The Culture of Generational Poverty > Chapter 5 - It's a Crime

Chapter 5: It’s a Crime

It’s a Crime

“One way to make sure crime doesn't pay would be to let the government run it.”   Ronald Reagan

Does poverty cause crime, or does crime cause poverty? It is well known that the highest crime rates in any city or town occurs in the most impoverished areas of the community. Professor Michael Rosenfeld [i] has done extensive research that demonstrates that it is inequality more so than poverty that breeds criminal behavior. Below are excerpts from a 2006 White Paper where the Professor explains:

Poverty is defined as the lack of some fixed level of material goods necessary for survival and minimal well-being. For example, the government's official measure of a poverty rate only counts cash income in determining whether a family is poor; cash welfare programs count, but benefits from non-cash programs, such as food stamps, medical care, social services, education and training, and housing are not included. Taxes paid, such as social security payroll taxes, and tax credits, such as the Earned Income Credit, are also excluded from poverty rate calculations. Inequality, on the other hand, refers to a comparison between the material level of those who have the least in a society and the material level of other groups in that society.

There are at least twenty different ways to measure poverty and inequality (e.g., unemployment, high rates of divorce, single-parent households, high population density, dilapidated housing, poor schools, residential mobility, population turnover, concentration of minorities, etc.)The problem is that all these things are highly correlated with one another.

Perhaps the most common association is with "conventional" or street crime. For example, when unemployment goes up 1%, there's a 4% increase in homicides, a 6% increase in robberies, a 2% increase in burglaries, and measurable effects on rape and other crimes.

Unemployment does cause crime among ex-offenders. Unemployment also has stronger effects at the neighborhood rather than aggregate level. It also depends on how you define unemployment. Official rates only count people who are looking for work, so a whole lot of people who aren't looking, but are still unemployed don't get counted. There's also the existence of underemployment, low-wage, dead-end jobs with terrible working conditions, and these people get counted officially as employed when maybe they shouldn't. Some people may mix crime and employment in various ways, thus confounding any research efforts.

Impoverished neighborhoods are more likely than middle class neighborhoods to have a high concentration of ex-offenders living there. According to Paul Street in his Z Magazine article,[ii] “Incarceration deepens a job-skill deficit that a significant body of research shows to be a leading factor explaining criminal behavior among disadvantaged people in the first place. "Crime rates are inversely related," Richard B. Freeman and Jeffrey Fagan have shown, "to expected legal wages, particularly among young males with limited job skills or prospects."

[QN.No.#13. Perceptions of inequality contribute to...]

Why do the Poor Rob the Poor?

If inequity is the primary motivator underlying criminal behavior, then why do poor people more often become victims of crime than those living in the middle class, or in wealth class? The lack of resources and planning strategies that typify poverty culture can contribute to an explanation this phenomenon. Crimes of opportunity occur on the spur of the moment. A would-be thief, for example, might see a person walking alone in an isolated area, or notice an open car warming up on a cold morning in his neighbor’s driveway. No planning is needed. One may simply act on impulse and procure the needed resource, perhaps even rationalizing that the victim should have been more protective of their resources if they really wanted to keep them. Perceived inequity can occur even between those who have little.

The more complex the crime, the more skills and resources are needed to successfully commit the crime. If you wish to steal someone’s identity, it is helpful to have a computer, or at the very least a credit card scanner, the most common tools used to commit identity theft. If you wish to rob a mansion, you will need transportation to the wealthy neighborhood, tools to cut through or scale a fence, tools to disable the home’s alarm system, and perhaps even safe-cracking skills. Chances that you will be detected are high, and the likelihood that one can gather all of the resources to commit the crime are low.

Crimes of passion occur when one person becomes enraged by another. Crimes of passion generally occur in one’s own home or neighborhood. In impoverished neighborhoods tensions run long and tempers run short. Assault, rape and murder occur more frequently in or near impoverished neighborhoods or homeless areas than in any other part of town.

Crimes of necessity occur in places where need is great. Traffic misdemeanors such as driving without insurance, or while under license suspension, or without proper authorization, can be viewed as the necessary risks that one must take in order to get to where they need to go. Shoplifting food to feed one’s hungry family, becoming a prostitute to support those hungry children, passing bad checks, and defrauding the social welfare system are all crimes rooted in need.

The Link between Crime and Poverty

It is a short and slippery slope from living in poverty to pursuing a life of crime. Illicit drug activity and drug and alcohol addiction is also more highly concentrated in impoverished areas than in any other segment of society. Addicts often resort to crime to support their habit, and those who use drugs also operate under impaired judgment and a lack of impulse control. Alcohol and common street drugs such as meth amphetamine and crack cocaine induce feelings of anger, emotional labiality, and temperamental outbursts. Add these elements to the pressure cooker of poverty, and the lid begins to rattle.

Crack cocaine continues to be the drug of choice in inner city neighborhoods, even though the DEA reports that the swell of cocaine use in America peaked in the early 1990’s. An anonymous addict asked that his poem be included in this course book “to help the helpers understand why coke addicts live in poverty and commit crimes.”

[QN.No.#14. High rates of drug abuse in impoverished neighborhoods leads to ...]

My Name is Cocaine

Beware my friend; my name is cocaine, coke for short

I entered this country without a passport

Ever since then I’ve been hunted and sought

By junkies, and pushers, and plain clothes dicks

But mostly by users who need a quick fix

I’m more valued than diamonds, more treasured than gold

Use me just once and you too will be sold

I’ll make a school boy forget his books

I’ll make a beauty queen forget her looks

I’ll take a renowned speaker and make him a bore

I’ll take your mama and make her a whore

I’ll make a teacher forget how to teach

I’ll make a preacher not want to preach

All kinds of people have fallen under my wing

Look around and you’ll see the results of my sting

I’ve got daughters turning on their mothers

I’ve got sisters robbing their brothers

I’ve got burglars robbing the Lord’s house

I’ve got husbands pimping their spouse

I’m the king of crime and the prince of destruction

I’ll cause the organs of your body to malfunction

I’ll cause your babies to be born hooked

I’ll turn an honest man into a crook

I’ll make you rob, steal and kill

When you’re under my power you’ll have no will

I’m a bad habit, too much for the man

Police had to invest in a new batter-ram

I’ve got ‘em standing on the corner yelling “Rock”

Shooting and stabbings are common on the block

If you jump into my saddle, you had better ride well

On the white horse of cocaine you will ride straight to Hell

Throw in the fact that weapons are readily available in impoverished areas, police response is typically slower than in middle class or wealthy neighborhoods, and witnesses to crime generally decline the opportunity to speak with police out of fear of retribution from the criminal or their associates, and the lid comes flying off the cooker. Criminal deterrence activities are scarce or absent in impoverished areas; no neighborhood watch committees, no witnesses, no security systems, and no video cameras, means no strong evidence to prosecute a suspect, so they remain on the streets unpunished.

Gang activity draws children into a life of crime at an early age by dealing drugs to school children and bullying them into the gang through intimidation methods that convince them that they are in need of gang protection. Broken homes, hunger, fear, and oppression present in poverty makes the gang an attractive alternative to children who live loveless lives. The gang becomes the surrogate family the child longs for, and another criminal is born. The good people of the impoverished community stay behind locked doors, and the thugs roam the streets pushing their poison and victimizing their prey.

Speaking of the prey, impoverished neighborhoods provide a plentiful supply of easy prey. People with low incomes and no insurance are nearly twice as likely as the general population to have psychiatric disorders, according to a study presented in the 2001 Journal of Family Practice. [iii] The researchers point out that if untreated, psychiatric disorders may lead to higher rates of disability which then leads to further poverty. Without treatment, the mentally ill often lack the reality contract and level of awareness needed to avoid being exploited or victimized. Most impoverished people with diagnosed psychiatric disorders receive SSI checks monthly, making them attractive targets for criminals.

Add in the fact that the ex-offender population is high, and it creates the perfect storm. Those with more advanced criminal skills gained in prison serve as tutors, mentors, coaches, sponsors, and role models for young criminals that are just starting their felonious careers.

Re-entry from Prison to Poverty

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in any of the 50 States is commonly known to put more emphasis on correction than rehabilitation. Prisons offer GED classes, occupational skills training, pre-release substance abuse classes, college degrees, and life skills training, but the desired results are seldom achieved with these programs. When former felons are bused from the prison door back to their community of residence, their chance of finding gainful employment is nearly nil. One of the major unintended consequences of the prison system is that it functions as a crime school where lower level criminals learn how to advance their criminal career from more savvy felons. This becomes the primary educational force that propels their success once they are returned to society.

State prisons are like graduate school for criminals. Most inmates are incarcerated in local jails for lesser offenses before they make their first jaunt to a State or Federal facility. Almost none of the rehabilitation programs present in state prisons are available to jail inmates. “The national discussion about reentry has ramped up in recent years as legislators, community officials, and corrections leaders have come together to discuss how to keep the inmate population from coming back to prison or jail. But largely missing from the conversation is how jails can be a part of this effort,” stated Michelle Gaseau, Managing Editor of [iv]

Her article goes on to explain that jail inmates have an even higher rate of recidivism than State prisons, and the revolving door spins faster. Inmates being quickly returned to their community after a short stint in jail could benefit from GED classes, and substance abuse treatment, while incarcerated and establish links to community resources to help them find a job, housing, and educational opportunities upon release. Unfortunately, most jail inmates do not receive such resources, and simply “do time” to serve out their jail sentence.

Many street criminals enter the penal system as juvenile delinquents. They get picked up for truancy, fighting, underage intoxication, theft, possession of a weapon, and a myriad of starter offenses. There they learn to be tougher, angrier, and bolder than they were before entering the detention center. As they grow to be adults their crimes grow along with them, and before they know it, they find themselves in the local jail, and then on to prison. During their brief stint on the streets between incarcerations, they pull scams, terrorize and exploit their neighborhoods, recruit young people to participate in criminal acts, and look for the perfect crime that will make them rich and happy, because they are certain that they will never get caught again.

[QN.No.#15. Which statement is true? Those who re-enter society after being in prison...]

Jobs for ex-offenders, particularly felons seldom exist in middle class culture. As a condition of their parole, felons must list their offenses on job applications and submit to background checks that reveal their criminal past. What businessman or woman would take the risk of hiring a former drug dealer, con artist, or rapist to work in their place of business? Even with a college degree earned in prison most ex-cons cannot locate a living wage job. A return to poverty almost always means a return to crime.

Does the Middle Class Exploit and Oppress the Poor?

My Daddy is in Jail: The Cycle Continues Sadly, 80% of the inmates incarcerated in State prisons are parents. The children of these men and women are cared for by relatives, placed in the State foster care system, or reside with the unincarcerated parent and visit the state penal facility to visit a few hours each month, or each year, with their absent parent. For these children having a parent in jail is a fact of life, one that might even seem like a normal occurrence.

According to the Child Welfare League of America, children of inmates are six times more likely to end up incarcerated themselves than those in the general population. [v] There is a lack of mentoring programs available to assist these children in the issues that arise in their life due to the fact their parent(s) are incarcerated. In major cities where mentoring programs do exist, it is difficult to recruit children into the program. Parents are sometimes suspicious of the offer of assistance, or even feel jealous because their children are being given opportunities with the mentor that they themselves can’t give the child.

AMACHI, a mentoring program for children of prisoners in Philadelphia, believes that their program is well worth the investment of private and public funds to accomplish the outcomes that they are able to produce with children of inmates. [vi] AMACHI opened it’s doors in 2003. Results after their first two years in operation the children in the program showed the following successes.

  • Felt more confident about doing their school work,
  • Skipped fewer days of school,
  • Had higher grades, and
  • Were less likely to start using drugs or alcohol.
Unfortunately, AMACHI is one of only a handful of such program in the U.S. The majorities of children who belong to prisoners simply follow in their parents’ footsteps and leave their own children behind to enter penal facilities themselves. Over 600,000 inmates, both violent and non-violent are released into society each year. Approximately two-thirds of those inmates are released into poverty according to a lawyer who appeared on the Oprah Show to discuss “pro-social” re-entry programs. One such program, Beyond Conviction [vii] invites criminals to meet with their victims, or their victim’s family, and answer their questions about the crime perpetrated against them. This is a victim-driven program, for those who have been victimized often want to know why they were targeted. The happy side effect of this program is that the inmate is able, sometimes for the first time, to confess the crime and talk about it without rationalizing. In poverty culture, responsibility is something that is escaped too often. Pro-social re-entry programs teach inmates to feel, to care about themselves, their victims, their families, and their community. If the cycle of poverty is to ever be interrupted, the process will begin with the impoverished taking more responsibility for their own future. These programs, although still scarce, are a good start.

The Real Deal

Josh saw himself as a person without a future. His mother was recently sent to jail for prostitution and his father had been incarcerated in State prison since he was a small child. At age 12, Josh had been shuffled from one home to another by his mother along with his three younger siblings. They had spent months in homeless shelters between short stays with relatives and family friends, but at least they had all been able to stay together.

With his mother away for the next three years, he had no idea how he would survive. His siblings had been placed in foster homes, and his paternal grandmother, a woman he barely knew, had accepted him into her home. After the social worker left, his grandmother informed him that she had taken him in primarily for the ADC check that she was permitted to receive for his care, and suggested that he find some blankets to put down on the basement floor so that he would have a place to sleep.

Over the next three weeks Josh was given chores to do each day to care for his ailing grandfather, and never did make it to school in his new school district. At the beginning of the fourth week Josh escaped the drudgery of his grandmother’s home by running away. That night, Michael was awakened while sleeping on a park bench by a guy who said, “Hey kid, I’ll buy you a hamburger if you run a little errand for me.” Scared, hungry, and alone, Michael was grateful to the kind stranger and accepted the offer.

Moments later Josh was apprehended by police carrying a paper sack containing crack cocaine and got his first ride in a police car to the juvenile detention center. At least it was a place where they fed him three times each day, and gave him a cot to sleep on. Maybe being in prison someday wouldn’t be so bad after all.
[i] Rosenfeld, Michael J. (2006, February) Crime and Inequality. Retrieved July 16, 2007 from the Stanford University website at

[ii] Street, Paul (2001, May) Race, Prison, and Poverty. Retrieved July 16, 2007 from the Z Magazine website at

[iii] Mauksch LB, Tucker SM, Katon WJ, Russo J, Cameron J, Walker E, Spitzer R (2001), Mental illness, functional impairment, and patient preferences for collaborative care in an uninsured, primary care population. Journal of Family Practice 50(1).

[iv] Gaseau, Michelle (2005, April) Challenges to Jail Re-entry. Retrieved July 16, 2007 from The Real Cost of Prisons Weblog at

[v] “What Happens to Children?” Federal Resource Center for Children of Prisoners, Retrieved July 16, 2007 from Child Welfare League of America website at

[vi] Jucovy, Linda (2003, June) AMACHI: Mentoring the Children of Prisoners. Retrieved July 16, 2007 from the Private/Public Ventures website at

[vii] Libert, Rachel (2006, December) Beyond Conviction. Retrieved July 17, 2007 from the MSNBC website (2007) at

Question No.13. Perceptions of inequality contribute to...

a. High crime rates in impoverished neighborhoods.
b. High divorce rates and single parent homes.
c. A direct correlation between increased unemployment and increased crime.
d. All of the above.

Question No.14. High rates of drug abuse in impoverished neighborhoods leads to ...

a. Decreased crime rates.
b. A plethora of conveniently located drug treatment facilities.
c. Increased attention to safety with quick police response and an abundance of neighborhood watch committees and security systems.
d. None of the above.

Question No.15. Which statement is true? Those who re-enter society after being in prison...

a. Find a job quickly.
b. Are usually transitioned back into society with lots of support from the correctional system and the community.
c. Usually entered the correctional system for the first time as juveniles.
d. Usually influence their children to lead crime free lives.
The Culture of Generational Poverty > Chapter 5 - It's a Crime
Page Last Modified On: April 28, 2015, 08:45 PM