Does poverty cause crime?

Socio-economic determinism is inadequate as an explanation of criminality.

Andy West
10 August 2016

Credit: By User Incantation on en.wikipedia - Photograph by John Fekner © 1980 Donated to Wikipedia project by the artist, CC BY-SA 3.0.

I was 12 years old when I got a letter from my father saying that he was due to serve a three month prison sentence for getting caught for drunk driving, having already lost his licence for the same thing the previous month. He had done stints of a year or two before, and although I haven't seen him since, when I try to imagine him today I think of him in jail. Fraud and violence were characteristic of his behavior—whereas my criminal record consists of the £20 fine I got for running a red light on my bicycle.

Objectively I’m innocent compared to my father, but subjectively it feels like I’m serving a suspended sentence for crimes myself. Like many other people, I need to know that I’m not like my dad, but it’s been 20 years since I’ve seen him. His photographs are bleached, and I don't know enough about him to know why we are different. So I tell myself that I didn't have to endure the degree of hardship that he did growing up in Liverpool 65 years ago. Perhaps the scarcity of his early life made transgression seem necessary, whereas living within the law hasn't caused me any real disadvantage.  

Holding fast to this sort of socio-economic determinism makes me feel a little more immune from inheriting the sins of my father, since if his crimes were borne of a poverty that I haven’t shared then I won’t be part of his sin either, or so goes my own personal lore. Not wanting to be like him has shaped my politics: I believe that if government supported people in poverty more effectively then there would be less people in his situation, and less crime.

With only old memories and fading photographs to go on, I’ve developed an amateur preoccupation with criminology. Recently I found myself re-examining my beliefs because of Tom Gash’s book Criminal: the truth about why people do bad things. Gash is a crime policy advisor and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government who questions the causal link between poverty and crime. For example, he writes that between the 1960s and the 1990s, GDP in the US and the UK went up and relative poverty remained constant, yet crime went up too. During the 1990s inequality soared but crime actually went down.

I wonder what these statistics really say about poverty and crime, so recently I met with Gash in a London cafe for a conversation. Thinking of my father, I ask him, ‘Surely places like Broadwater Farm and Baltimore are more crimogenic than Hampstead or Rhode Island?’  ‘Geographically,’ he replied, ‘some of the poorest estates have high crime rates. But most crime happens in retail areas and places where people go out drinking. Violent crime, for example, peaks on pay day when people go out spending on drink and get into fights. Where there are high-rises you get less burglary but more violent crime, whereas in the suburbs you get more burglary.’

Although this makes sense to me, I ask him if the people burgling suburban houses might be those living below the poverty line. ‘It’s complex and nuanced’, he says. ‘Not having enough money isn't the thing I see causing crime. Pain, trauma and neglect in childhood are more influential factors. Some of those might relate to poverty and some might not.’

Assuming that people in poverty are more likely to neglect their kids, he says, is a slander against the poor. ‘We need to ask if poverty impacts on good child supervision, good conditions for care giving and people setting boundaries for their kids’, he told me. ‘Poverty might mean parents work several jobs so can’t supervise their kids. Or poverty could mean parents live on benefits and spend a lot of time with their children. So before we say poverty causes crime, we need to ask what does poverty entail for different communities? Poverty matters in lots of little ways, both good and bad.’

This sounds plausible but I’m not entirely sold. Surely if the same kids who live in poor communities were to live in more affluent areas, their futures would be different, and they would be less likely to be criminals?

By way of a response, Gash tells me about an experiment in New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago where this actually happened. In Moving to Opportunity, 5,000 families were subsidised to move from poor to affluent areas. The results were surprising. Ten years on, the boys in those families were 20 per cent more likely to have been excluded from school than those who stayed behind. They were also more likely to have been arrested, though interestingly they were less likely to have been arrested for violent crime. In this case, moving poor kids to rich areas didn't make them less likely to be criminals, but it did change the type of crime they were likely to commit.

I’m not ready to concede that poverty does not cause crime, but Gash’s work has made me consider the possibility that the relationship between the two is more complex than I had thought—and that my story about my father is too crude. As his image fades away, perhaps I’ve been falling back onto an ideological story to make his picture seem more vivid than it really is. I wonder afresh, what was my father’s real story? So I ask Gash, ‘If poverty doesn't have the degree of influence on crime I thought it did, then what is crime about?’

He tells me about the importance of small things. Drunk people often get into fights over taxis on a Saturday night, so more taxis, not more police, might be the answer. Motorbike thefts in Germany fell from 150,000 in 1980 to 50,000 in 1986. Why? Because a road safety law made it obligatory to wear a helmet. Most motorbike thieves don't carry helmets. Opportunists find inconvenience tedious. Theft in poor areas goes up when welfare benefits are paid monthly, so payments could be staggered instead.

Small changes, with a sensitivity to the situation, can have a big impact he says. ‘If I haven't had enough food or sleep and somebody violates my honour code then I’ll tip. Everyone has a tipping point. Reducing crime is about knowing how not to trigger those tipping points.’

For Gash it seems, the difference between offending and not offending is often a matter of these small margins. I’m reminded of Albert Camus’ book The Outsider, in which the central protagonist Meursault didn’t plan to murder anyone, but on that particular day he happened to be carrying a revolver that he’d taken off of his friend Raymond so that Raymond wouldn't do anything reckless with it. Then a character Camus refers to as “the Arab” pulled a knife on Meursault on the beach. Meursault wanted to walk away, “But the whole beach throbbing in the sun, was pressing on my back,” and so he shot the Arab dead.

In the cafe, Gash finishes his coffee. As he is getting his stuff together to leave I ask him, ‘If our tipping points can be changed by such small things, by taxis and helmets and sunshine and the like, then do you think we all have the free will to commit or not commit a crime regardless of our circumstances?’  

Gash puffs out his cheeks and lets out a long sigh. ‘To a degree’ he says. ‘Two people in the same situation can act differently. Addiction, for example, has a relationship to anti-social behaviour. But then there’s the so called “Giro Junkie”—those who will go through withdrawal waiting for their benefits and not steal. Everyone has their own code, even when doing bad things. For example, a man will cheat on his wife, but “only” with prostitutes. Some honour their code and some don’t.’

I envy his seeming belief in the power of free will, and wish I could take the view that the difference between me and my father lay in how we chose to act. But as an explanation, that’s not enough. I need a story as complex as my feelings are convoluted.

Gash and I say goodbye, both scratching our heads with fresh questions. My assumptions about crime, poverty, politics and free will have been bought under scrutiny. Although I don't take what he says as a reason to care any less about economic inequality, I don't want to bulldoze his empirical insights for the sake of my own political agenda. Reducing poverty might help with the problem of poverty but, as with the Moving to Opportunity experiment, it won’t necessarily cure society of as many ills as I‘d like. 

Cycling home from the cafe, I’m more aware than normal of patrol cars. I see two police talking to a man on the side of the road. I’m always relived it’s not me. Stopping at a red light, the gap between me and my father now feels bigger and smaller at the same time: bigger because without a ‘poverty equals crime’ story, the photographs of him bleach even more. He becomes less recognisable, and more of a stranger. But it’s precisely because he is unknown to me that the gap also feels smaller. The mysteriousness of him means that I can’t quite dispel my sense of being on a suspended sentence; it’s not just the poor who—like Camus’ character Meursault—can have one bad day with grave consequences.

The car behind me honks its horn, interrupting my thoughts. I look over my shoulder and the irritated driver is pointing to the traffic light. It has changed to green.

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