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Mark R. Rank: Poverty, crime and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

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Much has been written about the recent verbal assault of Rep. Ted Yoho upon Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the Capitol. But the back story to this attack may be just as important. During a town hall in July, Ocasio-Cortez argued that the recent crime spike in New York City was partially due to poverty and unemployment caused by the pandemic. She noted that “crime is a problem of a diseased society, which neglects its marginalized people.”

In reacting to this, Yoho called Ocasio-Cortez “disgusting” and out of her “freaking mind.” And of course, he ended the exchange with his highly offensive and derogatory epithet.

But what about Ocasio-Cortez’s claim that poverty is a root cause of crime? What do we know from years of research on this subject? It turns out that Ocasio-Cortez was exactly right — there is a strong connection between poverty and crime. Those living in poverty are more likely to engage in crime as well as be the victims of crime.

While it must be emphasized that the vast majority of people in poverty do not engage in crime, there is nevertheless a higher propensity to engage in criminal activity among the poor. A recent Brookings study found that boys raised in families with average incomes below $14,000 were 20 times more likely to be incarcerated for a crime by the time they reached their late 20s and early 30s compared to boys raised in households with average incomes above $143,000. The same effect held up for girls as well. The Brookings researchers found this pattern both nationally and within each of the 50 states.

Although the reasons for such an association are multifaceted, one key factor has to do with the lack of opportunities for survival and success. High poverty neighborhoods are plagued by a scarcity of jobs, few economic assets, inadequate schooling, and a general lack of opportunities. It should not be surprising that when faced with such conditions, some individuals may choose to engage in crime and other illegitimate behaviors as a means of getting ahead.

Those living in poverty are also more likely to be the victims of crime. A Bureau of Justice report finds that persons in poverty had over double the rate of violent victimization compared to those in upper income households. Furthermore, high levels of distrust exist between poor neighborhoods of color and the police, as the Black Lives Matter movement has repeatedly demonstrated. The result may be less overall engagement in solving community problems and disorganization.

Beyond the increased risk of crime, those living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods are more likely to be victimized by predatory lending, redlining, environmental hazards and absentee landlords, to name but a few. The result is a life expectancy approaching that of developing countries. Is it any wonder that trust and faith in the fairness of the current system is shaken?

Yet what is seldom understood is the enormous price we pay as a nation through the impact that poverty has upon elevating rates of crime and incarceration. In a recent analysis, Michael McLaughlin and I calculated that childhood poverty in the United States results in an annual criminal justice cost of slightly over $400 billion. This was the direct effect that poverty had upon increased corrections and crime deterrence costs, incarceration costs and increased victimization costs of street crime.

The bottom line is that if the U.S. had social policies to lift the 12 million children out of poverty this year, we would save an enormous amount currently being spent on criminal justice. As any criminologist will tell you, it is incredibly expensive to incarcerate individuals over long periods of time. Far more cost effective is to prevent such incarceration in the first place. The most important place to start is by reducing the extent of poverty in this country.

In attempting to offer an apology to Ocasio-Cortez, Yoho concluded his remarks on the House floor by saying, “I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my God, my family and my country.” Yoho would do well to also consider directing his passion toward legislating and supporting policies to reduce poverty in this country. Such an effort would be an excellent step toward truly loving one’s country.

Mark R. Rank is the Herbert S. Hadley professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis, and is co-author of the forthcoming book, “Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong about Poverty.”

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