Pious Platitudes about Poverty and Crime

The City of Petersburg has the highest homicide rate in Virginia, with 53.5 killings per 100,000 residents since 2013 — exceeding Virginia’s other homicide hot spots of Danville, Hopewell, Richmond, and Portsmouth. So reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch in a recent article.

In talking to the RTD, Petersburg Police Chief Kenneth Miller was reluctant to blame the violence on the city’s socioeconomic challenges. “I was raised poor and I’m police chief now,” he said. “I can’t give in and say, well, because we’re poor we can’t [behave in a more acceptable way]. I think poor people want good policing and they want [public safety] just as much as anybody does.”

Nevertheless, states the RTD, Petersburg police must contend with a litany of social ills. Twenty-seven percent of the population is in poverty, and more than half the population is enrolled in Medicaid. Median household income was less than half the state average. The graduation rate was the ninth worse in the state last year.

It is the conventional wisdom in the United States today — a belief that permeates the political establishment, journalists, and the pundit class — that poverty is a “root cause” of violence. The correlation between poverty and violent crime is so widely accepted that it needs no justification or empirical support. But is the connection as strong as the chattering class thinks it is?

To get a sense of the relationship here in Virginia, I plotted the estimated 2017 poverty rate for each locality as reported by the U.S.D.A. Economic Research Service and the incidence of violent crimes per 100,000 population in 2015 as found in County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, which publishes a wide range of social, health and economic indicators. The results can be seen in the scatter graph at the top of this post. Clearly there is a correlation but, with an R² of .18, it is not a strong one. (The R², or coefficient of determination, measures the proportion of the variance explainable by an independent variable, in this case poverty.) 

Moreover, it’s not clear that “poverty” is a causal factor at all. This may be a case where poverty is correlated with other factors — low education levels, high incidence of substance abuse, prevalence of single-family households, high teen birth rates, whatever — that are, in fact, the real “root” causes of crime. In other words, poverty may be correlated with crime because it, like crime, is a symptom of other factors. To test that proposition, I correlated the violent crime rate with the percentage of single-family households (also found in the County Health Rankings and Roadmap). The result:

The R² is .400 — more than twice that of the R² for poverty and crime.

That stands to reason. Raising children is a difficult business. It helps when there two parents in the household to exert discipline, teach self control, and counteract the negative influence of peers. With fewer bread winners, single-family households also happen to be far more likely to be poor.

While significant, the correlation between single-parent households and crime still leaves a lot of variation to be explained. One variable that jumped out from my perusal of the data was the “urban” factor. Note the red data points above. They represent the following urban-core localities — Richmond, Hopewell, Petersburg, Roanoke, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, Fredericksburg, Charlottesville, and Danville. Because they have high levels of single-family households, one would expect them to experience higher rates of violent crime. However, all but Danville are above the trend line, indicating that these cities experience more violent crime than otherwise would be expected. Several small cities — Franklin, Radford, Galax — also are high-crime outliers above the trend-line. That pattern suggests that the clustering of poor people geographically might contribute to crime.

It would be fascinating to see if there is a synergy between poverty and single-parent households by plotting the relationship between violent crime and the percentage of poor single-family households in a locality. Similarly, it would be interesting to explore the role of race/ethnicity while controlling for poverty and other sociological variables.

A thorough explanation of crime also would delve into factors that likely can’t be measured at all. Petersburg Mayor Sam Parham talked about changing attitudes. “I’m a Generation X’er, and growing up in Petersburg, we had some fights and we had some people when I was younger, as a kid, who would pull out a gun,” he said. “But they wouldn’t shoot anybody, they’d just shoot up in the air.” I can’t think of any way to quantify the desensitization to violence.

Besides focusing on high-crime localities, we could ask what we could learn from low-crime localities. For example, Buchanan County in far Southwest Virginia has a 27.9% poverty rate, significantly higher than Petersburg’s 21.8% poverty rate, and with the demise of coal mining, its economic prospects are just as dismal. Yet Buchanan’s violent crime rate of 145 per 100,000 population is one-third of Petersburg’s rate of 560. What could account for such a disparity?

Public policy should address “root causes” rather than throw money at symptoms. But first we need to understand what those root causes. And we can’t do that without questioning the pious platitudes of the conventional wisdom.

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20 responses to “Pious Platitudes about Poverty and Crime

  1. This most recent Richmond Times Dispatch article sheds no light whatever on the root causes of crime in the City of Portsmouth, or anywhere else for that matter. It does however shed much light on the ideological group think agenda and blinkered and blind psychology that drives today’s liberal political establishment in Virginia, and its allied news media.

    Thank God for Petersburg Police Chief Kenneth Miller. He wants to grapple with reality and solve real problems, instead of saying anything, true or false, that might help him keep 90% of the black vote. One day, and perhaps it has arrived, the people of Petersburg will wake up to who their real friends are.

  2. Teasing this stuff apart is extremely complex. Don’t think of poverty, crime, education, health, etc. as a connect-the-dots picture in which each dot is numbered and one dot leads to the next. Instead, the dots are more like a spider web, in which one dot can relate to many others, and the threads are bidirectional — and the entire thing is circular with no beginning and no end. As someone who grew up in a high-poverty rural area, I would say the lower per-capita crime was primarily because there was low population. You pretty much knew everyone in your community, and you really couldn’t get away with anything. Per capita crime rates have to factor in total population and density, which fosters anonymity, which can increase the environment for crime to exist. Plus, crime is one of those things that feeds on itself. The more crime that people are exposed to, I would guess the more likely they are to engage in it. Just by sheer volume that would make cities a higher crime-per-capita area than the countryside and small towns. Some of this may exist in research data, but I also think it’s common sense.

    One thing I am convinced of having both lived in poor white rural poverty and studied poor black urban poverty: Both can trace their roots to labor exploitation. Hard work without much reward. Nothing demoralizes people — creates a sense of hopelessness and pessimism — more than working your tail off and seeing nothing for it. Or getting rewarded only to have it all lost in the blink of an eye (which is what happened to my people in the coal and steel towns of western PA in the 1970s and 1980s). The scars run deep and are often passed down through generations, perpetuate poverty as a vicious cycle. Yes, some break free, but it’s really difficult to do and takes a long time when the support networks in your community are brittle.

    • Excellent points. There are so many interrelationships among socioeconomic factors, including crime rates, that do not lend themselves to simple correlations. What is needed is multiple regression analysis that tests for a relationship between two variables, such as poverty and crime, while holding all other variables, such as single parent household, urbanity, etc. constant. I know what this means in concept, but conducting this analysis is beyond my minimal statistical training, which occurred forty years ago.

  3. Jim, are you talking about single family or single parent households? Not quite sure how to read the charts and summary afterwards. Also, you may have a stronger r score and better for with exponential trend line, which would reinforce that there’s a compounding effect to single parent households being concentrated.

    Definitely agree with the larger point. Poverty is a symptom of a lot of different things; understanding where it comes from is key to fighting it.

    • Single-PARENT households. I apologize for the confusion — sloppy writing on my part. Corrections made and (hopefully) confusion cleared up.

      • OK, Wonderbread, I plotted the trend line as an exponential curve. Here’s what it looks like:

        Thanks for the suggestion. As I am a statistics ignoramus, I now need your help in interpreting this. I presume this means that there is a compounding effect.

        • Yes, I did a double take too but figured out your intent. And of course the true root of the problem is irresponsible men, particularly irresponsible fathers, all of which we have known from the top to the bottom of most all societies, since at very least, the 17th century, if not long before.

        • Thanks for doing that and indulging my curiosity Jim! You’ll probably find that there’s a more even balance of localities above and below the line throughout the curve, which means it’s a somewhat better fit to the actual data, though with a lower R squared. More importantly, all the dots at the right above the line mean that I don’t have enough faith in our model to say that there’s anything more than an interesting correlation. 🙂

        • The impact of single parent families versus two parent families across the board is overwhelmingly negative, using any standard one applies. This has been shown conclusively in study after study over many decades since the collapse of the two parent family beginning in the 1960s. Stable two parent families are the cornerstone of Western Civilization, and of growing up thriving kids.

          This is not to say that all single parent families do not work, some relative few do, but far too many single parent families fail children, often grievously so. It is no accident that by far the most successful kids come from stable two parent families of responsible adults. The lack of responsible adults, particularly fathers, is the key ingredient to most of societies social problems today. The harm this lack of responsible men does to society is deep, wide, and pervasive, starting with the collapse of the family and also with the collapse of strong communities that are critically needed to support successful families.

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            “Conservatives see liberal elites time and again attacking the foundation of traditional culture, and then be shocked by the predictable results.”

            ‘In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function’ wrote C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. ‘We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.’

            “The cultural elites mock and undermine faith, traditional family, patriotism, and shared history – then concoct new political programs to deal with the resulting mess.”

            See Conservatives, Put Culture First, by Bobby Jindal in today’s Wall Street Journal.

            So here, on this blog, we must ask ourselves why do these elites take “sledgehammers to the national core?”

            The answer to plain. Power hungry people must tear institutions apart in order to take control of the people these institutions have historically served. Hence, today’s liberal elites in America, led by its elite colleges and universities, attack national institutions of family, and faith, communities and national borders, established law and the national identity of the American people as Americans, using ever more radical ideologies as sledgehammers specifically designed to weaken and then destroy America’s traditional social, moral and cultural fabric first. And in so doing, the liberal elites are trying to gain control of the American people for the elites benefit.

  4. Ya think illegal immigration, which allows unscrupulous employers, to avoid paying low-skilled workers market wages, has anything to do with poverty? The GOP wants cheap labor. The Democrats are trolling for voters.

  5. I’m dubious of the scatter charts and in general , folks slicing and dicing data looking for “correlation”.

    There are LOTs of divorced/single parent families these days across the income spectrum – but nothing tears a family apart faster than a lack of money to pay for food and rent – that’s when kids get tossed to the wind and often end up in a household of last resort

    Lots of argument as to what “causes” all this but as big a question is what would you do about kids in those circumstances right now – BEFORE you know all the answers (that we have been seeking for decades)?

    Each kid that grows up without a good education becomes grist for the continuing cycle of poverty and violence.

    We don’t know all the answers but to say we will do nothing until we do … that seems to be the argument, eh?

    so, we’re not going to deprive kids of food and health care until we “know”, right?

  6. Last Friday evening, I attended the opening of a photo exhibit by Scott Elmquist, a brilliant photographer and a colleague who shot the photos for my book on the coal industry and Massey Energy a few years back. As chief photographer for Style Weekly and in other capacities, he has photographed the aftermath of gun violence for two decades. His exhibit was sponsored by Change USA, a Richmond non-profit that will take the exhibit to Switzerland this month.
    Scott’s photos were wrenching enough but was very hard to take was the two hour discussion involving families of gunshot victims. One was Mark Whitfield, the father of nine-year-old Marykiya Dickson who was struck by bullets as she played at a cookout in Richmond’s Fonticello/Carter Jones Park on May 26.
    None of the speakers had any real solution to the crisis. None really advocated gun controls although Mayor Levar Stone of Richmond has gotten guns banned from municipal parks in the city. The described the numbness when they heard the news and how it scared them for years.
    The problem (as usual) with this blog posting is that it seems to lay the blame on irresponsible African-Americans who are bad at raising families. All of the speakers were African-Americans and none seemed careless and hedonistic. It came up that people outside of a family should bring up bad conduct by young men (usually comprising most of the shooters ands victims) but this blog posting assumes a white man’s view from a wealthy suburb. It might help to actually talk to people involved.

    • “but this blog posting assumes a white man’s view from a wealthy suburb.”

      You still do not get it, Peter. You are the one who looks at everyone on the basis of a total fraud, the color of peoples’ skin. That makes you a racist, one who judges people solely on the basis of their race, and where they live, and who their parents are, and how much money they have. My comments on irresponsible men are directed at no particular people, save for men who act irresponsibly. In short you are a victim of identity politics, classifying whole groups of people by their appearance, namely their skin color.

    • Thank you for reinforcing my point: African-Americans are the main victims of criminality in Virginia.

  7. I meant scarred them for the rest of their lives. Sorry

  8. Reed,
    I think you are missing my point. The blog post is about African-Americans. How many of them participate in Bacon’s Rebellion? For that matter, how many women participate? Like it or not, everyone here seems to be a successful white males in their 50s, 60s or 70s. All I am saying is that it might help to talk and listen to people involved if you are going to write with authority about topics you might not really know much about.

  9. “All I am saying is that it might help to talk and listen to people involved if you are going to write with authority about topics you might not really know much about.”

    Again, you are showing your prejudice about who you think I am, how you think I spend my time, and who I hang out with, who I respect, and appreciate and work with, and help. In fact you have no idea.

    • All of this ignorance is a very common problem of people who judge other people by the color of their skin, its a plague on society and always has been. We must rid society of this plague, and all the debacles that follow in its wake. Otherwise its hate consumes us all.

  10. One more point I forgot to mention. The FBI is offering a $20,000 reward for information about who shot Markiya Dickson. Two others were wounded. On gun control, it will be really interesting to see what happens during the special session of the General Assembly next week.

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