor blacks. But poor blacks are under more draconian police surveillance so they get caught more. So there is that, poor people are more likely to get caught due to higher police surveillance and a society that views them in a negative light.

This is a good video about it.

Plus poor people crimes shock the community more than middle class and upper class crimes. Prostitution for example. Street walkers make up the vast majority of arrests (something like 90%) despite street walkers making up a minority of prostitutes, and escorts are a small minority of arrests despite being a big bulk of sex workers. The more offensive a crime is to society at large (public sex, public drugs, etc) the more likely the law is to get involved.

If you assume poverty is synonymous with dysfunction, lack of social skills, lack of foresight and insight, etc which to a degree it is, then poor people are more likely to commit crimes that shock the community enough that the community calls the police and the police take it seriously. A street walker will result in more police calls than a discreet escort. A public drug deal will result in more law enforcement than drugs delivered discreetly. My assumption is public drug deals and public sex workers charge less than discreet delivery to your door, and the sellers/buyers are more desperate and dysfunctional.

Plus again, if a person is stuck in poverty there is likely a reason. Not across the board, but if you are having kids too early, or having too many, or not delaying gratification, or not working your way up, etc. then you probably don’t make great decisions in other areas too.

Wesley Clark has it pretty much correct. I would recommend you read “The Divide” by Matt Taibbi. He goes into a lot of detail on this exact topic.

Essentially, Wall Street banksters were able to openly break the law (as shown by a string of evidence), but none served any jail time or were even fined for their fraudulent behavior that sent us into the Great Resession. Meanwhile, NYC is rounding up the poor (read: Black) and processing them “by the book” in order to satisfy bloated dept budgets. The thesis of the book is that we are becoming a nation where being poor is a punishable offense, and where being rich is lauded and bad behavior is excused.

Poverty is also highly correlated with a lack of educational opportunities, and education is one of the best ways to reduce the crime rate, both by direct socialization (civics education, etc.) and opportunity for social success.

The negative vicious circles need to be broken. (The positive ones, not so much!)

I don’t think anyone in America is forced to crime. Virtually nobody is going to be at a point where you either commit a crime or die. It’s just that there are times when crime seems like the least bad alternative.

Rich people commit fewer crimes than poor people. They have better alternatives, they have more resources, and they have more to lose. (Although while they have more to lose, they’re less likely to lose it than a poor person is.) But rich people do commit crimes.

Some people in poverty may be in poverty due to the same behavioural traits that would make a person more crime prone - impulsivity, low future time orientation, low self control, high aggression, learning disability etc.

Plus, as you say, a person in poverty may be more likely to see crime as a means to getting by.

It’s a complex issue though and many forests have been felled for all the paper used to write about it.

I do not know of anyone who says that poverty leads directly to crime. Do you happen to have examples of that?

What is often said is that poverty creates a climate where criminal activity is either encouraged or fails to be discouraged. Individual choices remain valid, but the social constraints that inform behavior are lowered in situations where there is more need, (along with more want), with fewer resources to satisfy those needs or wants and where there are more examples of “successful” crimes and fewer consequences for bad behavior.

For example, a thug who moves from cheap apartment to cheap apartment, owning little or no furniture, has far less to lose than a person who has invested time and energy to build a stable lifestyle in a home. The threat of loss (either from the actions of the law or from vengeful victims) is greater to the person who has a stable home in which they have invested. Such a person is less likely to jeopardize that investment by committing crimes that will bring down the wrath of either the law or the friends and relatives of those one has harmed.

Now, there are homeowners who commit crimes and homeless people who never do and there are whole ranges of human behavior regardless of wealth or social standing. However, there are fewer bars on bad behavior in areas that are rife with poverty (and more examples of bad behavior being successful to influence new generations).

I’m not a sociologist, but I’d wager it’s not the poverty so much that drives crime, but the distribution of poverty and the gulf separating rich and poor. A society where everyone is poor is different from one where everyone is rich except for you. A society where poverty can be easily escaped by following the “rules” is a different from one where poverty is intergenerational and almost impossible to escape in a legal fashion.

It also depends on your definition of a criminal and how you go about finding them and prosecuting them. Poor people don’t write the laws. They aren’t on the police force. They aren’t behind the bench. They aren’t behind the news desk either. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that poor people end up populating the jails and prisons, while rich people repent in cushy rehab resorts.

Wait. Why is the cheap apartment poor dude a “thug” and the homeowner a “person”? Ray Rice is a homeowner with money. And he’s no less a thug than the cheap apartment dude.

Let’s try it the other way, with your phrasing:

Does Wealth Lead (Directly) to Crime?

A lot of people insist No. Wealth does not lead directly to crime, they say.

Personally though, I believe definitely Yes, for one simple reason. You never see Alan* fixing an election, or stealing from shareholders.

Does that work? Why or why not?
*the homeless guy who lives under the bridge near my home while he’s waiting for VA housing

Just about everyone is capable of being a criminal in certain circumstances. Poverty just adds a lot more of these circumstances that might lead to someone becoming a criminal.

Person A normally wouldn’t be a criminal. But then he gets laid off. For whatever reason, he’s still looking for a job after a few months, and he’s run out of savings. His daughter needs her medicine, and his son needs gear for school sports. His cousin calls him and offers him a job – drive these guys from point X to point Y, then pick them up after an hour, for $500. Person A is now a lot more likely to take this gig, even though he knows it might be trouble.

I believe most crime, at least for first-time criminals, happens through circumstances like this. And then, once in the criminal justice system, it becomes increasingly difficult to play a role in society that doesn’t involve more crime.

Somehow “Poverty leads directly to crime because wealth doesn’t” falls a bit short of compelling logic.

Unstable resource environments (which characterize the lives of many poor children) also causally contribute to low impulse control in early childhood (which is the period that most matters for determining later life outcomes). Look at the material on the marshmallow test, for example.

Depends on which crime. Burglary? Perhaps. Rape? No - how could rape improve anyone’s economic situation?

Osama bin Laden came from an extremely wealthy family. That didn’t stop him from embarking on a career of international terrorism.

It couldn’t. But studies have implied that, for example, better internet access reduces crimes like rape. So people who might hold their violent tendencies in check with certain resources may not be able to without these resources.

I think your whole premise is dependent on your definition of “crime”. To you, crime is the low level petty stuff that street cops spend time on. Certainly the impoverished are probably statistically more likely to be caught engaging in these types of crime. Whereas, within the whole arena of crime, there are a lot of criminal activities that are necessarily out of reach of the impoverished and more the domain of people with resources, yah?

There is also the fact that people raised in more middle class environments have access to better nutrition, fewer environmental toxins, more caregiving, etc and as a result they grow up to have more self discipline and act less impulsively.

Yeah, I think the OP is confusing violent crime with crime in general. Which may be the problem. People don’t see stuff like embezzlement as real crime. Not to mention that I doubt the people breaking into Home Depot’s servers and stealing credit card info live in poverty.

To quote Dylan quoting Woody Guthrie (I think)
“Some people rob you with a fountain pen.”
That was 50 years ago - it would be computer today.

Good point. As I understand it, a lot of drug possession busts happen incidentally - and poor people are more likely to have trouble with attracting police attention. Can’t afford to renew the registration on your car? Congrats, you get busted for out-of-date license plates, and the cop seizes your weed too. Roommate on probation for shoplifting something last fall? Cops come in for a routine check and see your cocaine on the kitchen counter. Busted! Middle class people can afford to keep their contraband hidden away where a cop isn’t likely to be.