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Law and Crime

Crime Causes Poverty

A reversal of the conventional wisdom

Social scientists and public officials have long identified poverty as a “root cause” of crime or, at least, as a significant “risk factor.” Such a causal linkage was made by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.), who declared, “Poverty is the mother of crime.”

During the 1960s, Attorney General Ramsey Clark emphasized that the United States government needed to combat crime by improving the deplorable conditions under which impoverished people were living. What followed was a plethora of social programs aimed at doing just that. Although many citizens benefited and improved their lot in life, crime remained an intractable problem.

What may not be apparent is that crime causes poverty.

Consider the costs of establishing and operating a small business in a rundown inner city neighborhood. An entrepreneur saves for years and finally amasses funds sufficient to establish a hair salon. She has paid for schooling to learn the skills to become a beautician, and she has honed them working for other people. Now she can rent space, purchase supplies and a stylist’s chair or two, and begin fixing women’s hair in her own shop. By careful management of her finances, she is able to invest additional sums in her business and expand the services she offers. A break-in and robbery occur, setting her back enormously. While awaiting costly repairs, she loses revenue and customers every day. She has to spend additional sums to tighten security. Having had a small profit margin as she struggled to maintain her salon, she now slides into the red or may not be able to re-open at all, thus losing the source of her livelihood.

Consider what has transpired in inner city areas rocked by social unrest. It can take years, even decades, for businesses to return to neighborhoods that were burned and looted. Such was the case during the 1968 riots in Washington, D.C., following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Recently, damage occurred to businesses in Ferguson, Missouri after a grand jury did not indict a white police officer for killing a young black man.

It is not peaceful protestors who threaten the livelihoods of small business owners. It is criminals who seize upon an opportunity when there is social disorder. In the name of a cause, they
strike -- destroying property belonging to fledgling entrepreneurs. Having begun to emerge from poverty, these merchants are plunged back into it when criminals demolish overnight what they have worked so hard to build.

More from Stanton E. Samenow Ph.D.
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