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Poverty and Crime

by Professor Will Huhn on March 9, 2012

in Criminal Law,Wilson Huhn

Reports from the Pew Research Center and the National Center for Children in Poverty make for depressing reading.  The statistics regarding poverty and crime are astonishing and a shameful reflection on our society. In 2009 the Pew Center issued a report 1 in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections.  The title of the report refers to the fact that at any given time over three percent of Americans are either in jail, on probation, or on parole. At the time this report was issued, approximately 2.3 million persons were incarcerated in the United States.  This comprises .7% of the adult population.  This is the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Russia is second at .58% of the adult population, and Ruanda third at .56%. Englandâs incarceration rate is .15%, less than one-fourth ours.  America has less than 5% of the world's population, but nearly one-fourth of the world's prisoners.

From a purely economic perspective this is unacceptable.  According to Pew on the average it costs $29,000 annually to keep a person in jail.  And that does not factor in the opportunity costs of incarceration; the lost productivity, lost economic consumption, and lost tax revenues that result from removing an individual from the economy.  I am not suggesting that we would be better off economically if we were to suddenly release all criminals from custody.  I am simply stating the obvious fact that we are failing to prepare and train people to perform useful roles in our soceity and that this creates a tremendous burden on the rest of us.  Given the opportunity, almost everybody would choose to earn a legitimate livelihood, raise a family, and enjoy a normal life.  In a global economy societies that do not provide those kinds of opportunities to all of its members will not remain competitive for very long.  Nor should they.

What are the root causes of the high crime rates in the United States?  And what can we do about it?

The principal problem is poverty.  The Federal Poverty Level is $18,730 for a family of three.  In its report Basic Facts About Low-Income Children, 2010, the National Center for Children in Poverty informs us that more than 20% of American children are in families earning less than the federal poverty level, and another 23% live in "low-income" families:

Children represent 24 percent of the population. Yet, they comprise 34 percent  of all people in poverty. Among all children  under 18, 44 percent live in low-income families and approximately one in every  five (21 percent) live in poor families.

Children under the age of six are even more at risk.  Forty-eight percent of young children live in low-income families, 24% below the poverty level.

Try supporting a family and raising a child on $18,000 per year.

There are myriad problems associated with poverty that feed upon each other.  Homelessness.  Insufficient health care.  Inadequate schools.  Lack of job opportunity.  Drug Addiction.  Crime.  And incarceration.

We have to break these cycles.  It is not merely a matter of individual will.  It is a matter of societal will.