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Poverty, Crime and Causality

Posted on July 8th, 2017 at 16:19 by John Sinteur in category: News -- Write a comment


The authors found (no surprise to anyone) that kids born into the lowest income twentieth percentile of the population are far more likely to get convicted of violent criminal activity or become substance abusers. But, by accounting for changes in a family’s income over time and how that affected (or didn’t) criminality and substance abuse outcomes of siblings and cousins, the authors were able to conclude that a family’s income was not associated with violent criminal activity or substance abuse except insofar as income was being driven by some other unobserved factor(s) that itself was associated with negative outcomes. That unobserved factor (or factors) runs in families.

The authors are not as clear as I’d like in describing the data adjustment, and the process they use is not one I have employed myself at any point.  But if I understand the limited description of the process correctly, they are basically noting that a kid in a 60th percentile income family is no less likely to become a criminal than his younger brother will be several years later when the family has dropped to below the 20th percentile of income.   Furthermore, within each income level, crime tends to run in families.

To take the paper’s findings a bit further, there is a serious implication here: it isn’t so much that poverty drives people into crime, but that families whose members have a tendency toward criminal behavior have an increased likelihood of ending up poor. Perhaps those who lack empathy are both more likely to commit crimes and less willing or able to behave in ways that allow them to get and retain good jobs. Of course, some of the smarter criminals can fake empathy enough to do quite well for themselves. It is also important to note that most poor people are not criminal. Nevertheless, the reason crime correlates with poverty is not that poverty leads to crime, but rather that for a not insignificant piece of the population, criminal tendencies is associated with traits that increase a person’s likelihood of being in poverty.

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