Debunking the Ancient Shibboleth
Janet Reno, the new attorney general, has told reporters she wants to develop broad social programs to combat the root causes of crime, like poverty.
But hold it a moment: Does poverty cause crime?
That's what we've heard, of course, ever since Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. And the idea goes back even further-back to Aristotle, who called poverty "the parent of revolution and crime."
But in today's inner cities, we ought to be turning that around: The truth is that crime causes poverty. At the very least, crime makes it harder to break out of poverty.
In a Policy Review article, James Stewart of the National Institute of Justice says the vast majority of poor people are honest, law-abiding citizens. But their opportunities for advancement are stunted by the drug dealers, muggers, thieves, and murderers who terrorize their neighborhoods.
The most obvious way crime keeps people poor is by theft and robbery. Poor households suffer the highest rate of burglary. And since they often can't afford insurance, the loss of an appliance or a car can be devastating.
The indirect costs of crime can be equally destructive.
Traditionally, poor people have advanced themselves by working overtime or getting an education. But who wants to risk a late job or night school in the inner city, if it means waiting at deserted bus stops or walking down dark streets?
Then again, crime lowers property values, as residents flee to the suburbs. This can be devastating to poor people who own their homes: By devaluing their property, crime has exactly the same effect as taking money out of their savings account.
And since inner-city businesses have to pay much more for security, crime chokes out commercial enterprises, reducing the number of jobs available to the poor. One inner-city supermarket in New Jersey survives only because it has installed a high, chain-link fence all around the store, patrolled by a uniformed guard. Inside the compound, a Dunkin Donuts entices the police to hang around by offering them free coffee and donuts all night.
Finally, high crime means more police, more courts, more prisons. And to pay for it all-more taxes, which drives businesses out and spurs the spiral of decay.
So when you hear the old shibboleth that poverty causes crime, try turning it around for a snappy rebuttal: In our inner cities, it's crime that causes poverty.
If we really want to help the poor, the answer is not to tip the federal coffers into one more antipoverty program-contrary to what the new attorney general says. What would work far better is a good anticrime program. We need to give the poor a defense against the thugs and criminals who roam their neighborhoods. We need to give them back their property, their stores, their freedom to walk the streets at night.
I'm not talking about just sweeping up criminals and locking them behind bars. What Janet Reno needs to see are programs like Prison Fellowship's, which work one to one with prison inmates to bring God's transforming power to work from the inside out.
That's the best solution-for both crime and poverty.