TLDR: Is crime the most important cause of crime?
A common claim, as far as I have seen never sourced in any meaningful way, is that poverty constitutes the strongest or in other ways most relevant criminogenic factor.
Recently came across a video by the Swedish YouTuber RoseWrist, which expresses the sentiment in an illustrative way: "There is a large body of [...] scientific literature that indicate that social economics are the best predictive of crimes in 99% of cases. [...] There is a lot, a lot, a lot of research, suggesting that poor socio-economic conditions causes crime" (from roughly 6.40, as well as 42.30). Already in ancient times, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.) stated that "Poverty is the mother of crime."
The thesis seems to in most cases be based upon the observation of crime and poverty correlating, with most criminals having poorer socioeconomic conditions. As well as the fact that poverty causes desperation, which leads people to criminality.
I've read a substantial amount of criminology, and have found counter-narrative facts in regards to this. Which I will share below. I'm hoping that any responder to this question, might present the best case for poverty being the most important cause of crime - as well as attempt to debunk the counter-narrative facts I'm about to present, or strengthen the counter-narrative further if the totality of evidence points in that direction.
- Correlation is not causation.
The idea that crime results from poverty may stem from the observation that all social problems tend to congregate within the same inner-city areas. In this sense, bad housing and education, unemployment, drugs and crime rates all go together [...]. However, it is simple-minded to attribute one social problem to another. People in these areas also elect Labour councils, yet not so many sociologists ascribe crime to voting Labour. (Professor Glenn D Wilson - Criminal Minds)
The problem starts with basic logic - the claimed relationship could be inverted, or a third variable might be responsible for poverty and crime often going together. Perhaps personality traits that increase the risk of crime, also increase the risk of poverty. Or perhaps, people acting out criminal behavior makes their living spaces poorer. Stanton E. Samenow argues precisely this point. A US justice department report, also concluded that poverty causes crime (as far I am aware, it did not rule out the possibility that the inverse relationship might also be true).
The fact that most poor people aren't criminals, points towards the relationship being inverted, or a third variable being involved. For clarity's sake, I'm not implying that poor people are generally morally inferior to other people, nor that poverty is an automatic and inevitable outcome of poor character. Just that some personality traits that increase the probability of criminality, may also increase the risk of life choices which increase the risk of poverty.
In studying youths, the Cambridge criminologist Wikströms noted that the variables that were found amongst criminals primarily were their crime propensity. In other words, their values, level of impulse control and time preferences. Most criminals were poor, but crime propensity predicted crime more accurately than poverty - and was found amongst both poor and non-poor criminals. (Wikström, Per-Olof;Treiber, Kyle (2016/04/27) "Social Disadvantage and Crime: A Criminological Puzzle" American Behavioral Scientist).
In an interview, Wikström stated that: "Social exclusion explains 3-4 percent of various types of crime, while personal morales and [weak] impulse control, combined with the environment one is raised in, explains about 60 percent” (my translation).
- The claimed correlation is in itself not as strong and obvious as is often implied
Consistent with most previous research, we have found that coming from a disadvantaged background was not a strong predictor of crime involvement in our sample (Wikström, Per-Olof;Treiber, Kyle (2016/04/27) "Social Disadvantage and Crime: A Criminological Puzzle" American Behavioral Scientist)
- Crime is not equally distributed amongst disadvantaged groups and does not consistently follow economic metrics over time
One of the potentially more provocative examples, comes in the form of African American overrepresentation:
a comparison of black conditions and crime rates at the time of the crime rise [i.e from 1960s to the mid 1990s] with conditions and crime rates of earlier periods produces anomalies. In earlier periods the conditions often were worse while the crime rates were lower. And in the late 1960s, when African American conditions had improved markedly, their crime rates began to escalate dramatically. This is especially noticeable when we compare black conditions and crime in 1940, on the eve of the World War II migration, and in 1970, at the start of the crime tsunami. In 1940 black homicide victimization rates were 54.4 per 100,000, whereas in 1970 they were 78.2 per 100,000, a difference of 44% (Latzer, 2016, p. 29).
Yet by almost every measure African Americans socioeconomic conditions were better in 1970 than in 1940. “Blacks not only shared in the rising prosperity of the war and the immediate postwar years,” wrote historians Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom and Thernstrom (1997), p. 70), “they advanced more rapidly than whites. [...] Despite these economic and social advances black crime began to escalate markedly in the late 1960s and continued to play a major role in the multi-decade crime boom that followed (Latzer, 2016, pp. 128–45, 164–70). The unexplained juxtaposition of improving black conditions and escalating black offending raises significant questions about the relationship between structural conditions and crime.
If structural factors alone accounted for black crime rates we would expect that the rates would have been lower in 1970 than 1940. That they were not suggests that other factors must have been at work. In addition to the unexpected mismatch between adversity and crime for a single group, structural variables are not always predictive of violent crime rates across subcultural groups. As discussed below, some groups may suffer more disadvantages than other groups but engage in less crime; and the obverse also is true. (Latzer, Barry (2018/01) "Subcultures of violence and African American crime rates" Journal of Criminal Justice 54:41-49)
Other, less provocative examples can also be found:
A popular theory of crime is that it is due to poverty and unemployment. However, crime in the UK increased sharply between 1950 and 1970 when we “[never had it so good” and is now falling, despite “austerity”. Crime in the US also fell recently through a period of rising unemployment. The links between unemployment levels and crime are often surprising. During the time Hugo Chavez controlled Venezuela (1999-2013) unemployment was roughly halved but the murder rate tripled.