Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Don’t get this bass-ackwords:

I must agree with Volokh and this article from TCS about poverty and crime. No doubt there is a correlation between the two, but the commonly proffered story about poverty causing crime gets things backwards. It is in fact a more plausible explanation that crime causes poverty, not the other way around. Here is Volokh:

Poverty, people say, causes crime; but what many people miss is that crime causes poverty. Crime disproportionately victimizes the poor, and it keeps them poor, partly by diminishing their assets (or making them invest their scarce money in anti-crime measures) but chiefly by keeping their neighborhoods poor. If you want to help the poor, work to reduce crime -- which in large part (though not entirely) means arrest, prosecute, incapacitate, and thus deter criminals.

My own feeling however, is that, while crime certainly exacerbates the problem of urban poverty, the high urban crime/urban poverty that we see occurring together are both caused by something else, something greater.

And when it comes to being in poverty, very few adults (and in that definition I include underaged young adults having children) are “poor through no fault of their own.” That is, the means of being in poverty and escaping it are within their control. And what they do that causes their poverty results from cultural forces that also lead to high crime as well. William Galston, a Democrat, and a moderate lefty (and as I understand, a Straussian to boot), lays out the case for escaping poverty (citing James Q. Wilson summarizing Galston):

[Y]ou need only do three things in this country to avoid poverty—finish high school, marry before having a child, and marry after the age of 20. Only 8 percent of the families who do this are poor; 79 percent of those who fail to do this are poor.

My opinion: The same cultural forces that lead individuals to decide not to do what Wilson & Galston admonish, result in higher levels of both poverty and crime.