One of the great misconceptions of modern times, one that afflicts conservatives and liberals alike, is the widely accepted notion that poverty serves as a pipeline for crime, violence and terrorism. That is, the idea that poor and hungry people become frustrated with their lot and either fall in line with criminal ringleaders, or they simply resort to breaking the law all on their own.
The problem with that accepted truth is that it happens to be false.
It also happens to be dangerous.
It’s false because the scientific and historical evidence doesn’t back it up. Looking at poverty from several angles in different parts of the world, the data prove that economics has little to do with any given person’s likelihood to commit a crime.
Here in the United States, periods of economic hardship have actually been punctuated by a drop in crime. Crime plummeted overall during the Great Depression, even though the first few years did see a spike in connection with the most violent criminal wars linked to the final period of Prohibition. The recent Great Recession of 2008 also did not do a thing to dent the overall strong decline in crime in America since the early 1990s.
A similar trend follows when we look at the ringleaders of international terrorism. Osama bin Laden was a millionaire, the “underwear bomber” came from a wealthy family, Yasser Arafat was hardly the product of a poor upbringing.
But there is an undeniable connection between crime, violence, terror and poverty. It’s just that the relationship has been mixed up by well-meaning and dishonest players alike.
The scientific and historical fact we all must remember is that crime, terrorism and violence cause poverty, not the other way around. This isn’t just a political theory, it’s accepted by respected psychologists and criminologists as well.
Again, let’s start with American urban street crime as an example. New York City’s crime rate began to explode in the mid-1950s and basically kept rising almost uninterrupted right through the early 1990s. The city went through some tough economic times during that period to be sure, but it wasn’t intermittent spikes in poverty that caused it.
As he detailed meticulously in his book The Ungovernable City, Professor Vincent Cannato showed how it was NYC Mayor Robert Wagner’s lenient crime policies in the mid-1950s that caused crime to spike and spread from the subways to the streets in lightning fashion. And where crime went unpunished the most, poverty and general economic woe followed.
Now, let’s apply this solid logic to international politics. Beirut was once a rich and peaceful city known as the “Paris of the Middle East.” But poverty came to its streets with a vengeance only after Islamist invasion of the 1970s and the culture of terrorism that came with it. The same scenario is still playing out now in Iran, Iraq, Syria, etc. Crime, in the form of terrorism, has destroyed the economic vitality of some of the world’s first truly mercantile societies. Poverty didn’t make those places hotbeds of terrorism. Terrorism made those place hotbeds of poverty.
So what can we do to fix this? The word “we” is key here because it’s how regular people respond to crime and terror that matters more than what the politicians eventually do.
First off, we can start disabusing ourselves that economic aid, welfare, or “shut up money” will stop crime and terrorism. It’s not just that the money we send criminal entities like the Palestinian Authority ends up in the hands of the terrorists instead of the people who need it. It’s the fact that terror and crime can’t be fought with money, because lack of money isn’t the root cause anyway.
The next time our local or national politicians join in the usual chorus of calling for economic solutions for everything from shooting sprees on the streets of Chicago to suicide bombings, politely point out that they don’t know what they’re talking about. These efforts are wasting time and money. If you want to give money and start programs to help poor people because you just want to get them fed, educated, and housed, that’s fine. But if the only reason you help poor folks is because you’ve pre-judged them as likely muggers, killers, or bombers, your heart isn’t even in the right place.
Second, we can start doing what the people of New York City started to do about crime well before politicians got in on the act. I saw firsthand how people of all races and economic backgrounds in New York became so fed up with crime that they effectively revolted against the system. Sure, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bratton in the mid-1990s helped immensely with their “broken windows” theory-influenced anti-crime measures. But when New York City juries of all races began routinely convicting criminal defendants, and refusing to convict crime victims who fought back, that’s when the tide turned. I witnessed this myself in my first full year as a New York City resident when I saw an all-black jury take almost no time at all to convict and sentence to the maximum penalty a trio of black men who murdered a young Orthodox man in downtown Far Rockaway in 1981. I never forgot that moment, because it was citizen activism at its finest.
But until the people of the South Side of Chicago truly ostracize the shooters in their neighborhoods, and the Arab people of the Middle East truly reject the terrorists in their midst, there will be no safety, peace, or freedom from poverty.
It’s that simple.
Jake Novak has been a TV news producer and editorial columnist for more than 25 years, with expertise in political, economic, religious, and cultural issues. He has produced shows at CNBC, CNN, FOX, and several local stations across the country. Novak is a graduate of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University, and a master’s degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny and watch out for future columns on 5TJT.com.