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Explore the relationship between poverty and crime

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This report aims to explore the relationship between poverty and crime. This is by no means a succinct topic and for a comprehensive overview to be sought, the report needs to be broken down into several areas. Such areas include a definition into what exactly is meant by poverty, the causes and also how each primary cause of poverty belies a link to crime.

Poverty can be measured in a variety of ways: unemployment, high rate of divorce, single-parent households, dilapidated housing, poor school or concentration of minorities, are but a few examples. Therefore in an effort to determine the relationship between poverty and crime all these factors must be considered. Firstly it must be pointed out that in terms of social inequality poverty is studied in terms of relative and not absolute deprivation. Relative depravation is best understood through the words of Karl Marx as he once said : “A house can be large or small; as long as the surrounding houses are equally small it satisfies all social demands. But if a palace resides beside the little house, the little house shrinks into a hut.” It is apparent from this that relative depravation or poverty is present in modern societies such as those in the USA and UK.

It is an undisputable fact that Britain under the Conservative governments from 1979 to 1997, largely pushed the issue of poverty in a political wilderness. Thatcher pledged to ‘roll back the frontiers of the State’ by cutting welfare benefits and privatising industries in a bid to end the ‘culture of dependency’. Such moves however which were not appeased by the consequent Major government left Britain in the mid 1990s with an unnervingly high poverty rate: 4.5 million children were living in poverty in 1998/1999.

In the last governmental election Blair, in the Labour manifesto sought to redress this problem, with aims to eradicate child poverty by 2020 thus pushing the issue to the forefront of politics.

Widespread research conducted by the Labour Party’s commission on Social Justice, the Rowntree Foundation has highlighted several causes. Large scale unemployment, increase in drug use, the breakdown of the family, increased number of lone parent families, the breakdown of communities at large are all factors which contribute to the United Kingdom’s high poverty rate.

Thus it is necessary to examine the relationship between a few of these factors and crime.

Research has shown that the types of offences committed in poor urban areas has its own particular trends and characteristics. In Britain between 1979 and 1992 crime rates doubled, more dramatically still from 1989 to 1992 the crime rate rose by an overwhelming 40%. Most crime in Britain with the exceptions of fraudulent crimes committed in business and domestic violence, are conducted by youths. In these studies it was found that the majority of offenders were young men and boys below the age of 25 who were largely from urban working class areas and relatively under-educated and under-employed.

According to Simpson, Hagan and Gillis youth and crime are strongly connected because adolescence is a step between childhood dependency and responsible adulthood. In poor areas where youths have little chance of finding well-paid permanent work, they exhaust their energies in crime. Typically they commit crimes such as car thefts, joy riding, drug taking, break-ins and street crime, such as muggings and vandalism. The rise in crime as depicted places an enormous strain on the police and justice and at the time when Blair got into government there were real fears that the crime rate would spur out of control. Therefore with Blair’s affirmation: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” the New Labour government pledged to tackle crime and recognised that in order to do so its main cause must also be addressed: poverty.

Emile Durkheim in the 1890s and Robert Merton writing in the 1930s have used the concept of anomie to drawn a link between poverty and crime. When social barriers weaken as a consequence of poverty then moral guidelines tend to blur with the result that distinctions between right and wrong become jaded. The weakening of social controls “generate anger, disillusionment and frustration” (Downes, 2) and lead to delinquency. In accordance with Durkheim’s theories, the capacity to aspire is a human propensity of such force that only a strong and commonly upheld moral order could control it. Periodic bouts of anomie were inevitable in the transition to a socially just society from the moral chaos of late nineteenth century capitalism.

For Merton, American culture was a receipt for a continual strain to mounting anomie, since the American Dream was formed by insatiable aspirations. Society could not possibly supply the reality of ‘money-success’ to more than a minority: yet all were democratically attuned to expect it. Though Merton was no Marxist, his emphasis on the extent to which capitalism flourishes only by fostering the propensity to consume – mass production must be accompanied by mass consumption – lends his approach a radical appeal. Much elaborated, these theories provide the taproots for most modern theories of crime and deviance.

Their relevance to the rise and rise of crime rates in the post-war period now seems indisputable, since they alone can address the paradox that crime has risen steeply with growing prosperity and reduced but persistent inequality. When greater affluence is combined with growing inequality and the rise of what has been called a winner/loser culture, crime has climbed even more steeply (James 1995). In England and Wales, official crime rates doubled over the 1979-92 period, most dramatically by 40 per cent between 1989 and 1992, though victim surveys have shown half that rate of increase. Differences of age and gender are surprisingly constant, over time and between different societies.

Most crime (apart from the largely hidden icebergs of occupational crimes and domestic violence) is youth crime, committed by a minority of young men and boys under the age of 25, who are disproportionately drawn from the urban, under-educated, under-employed working class. Youth and crime are so strongly linked because adolescence is a limbo between childhood dependence and adult maturity: energies are high, outlets are few, needs are keenly felt and authority is to be tested and resisted. The gender divide persists because girls are much more carefully watched by parents, deflected from risk-raking (Hagan, Simpson and Gillis 1979) and, though here things may be changing fast, brought up to anticipate reliance on a male partner in raising a family. The male role remains the more restricted, for without work men are less likely to gain emotional as well as occupational fulfilment.

One prime cause of poverty as already mentioned is unemployment. Despite the fact that during their time in government the Conservatives maintained that employment and crime were not connected. Sociologists agree that unemployment, particularly over a sustained period of time leads to poverty for individuals. Individual poverty thus when it appears in concentrated groups leads to a higher crime rate.

It is generally true that more crime occurs during economic downfalls. When unemployment goes up 1% there is a 4% increase in murders, a 6% increase in robberies and a 2% increase in burglaries and a notable effect on rape and other crimes (O’Connor, 1, 2001).

The mere lack of work is only part of the problem; the situation of underemployment also contributes to poverty and as a consequence, crime. Underemployment is the situation where people are in low-paid employment with few benefits, rarely paid holidays and little chance of future prospects. Such persons engaged in this type of work are according to statistics considered employed when in reality perhaps they should not be. Therefore when researching the link between crime and unemployment the circumstance of underemployment must also be considered in order to gain a precise overview of the effect that low income has on the crime rate. As Elliot Currie puts:

“The important things are the quality of work – its stability, its level of pay, its capacity to give the worker a sense of dignity, the esteem of peers and the community. In our society, these fundamental needs are virtually impossible to satisfy without a job – and all too often difficult with a job”(O’Connor 2001)

In a presentation delivered by Robert Crutchfield Ph.D in Washington, USA this point is illustrated through the following hypothesis.

Two 16 year old males with similar educations are neighbours. One has a good job working at an airline company; the other works at McDonalds. Friends ask them to go out drinking one night and they each have a different response. The one with the good job wants to keep it as good jobs are hard to find. He turns his friends as he is working in the morning. His neighbour decides that if he is late for work the next day or has a hangover, he can get another job at another fast food restaurant. He and his friends gather to drink behind a local row of shops. The circumstances now include the three factors which make crime more likely: potential criminals (intoxicated 16 year olds with bad jobs or no jobs), potential victims (shoppers or each other), and an absence of guardians (no family members, adults, or police nearby).

This highlights well the connection between un(der)employment and crime and therefore poverty and crime. It shows that if someone has a lower standard of living then various factors suggest they are more likely to be involved in criminal behaviour. People with good jobs and therefore better standard of living are more likely to take the option of maintaining this standard of living whereas people living in relative depravation have the ‘nothing to lose’ mentality which has been linked with crime.

Another notable cause of poverty is family breakdown. “Scholarly studies show that single parenting increases the likelihood of poverty and welfare dependency”(NCPA 2001) Where there are single parent families, and the parent is unable to work then they may well become dependant upon welfare benefits from the State. There is a clear link between lone parent families and poverty and therefore crime.

Evidence from the National Centre for Policy Analysis in the USA shows the relationship between lone parent families, poverty and crime. Children of single parents are more likely to have psychological problems, fail to achieve success educationally and commit crime especially if they come from poor backgrounds.

* The poverty rate for female-headed households with children is 44.5 % compared to 7.8 % for married couples with children.

* The rate of arrest for juvenile violent crimes has more than tripled over the past three decades, echoing the upsurge in single-parent households.

* High out-of-wedlock birth rates correlate with high crime rates among young men.

* Studies show that most gang members come from single-parent homes.

* Of juvenile delinquents in reform institutions, 70 % had lived in single-parent homes or with someone other than their natural parents.

* One study found that 60 % of rapists come from single-parent backgrounds.

* Another study found that 75 % of adolescent murderers come from single-parent homes.

Many criminologists support the evidence which suggests lone parent families are poor and therefore more likely to commit crime. The ‘anomie of fatherlessness’ is recognised by sociologists Dennis and Erdos (1993) and they reject the opinion that “if the rate of unemployment were to fall to the level 1960s, the crime rate would fall to the level of the 1960s”. They believe that the breakdown of the family and social conditions have changed too dramatically to mean that full employment would eradicate poverty and crime in the process.

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