Does poverty = crime? Scholars disagree

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Stacy Vogel
Sunday, August 24, 2008
— Stacey Williams didn’t think she had a choice when she turned to a life of crime.

She grew up in poverty, and her mom abandoned her when she was 15, she said. She dropped out of school in eighth grade.

She started dating a 36-year-old man and living like him and his friends. She got involved in drugs, fights and shady dealings.

“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s the people I want to be like because I just saw they had nice cars and stuff,” she said.

But that life led Stacey into trouble. She spent her 17th birthday in jail on charges that included driving a stolen vehicle and possession of marijuana.

Stacey, 18, first told her story to the Gazette in May from the House of Mercy homeless shelter.

Stories such as hers might make people assume that poverty goes hand-in-hand with crime, but that’s not necessarily the case, said Melissa Deller, a sociology and criminal justice professor at UW-Whitewater.

Scholars disagree about how much poverty affects crime rates, if it does at all. While many poor people turn to crime, and many people with criminal records have trouble escaping poverty, the two aren’t hopelessly linked.

Rather, it’s the setbacks and disadvantages that often come with poverty, more than poverty itself, that affect crime rates, experts say.

Deller has found a weak connection between poverty and crime in her studies, she said. If poverty automatically led to crime, then crime rates would rise when poverty rates rise, and the world’s poorest nations would also be the world’s most crime-ridden, she said. Neither is the case.

“It gets caught up in a big myth, that poor people are more likely to do crime, and it’s a fallacy,” she said.

That myth could make people overlook criminals from the middle- and upper-classes, she said. While people in poverty might commit crimes of desperation, white-collar criminals often commit crimes of opportunity.

Deller found that factors often associated with poverty could affect a community’s crime rate more than simple income levels. Those factors include:

-- Housing values and conditions.

-- Education levels.

-- Chronic unemployment.

Add broken homes to that list, said Capt. Dan Davis of the Janesville Police Department. Studies have shown that children of single-parent homes are more likely to both live in poverty and commit crimes.

At least two of those factors are present in Stacey’s story: She dropped out of school and came from a troubled home.

Several people living in poverty who were interviewed for this series have criminal records. Others chose to live clean lives, though they are often affected by crimes committed by loved ones or crimes committed against them. People in poverty are more likely than others to be the victims of crime because they don’t have the resources to protect themselves, Deller said.

Those with criminal records said their pasts have hindered them as they try to make fresh starts and move out of poverty.

Mike Easton, 27, grew up in foster homes and group homes. He got into trouble as a youth and served time in prison for felony theft. Today, he and his family struggle with unemployment and homelessness.

“Before I went to prison, I was—I don’t know how you want to say it—a creep,” he said. “I was no good, ya know?”

Since Mike left prison, he has tried to turn his life around and support his wife and children, but it’s been difficult. It’s hard for him to find and keep jobs, and it’s tempting to turn back to his old ways.

“It seems like the more and more I try to succeed and to prove myself, not to go back to how I used to be, to drink all the time and go out and party and whatnot, I feel like I keep failing,” he said. “I’ll do good for so long, and something will happen with my job … and I just come down on myself.”

Still, Mike’s family inspires him to stay straight and persevere, he said.

As for Stacey, her time in jail made her decide to change her ways, she said.

“I was like, ‘This is not where I want to be when I’m older’ because I saw people (in jail) who were 30, 40 years old,” she said. “I don’t want to be in jail when I’m that old.”

She struggled with alcoholism when she got out of jail, but a new boyfriend convinced her to give up drinking and find a job, she said. She left the House of Mercy in May to move in with her temporary employer, a local painter.

Since then, life has been good for Stacey, she said. When her temporary job ended, she moved into a three-bedroom rented house with her boyfriend. She got a job in July with a moving company.

She hopes to attend the Rock River Charter School eventually to earn her high school diploma.

“I’m doing a lot better now,” she said.


Chad Sullivan knows all about poverty and crime in Janesville.

The police officer spent four years as the Wilson Elementary School neighborhood resource officer.

Wilson is by far the poorest school in the district; 96 percent of its students were eligible for free or reduced lunch in 2006-07. The school draws students from the Fourth Ward and Look West neighborhoods.

Police don’t track crime by neighborhood, but Sullivan believes some crimes are more prevalent in neighborhoods such as the Wilson school zone where people live in poverty, he said.

“Crime, I would say, is very directly related to poverty,” he said. “If you don’t have money, you can’t buy food, and stability is not there...

“Theft, burglary, it’s just all intertwined together.”

Sullivan also saw alcohol and drug abuse in the neighborhood, he said.

While addiction exists all over the city, Sullivan believes it’s especially a problem for people in poverty. Many addicts might have started out middle class but ended up in poverty when they gave up everything for drugs.

Others turn to alcohol or drugs because they are depressed about their situations, he said.

He said drug traffickers try to recruit underprivileged young people to sell drugs by making it seem like a lucrative opportunity.

“It seems like a likely target of big dealers to get these people who are a little bit less fortunate, have less money—they’re easy targets to become dealers,” he said.

But Sullivan also saw improvement during his time in the Fourth Ward and Look West neighborhoods. The police department has worked with residents to clean up problems and increased patrols there.

Sullivan helped residents get needed resources, whether it was food assistance or financial aid to send their kids to summer camp. His job wasn’t just to reduce crime but to help people overcome poverty, he said.

“I’m eliminating the barrier, whatever that might be,” he said. “The fact that they don’t have a telephone. They don’t have a car to get there. They don’t know how to read or write.”

The department eliminated the neighborhood resource position in 2007 for budget reasons. Sullivan is now the department’s court officer, serving as a liaison between the department and the Rock County Courthouse.

He misses his time in the Wilson neighborhood but believes the police department is still doing an effective job there, he said.

“Those neighborhoods are a lot, a lot better,” he said.

Last updated: 9:56 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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