Poverty and crime do not go together.

Many analysts, as well as the general public, believe that poverty is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, causes of crime. But a new study by a Columbia University research group reminds us of something that history has repeatedly shown: that the relationship between poverty and crime is far from predictable or consistent. The Columbia study revealed the astounding news that nearly a quarter (19% ) of the New York population of Asian origin was impoverished, a proportion that surpasses that of the city’s black population (10%). This was a surprise, given the common perception that Asians are among the wealthiest social groups in the country. But the study contains an even more startling aspect: in New York City, the relatively high rate of poverty among Asians is accompanied by exceptionally low crime rates. This overturns the common belief that poverty and crime go hand in hand.

Asians continually had low incarceration rates for violent crime—generally lower than their proportion in the population, lower than those of blacks. and Hispanics, and, in one category (aggression), even lower than whites, who collectively are much more rarely poor.

Using data from the NYPD, I calculated the incarceration rates for violent crimes in each social group, taking into account the size of the population of each one.

Incarceration Rates for Violent Crimes by 100 thousand cases in Large Social Groups, New York, 2022

, 9
% of NY % poor Homicide Rape Theft
Asians ,3 14 1,2 3,4 12,8 6,2
Black 31,8 10 ,5 ,1 223,7 51,4
Whites 28,9 0,46 1,4
Latinos 28,9 19 4.6 9.0 46,7

Source : NYPD, Crime and Criminal Activity in New York City (January 1 to 31 ) December 2022)

Valued at 1.2 per 100 thousand, the prison rate for murder committed by asians i of almost a fifth of the black rate. If poverty were the leading cause of crime, we would expect Asians to be as high, if not higher, than blacks. That the Asian rate is relatively low illustrates what I call the “crime/adversity decoupling”, a recurring phenomenon. As I note in my history of crime: “Throughout American history, different social groups have committed different amounts of violent crime, and no consistent relationship between the extent of a group’s socioeconomic disadvantage and its level of violence is evidenced.”

As far as violent crimes are concerned—murder, assault, robbery, and the like—the story has a complicated plot. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, poor Jewish, Polish and German immigrants had relatively low crime rates, while disadvantaged Italian, Mexican and Irish newcomers committed violent crime at higher rates. This crime/adversity decoupling also appears to be a global phenomenon. In Britain, for example, a criminologist observed that “all minority groups with high rates of crime and incarceration have social and economic disadvantages, but some disadvantaged ethnic minority groups do not have high crime rates.” There, too, it was the case that Asians were more disadvantaged than blacks, but the latter had much higher crime rates.

Why is poverty not consistently related to poverty? crime? A big reason for this is that violent crimes are often motivated by arguments, personal grudges, perceived insults, and similar interpersonal conflicts, not economic necessity. As a result, a decline in one’s financial condition is unlikely to cause violent criminal behavior. This explains why a recession or economic depression does not invariably lead to a spike in crime. In the second half of the years 100, for example, violent crime dropped, even as the country experienced some of the worst years of the Great Depression. Likewise, during the Great Recession of 2007- , when the economy went into decline, crime dropped.

As for group behavior, cultural factors help to explain differences in crime levels violent. African Americans, for example, have exhibited high rates of violent crime from the late 19th century to the present. These patterns stem from their southern origins, where whites had higher rates of violence than whites in other regions. Early immigrants from Ireland and Italy also exhibited high crime rates until, rising into the middle class, they discovered that such violence had become blatantly self-destructive. In this way, the history and experience of a group, not biological determinants such as skin color or race, lead to violent behavior.

As we saw in the case of Irish and Italian immigration to the United States — and one day we will see in the black and Latin American population — social mobility for the middle class is associated with a marked decrease in violent crime. The reasons for this are readily apparent. The middle-class person has everything to lose and little to gain from interpersonal violence: injuries, loss of status, and criminal sanctions. In addition, the civil sphere offers effective alternatives for resolving disputes that middle-class individuals can afford.

Now we can better understand why so many criminals are low-income. It is not poverty that causes crime, but rather, it is the wealthiest people who avoid violent conflict, effectively ceding the countryside to the poor.

The left and right agree that the mobility of minorities to the middle class will reduce crime. They disagree, however, on the best way to get there. This is a subject for another conversation.

Barry Latzer is professor emeritus of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. His most recent book, The Myth of Punitivism: A Defense of the American Justice System and a Proposal to Reduce Incarceration and Protect the Public (free translation; Republic Books) is available as an e-book and will be released in print next month.

2022©2022 City Journal. Published with permission. Original in English. 2022

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