You’ve heard the story of Jean Valjean, right? He’s one of the main characters in author Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. The guy steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, gets caught and goes to prison. For most of us, that’s our basic understanding of the connection between poverty and crime.
Somebody needs to eat, so they steal to get it. Or sell drugs to make rent. Or become a member of a gang because they’ve got to pay the bills.
You might then conclude that there’s no connection between poverty and crime. That’s been the conclusion of lots of media sources.
But let’s take a moment to think about what’s happened. Why are there so
many more poor people? Because of the recession? So just because people
got laid off – working people who’ve held jobs for years – they’re
going to start stealing loaves of bread and selling crack on the corner?
I interviewed a woman named Louise Davies
who’s from the Boston area. She’s in her late 30s, married with a young
kid. She’s worked since she was 16 years old, mostly in retail, until
she was laid off in 2008. Louise hasn’t worked a day since then, despite
sending out hundreds of resumes and practically begging for a job.
Louise can’t pay the bills. The last time I talked to her, she was about to be evicted.
So, is Louise, a law-abiding working-class citizen about to rob the corner store?
the extremely poor have been extremely hurt by the economic downturn,
but the legions of new poor people this country has acquired aren’t used
to being poor. They were working class and sometimes middle class
people with jobs and their own homes. Now they’re destitute and in bread
lines for the first time in their lives.
It doesn’t mean
they’re going to pick up and start selling drugs. Or join a street gang.
Sorry, America. Life just isn’t that similar to an episode of Weeds.
Sorry, Victor Hugo. Your poverty and crime anecdote falls a bit short.
Although Chicago’s crime rate is down like the rest of America, we still have vastly higher murder rates
compared to other big cities. The source of that crime? It’s not
desperate soccer moms stealing a loaf of bread from the local Jewel.
high crime rate and the persistent news stories about children and
young adults being killed on the South and West sides finds its source in persistent gang violence. It
was here before the recession, and it hasn’t gone anywhere. Gang
violence has its root in poverty – in communities that offer few
alternatives for honest work, decent education and positive engagement.
what the headlines say, poverty and crime are deeply related, but the
relationship is more insidious and less obvious. In communities that
have been intentionally ignored and disinvested in for years,
where generations of children are given a substandard
education, where jobs left 40 years ago and haven’t returned – these are
the communities where crime and poverty are bedfellows, feeding off of
It’s not just an urban problem. Take a look at Joe the Cop’s post about a rural Kentucky county that’s been known for years as incredibly poor and horribly violent. It doesn’t sound that different from Englewood or Austin.
doesn’t turn people into criminals overnight. It’s like a disease that
manifests over time, eating away at a community’s
strengths and replacing it with desperation. The gang violence that
dominates Chicago’s streets seems to be a symptom of this disease. Gangs didn’t
crop up overnight, and they’re not going to go away if the economy
suddenly gets better.
Crime and poverty are like any social
problem – more complicated than it looks. If we’re going to solve
either, we can’t be short-sighted.