Crime does cause poverty

By Abraham H. Miller

Crime causes poverty, argued James Q. Wilson, probably America’s most celebrated criminologist. Like many observations that are counterintuitive or at variance with current wisdom, Wilson’s findings did not resonate with the mass public.

How does crime cause poverty? Think about the current spathe of smash and grab large-scale retail thefts. Two of those happened at the mall in my town. In the most recent orchestrated assault, some eighty young people, mostly males, pulled up in about a dozen vehicles and ran into Nordstrom swinging crowbars, breaking display cases and stealing 200 thousand dollars’ worth of goods. They injured five employees. The scene was repeated not only throughout California but in several major cities.

Some of my neighbors used to go to the mall during Christmastime to shop, to dine, and to look at the Christmas displays. But not this year. Fear permeates the community, especially among the elderly.

A friend in Chicago used to go to the Magnificent Mile, also the recent scene of violent theft, with his family every Christmas season, but not this year and maybe never again.

Violent thefts create fear, and where there is fear there is avoidance. Fewer shoppers means less spending on goods and services. The violent assault on a retail establishment also causes fear among the salespersons, some of whom do not return to work, just as bank employees who experience a robbery often do not return.

Less spending means fewer jobs and less circulation of money through the local economy. In our case, the local sales tax also goes to our schools, and this means less money for education.

The thugs, who received between $500 and $1000 each to participate in the smash and grab, put themselves at severe and disproportionate economic risk. Going to prison is an economic loss not only for those who are convicted but also for those who depend upon them for support. The breadwinner goes to jail, and the family goes on welfare.

Experiencing high levels of theft in San Francisco, as a result of the city making retail theft under $950 a misdemeanor, Walgreens is closing stores, and Safeway is cutting hours as well as beefing up exit control. The loss of drugstores is resulting in communities talking of prescription deserts and asking the city to compel Walgreens to remain open, something it cannot do.

Neighborhoods that become retail deserts lose value and become less desirable places to live. Retail establishments that remain in high-theft areas are forced to raise prices to compensate for both theft and higher insurance costs. When residents complain of retail deserts, they fail to ask the most relevant question: How did the retail desert emerge?

When community organizers compare food prices in inner city neighborhoods and suburbia, they often cry racism, but the reality is more complicated. Theft is higher in inner city neighborhoods, and retail establishments need to compensate for the losses. The higher prices of course impact the people who can least afford them.

Crime does cause poverty and puts a strain on the economic and social quality of life of millions of people. The sooner we understand that the sooner we will be willing to stop talk about both absurd nostrums such as defunding the police and making retail theft a misdemeanor. Instead, we will start talking about preventing crime and making people feel secure in public spaces, something that currently does not exist. In the end, that will move us toward enhancing everyone’s economic wellbeing and quality of life.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a distinguished fellow with the Haym Salomon Center.

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