The “poverty is the root cause of crime” theory: Busted?

Posted by: ST on January 5, 2010 at 11:30 am

City Journal’s indispensable contributing editor Heather Mac Donald has an interesting piece published in the WSJ today in which she debunks the 60s-era rush to blame crime on poverty and “social injustice” by analyzing crime data from last year. Snippets:

The recession of 2008-09 has undercut one of the most destructive social theories that came out of the 1960s: the idea that the root cause of crime lies in income inequality and social injustice. As the economy started shedding jobs in 2008, criminologists and pundits predicted that crime would shoot up, since poverty, as the “root causes” theory holds, begets criminals. Instead, the opposite happened. Over seven million lost jobs later, crime has plummeted to its lowest level since the early 1960s. The consequences of this drop for how we think about social order are significant.

The notion that crime is an understandable reaction to poverty and racism took hold in the early 1960s. Sociologists Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin argued that juvenile delinquency was essentially a form of social criticism. Poor minority youth come to understand that the American promise of upward mobility is a sham, after a bigoted society denies them the opportunity to advance. These disillusioned teens then turn to crime out of thwarted expectations.

The theories put forward by Cloward, who spent his career at Columbia University, and Ohlin, who served presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter, provided an intellectual foundation for many Great Society-era programs. From the Mobilization for Youth on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1963 through the federal Office of Economic Opportunity and a host of welfare, counseling and job initiatives, their ideas were turned into policy.


And by the end of 2009, the purported association between economic hardship and crime was in shambles. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, homicide dropped 10% nationwide in the first six months of 2009; violent crime dropped 4.4% and property crime dropped 6.1%. Car thefts are down nearly 19%. The crime plunge is sharpest in many areas that have been hit the hardest by the housing collapse. Unemployment in California is 12.3%, but homicides in Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Times reported recently, dropped 25% over the course of 2009. Car thefts there are down nearly 20%.

The recession crime free fall continues a trend of declining national crime rates that began in the 1990s, during a very different economy. The causes of that long-term drop are hotly disputed, but an increase in the number of people incarcerated had a large effect on crime in the last decade and continues to affect crime rates today, however much anti-incarceration activists deny it. The number of state and federal prisoners grew fivefold between 1977 and 2008, from 300,000 to 1.6 million.

As they say, read the whole thing. She does a great job of undercutting the rationale used by bleeding hearts starting in the 60s on the low income/crime link that really never was. Consider it another myth started in the 60s by intellectual elites to bolster their cases for bigger government busted.

If you’re interested in reading about more bogus liberal myths that emerged in the 60s that were used to justify more government intervention and forced “social justice,” read Thomas Sowell’s Vision of the Anointed. It will completely change the mindsets of any open-minded person who still hangs on to the believe that prominent liberal public figures and other various and assorted left wing “do-gooders” don’t massage and/or, in some cases, invent statistics in order to inject “change” into social and economic policy.

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15 Responses to “The “poverty is the root cause of crime” theory: Busted?”


  1. Bill says:

    I never once believed in that theory of poverty causing crime. My parents both grew up in the Great Depression and didn’t turn out to be criminals. Neither did the vast majority of people growing up during that time.

    However, the second that Liberalism started to take hold in the 60s with that “people don’t cause crime, society causes crime” dribble, law and order started to deteriorate rapidly. Combine that along with the “political correctness” that grew out of Liberalism during the past 40 years and you’ve now got the criminals as the victims, and the victims as the criminals.

    That, sadly, will be Liberalism’s contribution to history.

  2. Kate says:

    It could be that the criminal element is taking a hiatus? Well, never you mind, as soon as things reach “crisis” proportion those downtrodden, socially diminished, poverty stricken folks will get active again..count on Rahm Emanuel to do something criminal!

    We could also say that maybe folks are getting better at protecting their property so that decreases the ability of criminals to abscond with your vehicle or other worldly possessions. Or perhaps it is those pesky not-so-hidden cameras, they just ruin it when you go to trial. Your mouthpiece can’t claim mistaken identity cause all “black” folks look alike (sorry, I just couldn’t resist that old saw). There were a lot of civil liberties lost with those cameras…so we need a good supreme court case to stop the sanity.

  3. Marko says:

    The sale of guns and ammo have gone through the roof since Obama was elected. The victim pool has shrunk.

  4. Xerocky says:

    Is poverty an EXCUSE for crime?

  5. eragy says:

    On the other hand, given all the bailouts of the banks and the auto industry and the insurance industry and the health care industry, it seems wealth is the case of lawlessness.

  6. Hmmm.... says:

    Some people enjoy being criminals. These tend to live together and raise children with the same tastes. Funding them through government checks is just going to make them use their crime profits for fun, not stop them from being criminals.

  7. Brian says:

    This is easy – a lot of the criminals have new jobs – in DC. Certainly true if you regard tax evasion as a crime.

  8. Crime no longer pays. Like all other economic decisions, the question of whether to pursue a criminal career is one which involves assuming a set of risks, costs, and potential benefits. Consider how some things have changed since the 1960’s when the notion of poverty causing crime gained purchase;

    The role of the government in providing welfare has increased in amount and broadened in scope. Idle joblessness has become entrenched, livable, and in some circles, has become socially acceptable by virtue of its generational pedigree.

    Penalties for criminal convictions have risen dramatically. In 1965, there was no such thing as a “three strikes” law.

    The likelihood of detection and conviction has increased with advances in technology. If you stole a car in the 1960’s, you could either fence it or sell it to a chop shop pretty quickly and pocket the cash. These days, you’re likely to be videotaped somewhere along the way and the car has a better than one in three chance of having a Lo-Jack or GPS detection system built into it.

    Maybe drugs used to be profitable to sell on the street corner. Not anymore. The profit margin to the street dealer for selling weed or crack is literally pennies per gram. You’ve got to be a wholesaler or near the top of the distribution pyramid to make any real money at it. Electronics also used to be rare and valuable; now they are cheap and commonplace. If you stole my iPod, how much could you re-sell it for? $50? If you stole my ATM card, I’d have it disabled as soon as I saw it was missing and the computers would detect unusual patterns in its use and disable it automatically after a short time anyway. So for all the risk of theft, you now get less reward.

    So I suggest that what we’re seeing is that the risk-benefit calculus has shifted over the course of a half century, which is hardly an ambitious observation. Somewhat more controversial is my suggestion that the poor, instead of turning to crime, have turned instead to food stamps. Liberals will not like that idea because it suggests that people like welfare recipients are more likely than wealthier folks to engage in criminal behavior. Conservatives will not like it because it suggests that the government can keep crime at bay with generous and expensive welfare programs. Libertarians will dislike it because it suggests that the government can intervene in an economic system and make things better. Which is why I like the notion so much – if it angers everyone there must be a kernel of truth to it.

  9. Charles Perry says:

    In the early Sixties, when I was active in Slate, a sort of parliament of the Berkeley Left, a friend of mine proposed to the group that it create alliances with violent youth gangs. He later confessed to me that he was just trying to be outrageous, but some of the radicals, after an initial frisson of horror, thought this was a promising idea — a new surrogate proletariat to serve as shock troops for the revolution, which would of course be run by the intelligentsia.

  10. Great White Rat says:

    The whole idea is nonsense. As Bill pointed out, people were much poorer during the Great Depression, but crime rates didn’t soar, even in the major cities.

    As for this:

    Sociologists Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin argued that juvenile delinquency was essentially a form of social criticism.

    This is the same Cloward who co-authored the Cloward-Piven strategy to destroy capitalism and cause political, social, and economic collapse in America, so you know exactly what his agenda is.

  11. poptoy says:

    Greed. Greed. Greed.

  12. Tom TB says:

    So am I and everyone else who lived through Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” a veteran? By the way, which side won?

  13. Carlos says:

    Just like being taught to read by your parent(s), or learning to eat “properly” (using a fork, knife and spoon) from your parent(s), learning criminal behavior either from your parent(s) or from friends (because your parent(s) couldn’t be bothered with keeping track of you) is behavior is a human tendency and one that is disavowed in functional homes.

    Leftist apologists need a strong dose of reality here.