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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.


larry d. March 9, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Poverty is also a leading indicator of obesity in this country.

KL Proctor March 20, 2012 at 1:37 pm

I does not cost much to buy non-nutritional food that is high in calories and low in nutritional value. Food that is nutrient rich is often too costly for someone living in poverty.

larry d. March 20, 2012 at 7:15 pm

Balderdash. You could feed a family of four a very nutritious meal with what it costs to buy a single Big Mac Meal. The junk food is the expensive stuff.

John March 9, 2012 at 5:44 pm

I would submit that it starts with the family unit. It is essential, in my view, to have a mother and father who are committed to one another and who love and support one another and the child. I would submit that single parent homes result in a greater likelihood of poverty. Furthermore, if there is hostility between parents on display for the child, or if a parent abandons a family/child, societal will cannot overcome the child's daily influences and examples set within the home.

KL Proctor March 20, 2012 at 1:47 pm

But think of the free breakfast and lunch programs that No Child Left Behind brought us and provided by the schools. These meals are highly caloric, with little to no nutritional value. The meals are often overprocessed, white bread, meat made of pink stuff, white pasta, sweets, pop tarts, donuts, sugary milks, the redemptive ingredient, often there is fruit and sometimes a very small serving of vegetables.

I often think that Health and Human Service should hold a mandatory class on home cooking. Basic ingredients often cost less than the processed convenient food. One of my best memories is my mother, a teacher, and my grandmothers, homemakers, preparing meals from scratch. I still do it not caring for the flavors of pre-prepared meals.

It is a tough question and the solutions are many, but it does not cost alot of money to get fat.

As for home life, I agree with Dr. Phil, sometimes divorce and single parent household is the healthier option. I think sometimes the men leave the family and abandon their responsibilities to their children, and sometimes woman do to, but not as often.

Dave March 9, 2012 at 6:22 pm

I have some questions when I read things like this.

How is the poverty level defined? Is it strictly the bottom X%?

I do not believe there is a real defined correlation between crime and poverty. You might, and I emphasize might, be able to make a case that robbery burglary and theft are related to poverty. But no one is raping, murdering and using heroin because of poverty.

The crime rate was not that bad during the depression. What has changed since?

Can the increased criminal population be traced back to the point where we stopped punishing criminals and started trying to 'rehabilitate' them?

If you want to be horrified by some poverty statistics, look at this story.

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