Is It Nitpicking to Say We Don't Know for Sure That Poverty Causes Crime?

Maybe this is nitpicking. Sometimes you see a nit that just begs to be picked. Yesterday on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News, State Senator Royce West was talking some kind of stuff about who should be the new city manager, and down toward the bottom of his piece he tossed out this remark:

"There is little dispute that root causes of crime lie in poverty and lack of opportunity -- the lack of meaningful employment for some."

Now, why can't I just let that lie? I know what he means. Poverty is bad. Chronic unemployment is bad. I agree with all that. It's a lot of why I think the school reform issue is so important: Teaching kids to be fully literate by the end of third grade would be a huge step toward resolving those problems.

But ...

There is lots of dispute about poverty being the root cause of crime. Tons. The idea that poverty causes crime is an expression of an ideology of the 1960s. One of the architects was the late Richard Cloward, a professor of political science at City University of New York. Cloward and the late Lloyd E. Ohlin, a criminal justice professor at the Harvard Law School, published a book in 1960 called Delinquency and Opportunity in which they argued that urban gang crime is a rational response to poverty and a kind of social critique of discrimination.

Their work was very influential, not just in academic circles but at the level of White House policy and congressional action over the next two decades. The problem was that history came along and proved them dead wrong in addition to their being actually dead. During the 2008-2009 Great Recession, crime rates in America not only drooped but plummeted, just when they should have been sky-rocketing had the Cloward-Ohlin thesis been correct.

Heather Mac Donald, absolutely not one of my favorite writers, a regular on Hannity for God's sake, wrote what was nevertheless a pretty damned incisive piece for The Wall Street Journal three years ago in which she pretty well completely took apart the Cloward-Ohlin doctrine of crime as a response to poverty, using numbers from the Great Recession to prove her point. I'm not sure she got very far in her attempt to explain what did make crime come down -- something about better police computers, and, yeah, who knows?

I have been looking back at David Leonhardt's recent series in The New York Times on upward mobility in America, reporting on findings of a major new study by the Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard and UC-Berkley. One of the most striking findings of the study is that lives of crime and lives of poverty are indeed bound up together and they do indeed have powerful links to lack of economic opportunity, but in a much more localized way than previously thought. It's almost all about the place.

Crime and poverty are most frequent in tough poor neighborhoods where kids don't see much else. The best way to improve people's lives and bring down those corrosive crime rates is to pluck people out of those intensely negative environments and sprinkle them around in healthier atmospheres.

The slowest, worst way to cure crime in the really high-crime South Dallas neighborhoods, in other words, would be to make it easier for people to stay there. The best thing a new city manager could do for South Dallas and the city would be anything to continue the current trend, which is for people to move out of the worst areas. So you tell me. Is that a nit?

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze