POVERTY: POLICY IMPLICATIONS

We found evidence from the existing literature that poverty is consistently associated with all types of crime, including violent crime. These associations emerged most clearly at aggregate levels when indices of resource deprivation or concentrated disadvantage were used to measure poverty. In simple language, this means that socially isolated neighborhoods where many poor people live are most likely to have high rates of violence. Children are disproportionately poor, which is unfortunately correlated with other criminogenic risks like community disorganization, parenting quality, academic achievement, and educational attainment (e.g., Duncan, Yeung, Brooks-Gunn, & Smith, 1998).

Although authors sometimes roundly condemn the “Great Society” programs of the 1960s (e.g., Rector’s [1992] “Requiem for the War on Poverty”), empirical analyses have suggested that more generous welfare programs are associated with reduced poverty (e.g., Kenworthy, 1999) and less crime (e.g., Hannon & DeFronzo, 1998) including nonviolent crime (e.g., DeFronzo, 1983, 1996; Savage, Bennett, & Danner, 2008; Zhang, 1997) and violent crime (DeFronzo, 1983, 1997; DeFronzo & Hannon, 1998; Hannon & DeFronzo, 1998). Interaction effects suggest that more generous welfare outlays mitigate the effects of other risk factors at aggregate levels. Gartner (1991) found that social welfare spending reduced the influence of family structure risk factors on child homicide rates across 17 developed nations. Hannon and DeFronzo (1998) found that public assistance reduced the impact of resource deprivation on both property crime and violent crime. Unfortunately, many offenders have been disqualified from these benefits (Swartz, Martinovich, & Goldstein, 2003). Revisions to the welfare program made during the Clinton administration prevent drug offenders from receiving public assistance and food stamps, for example. Current welfare assistance levels through the current TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program have been criticized as inadequate for alleviating the stress of poverty.

One area of concern is the re-entry of prisoners after confinement, when they are abruptly jettisoned from prison or jail to find themselves out in the world without cash or material possessions. Maruna, Immarigeon, and LeBel (2004) describe how offenders are “delivered from a prison to an inner-city bus station in the middle of the night, with $40 in gate money, nowhere to go and no one except drug dealers waiting for them” (p. 5). In addition to that, many are released without having secured housing, which parole officers see as even more difficult for ex-convicts to find than jobs (Petersilia, 2003). Zhang (1997) reported that public housing benefits had the largest magnitude effect on reducing property crime across various welfare programs, but many offenders are precluded from receiving housing benefits. Earning money legitimately is difficult due to the reluctance of employers to hire ex-cons and the expansion of background checks. Homelessness is a common problem among convicted offenders, and we might imagine that the intense financial strain and obstacles to changing their situation might push even nonviolent offenders into violent behavior (see Chapter 3). A more compassionate and common sensical approach to dealing with re-entering offenders, that would address their very difficult financial straits could go a long way to preventing future violence. In recent years, the multisite Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) was developed to address the problem of reentering violent offenders. The programs target different populations and each offer a set of services during the prerelease and postrelease phases (Lattimore, 2006). So far, the National Institute of Justice is reporting that no discernible differences in recidivism have been detected between SVORI participants and non-SVORI participants, however.

We did not choose to focus on inequality in this book because it was not a “good prospect” due to the inconsistent findings reported in the United States. Nonetheless, poverty is unequally distributed across ascribed groups, such as racial and ethnic minorities in the United States and many other countries. Among the risk factors for violence we have addressed in the book, we see poverty and living in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage (Sampson & Wilson, 1995) as perhaps the most important in cultivating race differences in offending (see also Sampson, Morenoff, & Raudenbush, 2005). In addition to brewing a dark sense of unfairness, gross inequalities are likely to foster resentment that may fuel violence. Although the findings about inequality and violence have been inconsistent within US samples, they are not inconsistent cross-nationally where economic inequality remains one of the most consistent predictors of homicide. Some believe that a lack of significant effects within US samples may be due to a lack of variability in inequality; there is a lot of it in all major US cities.

 
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