To what extent does poverty cause crime in America?
Senior Project Advisor: Lori Fisher
12th Grade Humanities
Animas High School
22 April 2013
In America today, 16% of the population lives in poverty (2012 US Census Bureau). That means roughly 45 million people are struggling to provide food, shelter, and basic necessities to themselves and their families. Living off of very little income, especially while trying to support a family, creates desperation and anxiety towards just getting by. Those trapped in poverty are forced to survive by whatever means they can. This catalyzes a great potential for crime, especially in America where there is such a pronounced discrepancy in wealth distribution. In this paper, I start by summarizing past research of the topic and lead into analysis and finally my conclusions. My research raised the question; in what way does poverty cause or create an ideal situation for individuals to commit crime.
In preparing for this paper, I spent many hours searching for and analyzing sociological research about the cause of crime and the effects of poverty. I collected my data using credible database resources. I went straight to EBSCOhost and Google Scholar to search my topic. I was also given some insight on a few textbook introductory readings. My research was primarily Internet based, supplemented by a few textbooks.
One challenge I had with my research was simply the broadness of my topic. I went into the search using terms as simple as crime and poverty. I quickly found those two words to be extremely nebulous, making my research even more difficult. I did, however, end up finding out how to narrow my searches with more specific terms.
The words “poverty” and “crime” are used many times in this paper. Both of these terms can have very broad definitions and connotations. In this context, I am analyzing homicide rates and violent acts such as assaults, armed robbery, and crimes committed with weapons. I am also analyzing property crime rates. I am focusing on crimes likely to be committed by individuals in poverty and lower class structures, as apposed to white-collar crimes such as embezzlement or bribery. These types of crimes are important to analyze because everyone has the means and knowledge to commit them. Given the right circumstances, every person has the capability to act violently or steal a piece of property.
Poverty is the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions. Depending on the demographic, poverty takes many forms. Third world poverty exhibits much worse conditions than American poverty. Americans do not live in slum villages, and everyone has access to basic education and some food. There are many more institutions aiding the poor in America, but that is not to say that American poverty is not a problem. While Americans are a little better off than those in the Third World, they are still struggling. Poverty is basically defined as not having the means to provide the basic necessities for life. This includes not being able to provide shelter, food, or health services. In the United States, any household of four living on an income of about 23,000 dollars or less per year is impoverished. (HHS Poverty Guidelines) According to the same source, a single individual living on about 11,200 dollars per year is considered impoverished. Compared to third world citizens, Americans require more money to survive due to higher living costs.
Poverty has existed since the forefront of society. Man has always tried to get ahead of man in his conquest of life. Just as animals fight to eat the most or reproduce the most; humans have tried to gain or posses the most. This competition relies on the ability and motivation of each individual compared to society or other individuals. Inherently, some people are smarter or have more skills and are able to excel past their fellow man. This leads to a division in society: those who succeed and those who scrape by or simply fail. This success can be represented in social stature, level of education, or economic standing.
While crime rates are dropping, poverty rates are rising. The more people in poverty, the more people there are trying to survive by any means. It is important to analyze the impoverished demographic because they are the most at risk. Crime is not a direct result of poverty, but poverty is the most influential factor in creating the climate for crime.
Summary of Past Research
Crime is an extremely complex topic. It cannot be summed up to one influencing factor or present gene. Delinquency is the result of an aggregate of environmental factors, current occurrences, and global context.
The research shows that crime cannot be the result of one thing. Aric Hall argues, “The Chicago School believed that behavior was influenced by the social and physical environment” (Hall, 2007). Most sociologists do agree that occupation, education, and income (A.K.A. environment) are a major influence in behavior. “Early theories of crime and delinquency often emphasized socioeconomic class -- defined as some combination of occupation, education, and income -- as an important correlate of law breaking” (Heimer, 1997). However, research does differ for this correlation. “Aggregate-level studies show an association between economic inequality and crime rates (e.g., Box 1987), while individual-level studies typically report weak or nonexistent relationships between Social class and global indices of self-reported delinquency (see Tittle & Meier 1990)” (Heimer, 1997). These discrepancies in results do narrow when you focus your area of criminology. This relationship analyzes crime rates in general; focusing on violent crime, such as homicide and armed robbery, show a correlation between socioeconomic class and offenses. It is argued “rates of violent crime, such as homicide, are highest in areas with the highest concentration of people from disadvantaged Social classes” (Heimer, 1997). Furthermore, studies have found that violent delinquency is more common among youth in high density, urban areas (Heimer, 1997).
One aspect of poverty that has a notable impact is the types of parenting the children of affected areas are receiving. Work by sociologists has linked socioeconomic dynamics to behaviors exhibited by parents. A person’s job can have a pronounced influence over how they act and how they treat their kids. As explained by Heimer, “jobs with lower socioeconomic status tend to reward obedience to authority and workers generalize such experiences to parenting situations.” This dynamic leads parents to use power assertive techniques such as yelling, intimidation, and violence to discipline their children. Occupations in higher economic strata reward self-direction and critical thinking. Meaning, parents of higher classes are more likely to use “inductive discipline strategies” to deal with their children. (Heimer, 1997) This assertive parenting strategy is linked to violent misbehavior. (Heimer, 1997)
Children follow the example of their parents and others present in their environment. “Delinquency is learned, as is any other behavior, through associations with significant others and reference groups, especially parents and peers” (Heimer, 1997). Not only do children see this example of violence and the resort to crime, they build a concept of the law through these interactions. They start to rationalize what is acceptable and acceptable regardless of legality. A child’s parent is mostly present in a child’s life. If a parent uses violence and crime to satisfy their needs, a child is going to learn this to be a legitimate way to live.
Poverty perpetuates poverty. Those born into poor situations are going to have a harder time getting ahead in life, and due to this, they are more likely to end up impoverished. If a child grows up in a culture surrounded by property theft and petty crimes, they are very likely to follow that example. The situation in America is so severe because there is a large discrepancy in wealth. People in poverty are likely to witness the luxurious lives of rich Americans every day. Our poverty is different because a lot of the time, those in poverty are still integrated into the rest of society.
The highest densities of poverty are in urban areas. “Urbanization was seen as the source of crime, as there would be more people moving to the city than there were jobs for them” (Hall, 2). Research shows that crime rates are actually higher in cities and slums surrounding cities than suburban or rural areas. These areas also have the highest percentages of poverty. For example, Detroit, Michigan has the highest rates of poverty out of any city in the US (Crime Rates for Detroit, MI). Detroit also has very high rates of violent and property crimes; as many as 21 incidences of violent cases per 1000 residents and as many as 62 property crimes per 1000 residents. These rates are almost doubled compared to the rest of the state. This shows that compared to the sparse rural areas of the state (areas with lower rates of poverty) those in the urban, impoverished locations are more likely to commit crime. According to an analysis of FBI Uniform Crime Report and U.S. Census Bureau data from 1990 to 2008, “city crime rates remain considerably above those in suburbs” (Kneebone). The people the most at risk to resort to illegal activities are the people packed into environments of preexisting crime. A high number of people live in dense, impoverished areas such as slums or ghettos that do not have access to jobs or a source of income. This lack of income, couple with the environment of illegal activity already present in most areas, makes illicit gains through crime seem like the only option to survive.
They interact with all different classes. In third world countries, those in poverty live in entirely poor societies. There is no discrepancy in wealth. Everyone is barely scraping by as an entire community. There are not a few people living lavishly mixed in with the rest of the poor. Those people are not forced to witness what life could be like, so they do not long it like many poor people do in America. This void, the feeling of longing possessions and wealth, creates a drive for people to fill the void. To many that are bad off, crime is the only way to satisfy this feeling.
As I said earlier in the paper, violent and property crime cannot be the result of one sociological factor. It is always the product of many aspects, environmental and sociological. That being said, poverty creates a situation in which individuals are predisposed and more likely to commit crime. Certain circumstances such as: low education, poor parenting, high rates of crime examples, and poor living conditions are almost always present in impoverished societies. These factors all contribute to a child’s environment, perception of the law, and ultimately his or her behavior. In this way, poverty predisposes people to crime.
However, “that does not mean that a cause-and-effect relationship exists, as so many lower-class citizens do not resort to crime” (Hall, 1). Poverty may predispose individuals to certain morals and views that make crime acceptable. It is the same in most economic strata. There is a percentage of every demographic that commit crimes and there is always a percentage of people that do not. You can make the claim, however, that there is a correlation between poverty and crime. Studies have shown the highest homicide, armed robbery, and property crime rates in high density, lower economic strata (Kneebone).
The implications of this research show that poverty and lower economic situations create situations that breed crime. The high density of unemployment and disparity in urban and impoverished areas leaves individuals seeing illegal gains as the only way to survive. Children born into poverty are especially at risk; given their high behavior modeling capacities, likeliness to be from a broken family, and lower economic aptitude. If a child is born into a situation where they witness the influential adults in their lives using crime as a means of longevity, which they are likely to experience in some way in impoverished areas, they are likely to model this behavior and view crime as an acceptable option to make gains. Poverty simply is not the cause of crime. However, it can be seen as a catalyzer to the mentality and desire to commit crime.
As poverty rates increase due to immigration, high unemployment, and increase in living expenses, society will undoubtedly see higher crime rates. There is no simple solution to this dilemma. The government can aid the impoverished with more subsidies and social programs, but those only create a cycle of reliance on the government that, in turn, perpetuates poverty. Plus, this puts more strain on the economy because taxpayers have to fund the social programs. As there are no immediate solutions, society will have to accept the growing rates of poverty and crime. This is all the more reason to find more sustainable ways to tackle poverty.
Axelrod-Contrada, Joan. Poverty in America: Cause or Effect? New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2010. Print.
Awan, Masood, Nouman Malik, Haroon Sarwar, and Muhammad Waqas. "Impact of Education on Poverty Reduction." EBSCOhost. N.p., Jan. 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2013.
"Crime Rates for Detroit, MI." Detroit MI Crime Rates and Statistics. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2013. <http://www.neighborhoodscout.com/mi/detroit/crime/>.
Duncan, Greg J., W. Jean Yeung, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, and Judith R. Smith. "How Much Does Childhood Poverty Affect the Life Chances of Children?" JSTOR. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2657556>.
Hall, Aric. "Socio-economic Theories of Crime." Capella University, 2007. Web. 1 Feb. 2013. <http://www.arichall.com/academic/papers/hs8373-paper.pdf>.
Heimer, Karen. "Socioeconomic Status, Subcultural Definitions, and Violent Delinquency." EBSCOhost. N.p., Mar. 1997. Web. 11 Mar. 2013. <http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?sid=97e6f146-272c-4d28-ab96-3b8e3b71256b%40sessionmgr110&vid=5&hid=113&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=9704205035>.
Henslin, James M. "Down to Earth Sociology: 14th Edition:." Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books/about/Down_to_Earth_Sociology_14th_Edition.html?id=LF2f9ndR__gC>.
Kneebone, Elizabeth, and Steven Raphael. "City and Suburban Crime Trends in Metropolitan America." Metropolitan Policy Program. Brookings Edu, May 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2013. <http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2011/5/26%20metropolitan%20crime%20kneebone%20raphael/0526_metropolitan_crime_kneebone_raphael>.
"The Main ’causes’ of Class Differences in Educational Achievement." Realsociology RSS. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 19 Jan. 2011. Web. 03 Feb. 2013. <http://realsociology.edublogs.org/2011/01/19/the-main-causes-of-class-differences-in-educational-achievement/>.