Poverty & Violent Crime

Poverty is the main cause of most violent crime in the United States today. Some cite violence in media as creating a mentality of willingness to harm others that would not otherwise exist; others see it as a problem of the degeneration of Judeo-Christian morality. Race, too, is cited as a factor in some White Nationalist and right-wing circles, considering that African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately imprisoned in the U.S.; yet this analysis does not go deep enough. These explanations cannot fully explain the issue.

Broadly speaking, actions are perceived in an individual context within the United States, especially when these actions are seen as deviant. This is especially true of crime. When the subject of violent crime is brought up in media, we see a mugshot or a courtroom sketch of a man who is to play tonight’s boogeyman. We do not take the time to ask ourselves why – under what day-to-day conditions would drive a person to such crime; the best analysis we are given is that the individual was deeply disturbed.

This theory cannot adequately explain why the United States has had such an explosion of prisoners in recent decades, or why crime remains undeterred by such methods. “Between 1980 and 1996, the prison population more than tripled from 500,000 to over 1.6 million. The number of people under […] correctional supervision (in prison or jail, on probation or parole) surpassed 5 million [in 1994]” (Ambrosio, and Schiraldi).

Rather than the chief casual factor in violent crime being exposure to violent media, a person’s “race” or moral system, or even mental illness, the answer is ultimately one of power and economic position. In fact, “[c]omparative studies including many nations have shown a correlation between income inequality and a welter of social ills, prominent among which are crimes of violence” (Golash 42). If we look at crime in the U.S. more broadly, patterns emerge that make it difficult to look at crimes as simply the personal faults of individual crooks and villains.

What is it that, on a societal level, brings people to commit violent acts against one another? Elliott Currie concluded in his book that there is “overwhelming evidence that inequality, extreme poverty, and social exclusion matter profoundly in shaping a society’s experience of violent crime” (114). Currie further concluded, “countries with relatively low levels of violent crime tend to be not only among the most prosperous but also those where prosperity has become most general, most evenly distributed throughout the population” (115).

Indeed, structural poverty causes alienation in those born into relatively little material comfort, who observe other strata enjoying exponentially greater material security. In addition to this, the “countries where violent crime is an endemic problem are those in which prosperity […] is confined to some sectors of the population and denied to others” (Currie 115). Thus, we can see that there is a powerful connection between poverty and the levels of violent crime.

What really drives violent crime is desperation—namely, desperation for a person’s situation to change and improve. Oftentimes, for example, a lack of quality schooling will encourage youth to sell narcotics in order to obtain a source of income.

Golash reported that there is a “wide, (though not universal) agreement among criminologists that social factors such as income inequality, poverty, unemployment, and local social disorganization contribute to crime” (155). One thread that all these potential causes listed by Golash have in common is the economic factor. All of them involve disenfranchisement and in the case of poverty and unemployment, bodily harm from starvation, disease and lack of adequate shelter or care.

The reserve pool of unemployed can be counted as a form of structural violence that costs many lives. It is this same real-life violence that sets the stage for violent crime in American society, not virtual games whose original concepts are merely derivatives of that structural violence. At the same time, crimes that harm the livelihoods of millions of people are completely and totally ignored—white collar crime harms many more people than street muggings, but they are not punished institutionally to the extent that what is considered “low class” crime is persecuted.

Structural violence in the form of being born into poverty, combined with American commodity fetishist culture which encourages acquisition by any means necessary, fuels the drive to commit violent crime. Even if the argument of psychological or moral degeneration being the main cause of violent crime held water, the mental health and morality of a person are social products, which can be seen in the social context of poverty.

In the face of these facts, crude psychological or racist-eugenicist arguments will not suffice to explain the phenomenon of violent crime.


Ambrosio, Tara-Jen and Vincent Schiraldi. (1997) From Classrooms to Cellblocks: A National Perspective. Washington DC: The Justice Policy Institute.

Currie, Elliott. Crime and Punishment in America: Why the Solutions to America’s Most Stubborn Social Crisis Have Not Worked – and What Will. Picador, 1998. 114-115. Print.

Golash, Deirdre. The Case Against Punishment: Retribution, Crime Prevention, and the Law. NYU Press, 2005. 42. Print.

Categories: Discrimination, Economic Exploitation, Economics, Economy, History, Imperialism, Labor, Media & Culture, Police Brutality, Prisons, Racism, Science, Theory, U.S. News, United States History, Workers Struggle

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