In the 1993 science-fiction movie Demolition Man, a rebel named Edgar Friendly is leading a rebellion against a society that has discovered complete bliss. The only problem is that if you don’t fit in with that society, you don’t get to eat. So in a fine dining experience at the local Taco Bell, we see Friendly’s group stealing food to eat.
In today’s society, we see people in poverty often acting the same way. Stealing food from take-out counters, violating loitering laws, and influencing the crime rate in other ways is something that is directly linked to poverty. There will always be crime, but urban crime tends to always be located in high poverty areas.
How does poverty influence crime rates? The answers may actually surprise you.
Poverty Isn’t Just About Having a Lack of Resources
The effects that poverty has on crime can be explained in multiple ways. For starters, there is a higher rate of untreated mental illness that is in populations struggling with poverty compared to wealthier populations. Now most people who struggle with a mental illness will never commit a crime, but there are some types of severe mental illness which increase the risk of an individual committing a crime.
Untreated severe mental illnesses are particularly significant when looking at links between poverty and homicide. On the other end of the spectrum, those who are mentally ill are also victimized by violent crime at much higher levels than the general population.
Yet despite these facts, the number of beds at mental health hospitals and treatment facilities are lower in the United States today than they were in 1850.
But a mental illness isn’t the only link that there is between poverty and crime. Being in poverty often leads to high levels of stress. An overwhelming desire to meet certain basic needs becomes the highest priority. Over time, if those needs cannot be met, then some individuals will commit robberies, burglaries, and other forms of them. It can also lead to violent acts, though in the mind of the perpetrator, the actions are seen as a method of self-defense.
Poverty also creates fewer opportunities, some of which co-exist with mental illness and a lack of being able to meet basic needs. If an individual is struggling with an untreated mental illness, then it is difficult for them to hold down an employment opportunity. Without a job, it is difficult to find money to meet basic needs.
A lack of resources also creates inferior educational opportunities for households in poverty, some actual and some admittedly perceived. Yet the perception of a lack of education is enough for individuals in poverty to create self-fulfilling prophecies regarding their future. Because they believe there aren’t good quality schools out there, then there aren’t good quality jobs out there. People feel the need to fight for themselves.
This leads to the creation of gangs and gang affiliation. Then the cycle continues to perpetuate itself again and again. Crime is simply a means to an end. It’s a way to obtain what is needed without a legitimate means to do so because it seems like there isn’t a legitimate opportunity to avoid crime.
It’s a cycle that feeds upon itself. And often the prize of a successful crime outweighs the risk of being caught, which further increases the crime rate in areas of poverty.
Isn’t Poverty a Reflection of a Person’s Choices?
In a free-market society, a common belief regarding poverty is that each person is responsible for their own circumstances. It’s a stereotype that has fed more stereotypes, such as the idea that drug and alcohol use is more prevalent amongst households in poverty. It is true that one of the risk factors for drug use is poverty.
The same is true for alcoholism. Yet the stereotype is that the risk factor not only applies to everyone in poverty, but that everyone is struggling with some form of addiction. If they could only get a job, they would be fine.
And since drug use and public alcohol use is often illegal, these activities then contribute to the local crime rate.
In reality, the problem comes back to the stresses that occur when a household or individual is living in poverty. Not being able to have a basic need met, like knowing when your next meal will be or what it will be, can lead people to a breaking point. They seek out any relief that they can find. Many times, that relief ends up being in a bottle or a needle.
Stress relief also involves risky decisions to alleviate, if but for a moment, what poverty is placing upon an individual. It’s the reason why risky sexual encounters are accepted in poverty-stricken areas. That brief monetary reward is enough to purchase another fix that can help someone forget where they are. Then they repeat the behavior because the reward of forgetting is worth the risk of future health problems or getting caught.
Greater Socioeconomic Gaps Also Encourage Greater Crime
Setting all stereotypes aside, poverty influences crime rates because at its core, it highlights and reinforces the differences between the wealthy class and those who are poor. The greater the gap happens to be, then the greater the benefits are to a thief to use that wealth in some way to their own advantage.
This socioeconomic gap is seen in many different ways in our society today.
- Children who come from homes in poverty are more likely to be expelled from school or to have a police record than a child who makes the same choices as the poor child, but has more overall wealth.
- Societies that have age gaps are also prone to more crime when poverty is a factor in the community. This is because of the number of possessions that elderly households are perceived to have, along with the natural vulnerability which comes with age.
- Communities which have a higher percentage of inhabitants that are under the age of 25 may also lead to higher crime rates, especially if there are large socioeconomic gaps between different households of that age group.
It is these differences which also encourage a higher overall crime rate in minority populations in the United States. Many minority households live in urban areas and may have built-in struggles with poverty for multiple generations. In a 1995 survey of US metropolitan areas with unemployed rates of 12% or more, the population was composed of at least 30% minority households.
Yet socioeconomic gaps also create the potential for crime within communities that are struggling with poverty. These gaps are just not always associated with money. If someone is bigger and stronger than someone else, then they may choose to take a weaker person’s resources. Business owners may take advantage of the desperation of poverty and offer jobs with wages well below legal limits.
There are even precedents of having local law enforcement officials extorting money from those who are in poverty, which then creates a lack of functional restraint on the crime that exists in these areas.
A World Where Not All Crimes Are Created or Treated Equally
During a 20-year period of economic difficulty which started in Europe in 1975, there was a rise in unemployment in uneducated youth and a rise of theft and violence that rose at the same time. This led to an effort to create more educational opportunities, as multiple studies have shown that higher educational levels lead to lower overall violent crime.
Yet this doesn’t eliminate all crime. In fact, other forms of crime, such as corruption, are more likely in the wealthier classes. This means our focus on poverty tends to be on the amount of violent crime that is produced by low-income communities.
So why is there more violence in low-income areas? It is because there is less of a safety net that is present for those with few or no resources to rely upon. The fight-or-flight mechanism is initiated and when it comes to self-preservation, most people are going to fight for themselves and their loved ones.
If that means violence is required to secure needed resources, then so be it.
This Means There Are Two Key Issues Which Must Be Addressed
In order to solve the problem of poverty as it relates to crime, there are two key issues which must be addressed at the same time.
- Resources must be provided to those in poverty so that basic needs can be met, including any treatment that may be required for mental illness or addiction.
- Those in poverty must receive some level of consistent protection to make sure they do not have what little resources they have become stolen from them by others.
And, for the most part, society agrees with these two points. Where disagreement begins is how to address these issues. You’ll see this often in poverty-stricken areas when someone is asking for help and another person comes by and says, “Just go get a job.”
Unfortunately, it just isn’t that easy. Someone struggling with a lack of resources and an untreated illness may not even know how to begin looking for a job. For that reason, many societies have implemented programs to ease the stress that poverty creates.
To meet basic needs, many governments have created aid and assistance programs which offer enough food benefits, living assistance, and limited cash to reduce the stress of poverty. But, because there may be a 1-5% fraud rate within these programs, there are consistent calls to reduce eligibility for them, create greater restrictions to join them, or to cut them out of society completely.
We’ve also created changes to the individual treatment process in order to protect personal rights. This has stopped many of the involuntary inpatient commitments to mental hospitals that occurred in the past, yet the less-restrictive alternative of outpatient therapy has been found to be far from effective – even if a judge orders compliance with medication and therapy.
So what do we do from a criminal justice standpoint? We have to enforce laws to create a society that is safe and orderly. Yet we cannot ignore households in poverty when they become victims of a crime, even if it is labeled as “poor-on-poor” crime. The answer, it seems, may come from the State of Texas – which ironically houses about 10% of the US prisoner population.
Instead of Incarceration, a Focus on Treatment Creates a Reduction in Crime
In 2006, Texas was facing a population crisis within their criminal justice system. Hundreds of thousands of prisoner beds were already full due to the enforcement of drug crime in the past 15 years. By 2010, the prisoner population increase had risen 346% from 1990 levels. At the same time, US prison populations only doubled.
Texas couldn’t build prisons fast enough. Yet, when looking at a cost of $526 million to expand the prison population even more, the investment didn’t seem to make sense. So Texas decided to “go soft on crime” as a way to reduce prison population levels.
Instead of creating new prisoner beds, Texas focused on expanding beds in treatment programs. Should a prisoner violate their probation or a first-time offender commit a non-violent crime, instead of locking the person up, the goal became to shift away the stress that is caused by a lack of overall resources.
There were even slots put into the Texas criminal justice system which allowed for outpatient treatment programs to allow for sentences of probation instead of incarceration. Diversion programs were also setup within the court system to be able to treat individuals suffering from a mental illness. Instead of just prison and parole being an option for sentencing, judges were given a third option: treatment.
In the first 7 years of these reforms being in place, the number of inmates that were incarcerated in Texas dropped by nearly 10,000. And, for the first time in over 160 years, Texas decided to actually shut down a prison. The state is even seeing improvements in their recidivism rates with treatment as an option.
What Does This Mean for Poverty and Crime?
There will always be crime. That much is clear. What our goal must be as a society is to eliminate crime that is due to the stresses of poverty. Through reforms, treatment, and a removal of the stress that comes with living in poverty, it is clear that a lower crime rate will be the result. Texas has already proven this.
In order to make this happen, we must be willing to set aside our own personal stereotypes about poverty. Instead of someone being a “poor person,” we must view them as a person. We must treat children equally, no matter what their socioeconomic class might be. Then we must be consistent in providing opportunities to everyone, no matter what their living situation might be.
When there are zero opportunities, an individual will make their own opportunities and that will usually be through crime. It will be through violent crime if necessary. We may never completely eliminate poverty within our lifetime, but we can set the stage for people to find a different way than in previous generations.
Through education, treatment, and consistency, people will be given more opportunities. That will help them be able to get that job they need to provide themselves with legitimate resources. If not, then our future might just be a world where people feel like they need to steal food from Taco Bell in order to survive.