How Poverty Drives Violent Crime

From 1975 to 1977 an experiment to test the effects of unconditional cash payments, sometimes termed as Universal Basic Income, was conducted in Manitoba, Canada. This study was especially important in determining the effects on crime rates because, unlike other studies of the sort, the entire town of Dauphin was given unconditional cash payments, creating a macro-level community data set. As a result, the real median household income in Dauphin rose from $24,758 (2014 CAD) in 1971 to $39,382 (2014 CAD) in 1976. However, the lack of funding surrounding the analysis of the experiment made analysis of the corresponding crime data impossible until very recently and the results are eye opening.

The analysis, conducted by David Calnitsky of the University of Western Ontario, and Pilar Gonalons-Pons of the University of Penn in 2020, used “town-level crime data” in order to determine whether unconditional cash payments made “Dauphin’s crime trends deviate from its neighbors trends’, under the assumption that Dauphin’s crime rates would have followed those of other towns had the experiment not occured.” The analysis collected crime data from “all . . . Manitoba and Saskatchewan towns with mid-1970s populations between 5,000 and 50,000 . . . .” Finally, the data was combined with “census information on sociodemographic characteristics for each Prairie town . . . to adjust for shifts in sociodemographic composition.”

The results are clear. After the unconditional payments began, there was “a change in violent crime that amounts to 350 fewer violent crimes per 100,000 people compared to other towns.” Dauphin’s violent crime levels averaged 600 per 100,000 people so “[t]he magnitude of the effect is quite large.” Further, the total number of crimes dropped “to 1,400 fewer total crimes per 100,000 people” compared to an overall crime rate that “averaged about 8,000 per 100,000 people.” There was also a substantial drop in property crimes. 

Putting aside the politically controversial idea of Universal Basic Income, the importance of this data is apparent. There appears to be a link between poverty and violent crime. It has long been theorized that, at least from a rational choice perspective, a causal link exists between poverty and property crimes because generating wealth reduces the benefit-to-cost ratio of committing crimes. This hypothesis is further confirmed from data in Alaska, whose eligible citizens have been receiving a cash dividend since the 1980s.  In other words, most property crime is committed by people who feel they need to do so out of survival. However, the link between income and violent crime is less straightforward.

Intuitively we can surmise that at least a fair proportion of violent crime is carried out in the pursuit of property crimes, and thus, any corresponding dip in property crimes would affect violent crimes as well. However, scholars have also theorized other economic drivers to violent crime, including income inequality. These scholars argue, “areas of high inequality place poor individuals who have low returns from market activity next to high income individuals who have goods worth taking,” and are thereby frustrated by the relative success of those around them leading to deviant behaviors. Inequality can be measured through a metric termed the Gini coefficient, which measures the income distribution among a population. Another study confirmed that a high Gini coefficient (indicating high income

inequality) has a positive correlation to violent crime in all the counties surveyed including small rural counties, as well as the 200 largest urban counties surveyed. 

In Oklahoma, Tulsa has the 18th highest Gini coefficient out of cities in the United States, while Oklahoma City ranks 41st. The highest income households in Tulsa earn 10.6 times more than the lowest paid families, while the ratio is 8.5 times in Oklahoma City. Fitting with this inequality hypothesis, Tulsa has a significantly higher violent crime rate than the United States average, including an overall violent crime rate of 9.89 per 1,000 people compared to a national average of 4.32 per 1,000 people. Oklahoma City, as in inequality, fares better, but is still above the national average at 7.27 violent crimes per 1,000 people. 

However, inequality is not the only driver of violent crime. Research on intimate partner violence has found a consistent pattern linking economic hardship to higher levels of intimate partner violence. It is theorized that “couples facing greater economic insecurity experience more stress, which may give rise to situational violence.” Further, the lack of independent economic resources forces women to stay in unhealthy or violent relationships. Another study showed that alcohol abuse, drug use, intermittent employment, recent unemployment and less than a high school education were all positively correlated with domestic violence. In 2020, Oklahoma had 6.8 statewide incidents of domestic violence per 1,000 residents compared to the national average of 4.5 per 1,000 between 1993 and 2008, which remains in step with Oklahoma having the 8th lowest median household income in the country.  Finally, it is estimated that domestic violence makes up 20% of all violent crimes that were committed in 2019, making intimate partner violence a significant driver of violent crime rates. 

While Universal Basic Income may not be a viable solution in Oklahoma for a variety of reasons, it is clear that preventing people from falling into poverty does make communities safer. Oklahoma is currently exacerbating the situation by assessing overwhelming fines and fees on criminal defendants. These fines and fees make income inequality worse by attaching costs to the already lowest earners and prevents those released from prison from escaping poverty, which makes them more likely to commit both property and violent crimes. It further increases the risk of domestic violence as well. 80% of all criminal defendants in the country are already indigent and placing onerous fines and fees on top of that creates a never-ending cycle of poverty into crime, and then upon release, straight back into poverty and thus eventually, back into crime. 

The main tenant of any criminal justice regime is to increase public safety, and enforcing burdensome fines and fees on criminal defendants only serves to increase recidivism and decrease public safety. In order to reduce violent crime in Oklahoma, we must start by looking at poverty, and the legislative policies which create it.

To learn more about Oklahoma’s fines and fees visit our whitepaper on the subject found here