Skip to main content

Ignoring Poverty In Plain Sight

Among sociologists and criminologists, it has always been obvious that even a cursory look at the nature of crime and the criminal justice system reveal that class and race play important, if not the most important, roles.

Scholars, such as criminologist C. Ray Jeffery, recognized these variables when criminology first developed in the 19th century. In the early 20th century, there were such scholars as Thorsen Sellin and Edwin Sutherland, plus those affiliated with the “Chicago School” of sociology in the 1920s, Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay. These experts, and literally hundreds who followed in their footsteps, pointed out the connection between class, race and crime.

Los Angeles Skid Row | Wikipedia

One example is the study of gangs, beginning with Frederick Thrasher’s pioneering work analyzing more than 1,300 gangs in Chicago, and then with Malcolm Klein, who found that poverty has spawned virtually every gang. Klein wrote “the effect of the increasing urban underclass, remains in my mind the foremost cause of the recent proliferation of gangs and the likely best predictor of its continuation. The effects of poverty are especially relevant here.” Thrasher noted that gangs tend to flourish in areas he called “interstitial,” or areas that lie within a city’s “poverty belt.”

The ethnographic fieldwork of Mercer Sullivan provides a variation on this theme. He studied three neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The two neighborhoods with the highest crime rates also had (1) the highest poverty level, with over half the families receiving public assistance; (2) the highest percentage of single-parent families; (3) the highest rate of renter-occupied housing; (4) the highest rate of school dropouts; and (5) the lowest labor-force participation rates (with the correspondingly highest levels of unemployment). 

Dozens of scholars have noted time and again that the highest rates of homicide (especially gun-related homicide) have been within the poorest areas of a city. As Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay first pointed out in the 1920s, when you move outward from the inner city poverty belts, there is a huge decline in all sorts of crime, but especially gun-related homicide. 

Adriel Hampton | Creative Commons

In 2001, a report by the Surgeon General focusing on youth violence cited, among other factors, the importance of neighborhood conditions, especially poverty. The report noted that the elimination or reduction of poverty “should be a high-priority long-term goal.” A more recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on the relationship between violent victimization and poverty found that people living at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) experienced twice the rate of violent victimizations as people living in high-income households. The report also found that: “Persons in poor households had a higher rate of violence involving a firearm . . . compared to persons above the FPL.”

Criminologist Elliott Curie further elaborated on the connection between poverty and crime. One problem with theories that ignore class and race is what Currie has called the “fallacy of autonomy” — the idea that people act totally on their own, without the influence of others, and totally unaffected by their surrounding culture and social institutions. 

One final piece of evidence on the importance of class and race would be the background characteristics of those in prisons and jails. We see three of the many faces of poverty with jails (which my colleagues and I have called “temporary housing for the poor”), prisons (which many have called “warehouses for the surplus population”,) and finally juvenile “correctional institutions.” It is not much of an exaggeration to say that if many currently incarcerated people had not lived in poverty yesterday, they would be free men and women today. 

Keywords: crime, criminology, poverty, Randall Shelden, scholar, violence

Posted in Blog, Social Justice

Contribute to CJCJ

Make a difference to youth and adults trying to get their lives back on track.


California Stentencing Institute screenshot

California Sentencing
Institute (CASI)

Explore how California’s 58 counties send their residents to correctional institutions with interactive maps, charts, and downloadable data.

Connect with us

      YouTube

Contribute to CJCJ

Make a difference to youth and adults trying to get their lives back on track.

Join our mailing list

Get regular updates and news delivered to your inbox. We won’t share your information with anyone else.