By Lehrer, Eli
The Public Interest
For most of the past 35 years, conventional wisdom has held that poverty causes crime. "Warring on poverty, inadequate housing, and unemployment is warring on crime," wrote the members of the 1967 Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Criminal Justice. In college sociology courses, such thinking still dominates discourse: Steven R. Donziger's The Real War on Crime, an influential book published in 1996, concludes that "a program to reduce poverty levels ... will reduce levels of crime and violence and make the country safer." In 1999, a widely publicized report from the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation came to much the same conclusion, arguing that well-run social programs for everyone, from at-risk youth to recently released prisoners, would mitigate the effects of poverty and, thus, reduce crime.
Yet a substantial body of criminological research over the past 20 years suggests that the relationship between poverty and crime runs counter to conventional wisdom. Social scientists such as John J. DiIulio, Jr., James Q. Wilson, Wesley Skogan, Leo Schuerman, and Solomon Korbin have shown that, in fact, poverty and neighborhood degradation often result from crime--not the other way around. Skogan, a Northwestern University criminologist who has studied what happens to places where crime and disorder increase, describes a scene of utter desolation: "These areas are no longer recognizable as neighborhoods."
I spent several months traveling to low-income areas around the country to investigate whether reductions in crime led to neighborhood renewal. My firsthand experience only reaffirmed the new thinking on poverty and crime: In short, when crime drops drastically, low-income neighborhoods come back to life. Commercial strips blossom with new businesses, housing improves, streets become safe at night, mediating institutions become stronger, and disorder vanishes from public spaces. Thus warring on crime is the best way to remedy a wide. variety of social ills, and America's success in reducing crime ranks with welfare reform as the greatest social policy triumph of the 1990s.
Cutting the crime tax
Today, for the first time in a generation, police and low-income communities are winning the war on crime. When final statistics come out later this year, the FBI will announce that crimes such as murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and arson fell over one-third between 1990 and 1999, due largely to improvements in a few large cities like New York. Nevertheless, the late 1990s saw declines in every type of city and in every major category of crime. Between 1994 and 1998, only 29 of the 205 American cities with 1999 populations over 100,000 for which comparable data are available saw their crime rates rise. The preliminary data for 1999 paint an even more positive picture. In 1999, there would have been nearly 8,000 additional murders, about 20,000 additional rapes, and over 200,000 additional armed attacks had crime not fallen. Criminals would have committed more than 3 million additional crimes during 1999 alone and over 18 million more during the decade.
Many economists think of crime as a tax on urban life. In this regard, it proves particularly cruel; the "crime tax" actually charges the poor a higher rate than the wealthy. The Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization Survey shows just how much crime hurts the poorest Americans. For the 30 million or so Americans living in households earning less than $15,000 a year, crime represents a horrific fact of daily life. Compared to the middle class, the poor fall victim to nearly six times as many rapes, more than twice as many robberies, almost double the number of aggravated assaults, and half again more acts of theft. Crime is, in short, an inversely progressive tax.
To study the effects of crime reduction on civil society, I visited nine different neighborhoods in the cities of New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Garden Grove, California, and Providence, Rhode Island, I included New York and Los Angeles because they are the country's two largest cities and have reduced crime significantly. …