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.

  1. 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).

  1. 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)

  1. 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.

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    Welcome Karl, please take our tour and refer to the help center as and when for guidance as to our ways. Enjoy Skeptics. (Nice first post). Just to say, you do mean specifically in the US? Nov 4 at 0:41
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    Classic causation vs correlation. I highly doubt reputable research will ever use the word "cause" without rigorously controlled experiments, and I'm certain poverty is not an ethically acceptable test condition to test people on. I would advise to dig into the actual sources and find out what they actually say instead of the words "causes crime".
    – Nelson
    Nov 4 at 2:27
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    There's a lot of rich people committing crimes; they just get caught less. Perhaps poverty increases the rate of prosecution, rather than the rate of crime.
    – bishop
    Nov 4 at 3:25
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    Re the first sentence: Is crime the most important cause of crime? Typo? Nov 4 at 7:18
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    3) Like nature versus nurture, we know the real issue is going to be tangled together - being poor gives a motive for theft, being caught for a crime hinders the chances of earning income, being unwilling to follow social rules makes one more likely to be poor and to commit crime, society treats crimes differently depending on how rich the culprits are. We know it is complex - how will this question help?
    – Oddthinking
    Nov 4 at 18:45

One way to tackle this problem is through "natural experiments".

A quick Google for crime poverty "natural experiment" turns up some papers that take this approach.

  • Crime and Poverty: Evidence from a Natural Experiment looked at the outcome of a disputed election in Madagascar, which temporarily increased poverty in the highlands. There was a corresponding increase in crop theft, a lesser correlation with burglary and homicide, and no change in cattle theft. The difference between crop theft and cattle theft is that the latter is an organised crime which often involves local authorities while the former is not an organised activity.

There are quite a few other natural experiment papers, but none that I could find specifically looking at poverty. If you are interested in the broader issues of crime and its causes then its worth browsing at more length.

A non-natural experiment was "Moving to Opportunity", which enabled a random selection of people from poor high-crime areas to move to better neighbourhoods. It found that there was a strong positive effect on children who were under 13 when they moved, but if anything older children suffered a negative effect from the move (possibly due to disruption to their lives). Adults saw no change.

So from this it would seem that growing up surrounded by poverty and crime makes young children more likely to become criminals. Older children and adults, in contrast, are only likely to resort to crime in response to poverty as a short-term response to severe shortages.

  • If crime was quantified in dollars how would white collar crime factor in? Lots of money is involved and the criminals are not people in poverty. Nov 5 at 22:04
  • @GeorgeWhite I don't know, but I suspect the answer is going to be complicated. Merely comparing white and blue collar crime is going to be difficult, and thats before you get to differential prosecution, racism and difficulty in securing convictions. Was the opioid epidemic a crime? The company pleaded guilty, but no human as (AFAIK) been charged with a crime except for some of the doctors who pushed the drugs. Try formulating a question about it that could be answered here. Nov 6 at 11:28

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