Poverty and crime
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An association between poverty and crime in research papers has long been assumed. Karl Marx implied this relationship when he suggested that crime was the inevitable result of economic class struggle. In 1862, Victor-Marie Hugo published his famous Les Misèrables, the story of Jean Valjean, who was sent to prison for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her family. The basic assumption that Hugo and others have made is that when an individual lacks the funds to secure those items necessary to sustain life, he or she will become involved in crime in order to obtain them.
However, research papers demonstrate that the relationship between crime and poverty is not that simple. There are several factors that affect this complex relationship in various ways, and so the predictions that follow from an overly simplistic theory are often inaccurate. For example, the idea that poverty causes crime would imply that all poor people will commit crimes, given the necessity and the opportunity. This suggestion is obviously false; there are many poor people who never commit crimes. Conversely, many economically advantaged individuals do commit crimes. The intuitive assumption that poverty causes crime might also suggest that the only criminal acts correlated with poverty would be those resulting in increased money or goods. Yet this is not the case.
A logical off-shoot of the theory that people subjected to impoverished living conditions are more likely to commit crimes might be that criminal behavior is the result of living in these conditions for long periods of time. So, the question becomes, for what length of time must an individual live in impoverished conditions before he or she becomes more likely to commit a crime? Possibly, individuals subjected to relatively short periods of unemployment may be more likely to commit crimes than those for whom financial difficulties are ongoing and seem hopeless. And again, participation in criminal activity for these individuals may not be limited to cases in which money or goods are acquired, but may also include aggressive acts such as murder.
Basically, there are three specific social structure theories. These include the following theories that incorporate poverty and crime:
Social disorganization theory was first described by Henry McKay and Clifford R. Shaw. They suggested that residents of impoverished neighborhoods or decaying urban areas are eager to relocate and take the first opportunity to do so. Since the population is transient, no one has permanent roots, a situation which is manifested in a lack of desire to improve the neighborhood. "Since social institutions can no longer function, their ability to regulate behavior is shattered, and residents experience conflict and despair. Antisocial behavior flourishes in this environment". One indicator of community deterioration is a high level of unemployment. Lack of work destabilizes households, which in turn increases the likelihood that these households will include children who place a high premium on violence and aggression.
Strain theory is somewhat similar to social disorganization theory in that the root of crime is seen as the environment or social class in which individuals reside. In American society, people strive for wealth, education, power, personal possessions, and other comforts of life. Realistically, lower class individuals are unable to obtain these resources through conventional, licit means. The feeling of frustration associated with this lack of efficacy is referred to as strain. As a result of their frustration, lower class residents may choose to commit crimes to achieve gain.
Perhaps the best know strain theory is the theory of anomie. When there is a condition of relative normlessness within a society, the result is anomie. With regard to American society, the goals of wealth, power, and prestige are stressed; every one is encouraged to strive to achieve these goals. The poor typically do not have the education or resources necessary to obtain wealth. As a result, individuals in the lower class may develop criminal behavior in order to achieve the goals that the more advantaged among us can reach through socially acceptable avenues.
The third social structure theory is the cultural deviance theory. Combining social disorganization and strain theories, this approach suggests that the lower class culture has its own set of goals and values, and that these differ from those of other groups. This is supposedly evidenced by the existence of subcultures within lower class groups. Conformity to the specific goals and values of the underclass may even result in a transmission of criminal behavior from one generation to the next.