Poverty & Crime

Poverty & Crime


The notion that economic deprivation necessarily leads to lawlessness is widely believed but is not supported by empirical evidence. Human history is replete with examples of impoverished people—of all racial and ethnic backgrounds—who have endured extreme poverty without descending into criminal activity. During the 1960s, for instance, the residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown were among America’s poorest people—with the most unemployment, the worst housing conditions, the least education, and the highest rate of tuberculosis in their city. Yet despite such hardships, only five people of Chinese ancestry went to jail in the entire state of California in 1965.[1]

Similarly, Jewish immigrants to America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also repudiated criminality despite having to face extreme economic deprivation. Historian Max Dimont describes them:

“The majority of these immigrants had arrived penniless, all their worldly belongings wrapped in a bundle…. Most of [them] arrived in New York. Some made their way into other cities,… but the majority remained in New York, settling in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, [which was] a neighborhood of the poor. Sociologists, with their impressive charts showing the number of toilets (or lack of the), the number of people per room, the low per capita income, paint a dismal picture of the Lower East Side Jewish slum. But their charts do not capture its uniqueness. Though it bred tuberculosis and rheumatism, it did not breed crime and venereal disease. It did not spawn illiteracy, illegitimate children, or deserted wives. Library cards were in constant use.”[2]

The late political scientist James Q. Wilson debunked the theory that crime results from poverty, or that redistributive government programs can reduce crime rates by alleviating poverty, by pointing out that “crime rose the fastest in this country at a time when the number of persons living in poverty or squalor was declining.” He added: “I have yet to see a ‘root cause’ or to encounter a government program that has successfully attacked it.”

In modern America, the correlation between high crime rates and poverty has a great deal to do with the proliferation of single-parent, father-absent households. According to the U.S Census, in 2008 the poverty rate for single parents with children was 35.6%; the rate for married couples with children was 6.4%. For white families in particular, the corresponding two-parent and single-parent poverty rates were 21.7% and 3.1%, respectively. For Hispanics, the figures were 37.5% and 12.8%, and for blacks, 35.3% and 6.9%. According to Robert Rector, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, “the absence of marriage increases the frequency of child poverty 700 percent” and thus constitutes the single most reliable predictor of a self-perpetuating underclass.

Children in single-parent households are burdened not only with profound economic disadvantages, but are also far likelier to eventually get into trouble with the law. As a Heritage Foundation analysis notes, youngsters raised by single parents, as compared to those who grow up in intact married homes, are much more likely to be physically abused; to be treated for emotional and behavioral disorders; to smoke, drink, and use drugs; to behave aggressively and violently; to engage in criminal activity; and to be arrested for a juvenile crime. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, 60% of rapists, 72% of adolescent murderers, and 70% of long-term prison inmates are men who grew up in fatherless homes.


  1. James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein, Crime and Human Nature (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985), p. 473.
  2. Max I. Dimont, Jews, God, and History (New York: Penguin USA, 1994), pp. 373-374. (This book was originally published in 1962.)

Additional Resources:

Hard Times, Fewer Crimes
By James Q. Wilson
May 28, 2011

Crime, Poverty and the Family
By The Heritage Foundation
July 29, 1992

Root Causes Uprooted: A Down Economy Doesn’t Mean More Crime and Homelessness
By Heather MacDonald
October 29, 2009

This Criminologist Debunks the Dogma that Poverty Causes Crime
Ben Weingarten interviews Barry Latzer
February 18, 2016

What the Media, Academics Get Wrong When They Blame Crime Rate on Poverty, Discrimination
By Walter E. Williams

Poverty Does Not Cause Crime
By Huntley Haverstock

Poverty Doesn’t Cause Crime
By Dennis Prager
November 18, 2014

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