One of the first clues that this Columbia-educated, liberal, Democrat, New York Jew had that there was something wrong at the heart of progressive/left-wing thought was when I read and was taught over and over that “poverty causes crime.”
I knew from the first that this was dogma, not truth.
How did I know?
First, I thought about the world that I knew best — my own. My paternal grandparents were extremely poor immigrants from Russia. They lived in a small apartment in Brooklyn where they raised four children, none of whom, of course, ever had their own room. Moreover, my grandfather was a tailor and as such made little during normal years, and next to nothing during the Great Depression.
They were considerably poorer than the vast majority of Americans who lived below the poverty line as it existed when I was in college and graduate school. And they would have regarded most of those designated poor today as middle-class, if not rich by the standards of their day.
That is worth remembering whenever an American claims that violent crime in America is caused by poverty. The poor who commit murder, rape, and robbery are not only not starving, they have far more material things than the word “poverty” suggests.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey for 2005 (the last year I could find in detail — but it doesn’t matter what year, because those who say that poverty causes crime have said it for a hundred years and continue to say it), among all poor households:
Over 99 percent have a refrigerator, television, and stove or oven. Eighty-one percent have a microwave; 75 percent have air conditioning; 67 percent have a second TV; 64 percent have a clothes washer; 38 percent have a personal computer.
As for homelessness, one-half of 1 percent living under the poverty line have lost their homes and live in shelters.
Seventy-five percent of the poor have a car or truck. Only 10 percent live in mobile homes or trailers, half live in detached single-family houses or townhouses, and 40 percent live in apartments. Forty-two percent of all poor households own their home, the average of which is a three-bedroom house with one and a half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.
According to a recent Census Bureau report, 80.9 percent of households below the poverty level have cell phones.
When the Left talks about the poor, they don’t mention these statistics, because what matters to the Left is inequality, not poverty.
But that is another subject. Our subject is the question, Given these statistics, why do the poor who commit violent crime do so? Clearly it is not because they lack the basic necessities of life.
Now I didn’t know any of these statistics back in college and graduate school. So how did I know that “poverty causes crime” was a lie?
I thought about my grandparents, and I could not imagine my grandfather robbing anyone, let alone raping or murdering.
Why not? Because it was unimaginable. They were people whose values rendered such behaviors all but impossible.
But there was another reason.
I was as certain as one could be that if I were poor in America, I wouldn’t rob, rape, or murder.
Which leads me to wonder about people who believe that “poverty causes crime.”
When people say this, there are only two possibilities. One is that, on some level of consciousness, they think that if they were poor, they would commit violent crimes. My hunch is that this is often the case. Just as the whites who say all whites are racist are obviously speaking about themselves, those who claim that poverty leads to violence may well be speaking about themselves, too.
The other possibility is that they are not speaking about themselves, in which case they would have to admit that poor Americans who rob, rape, or murder are morally inferior to themselves.
Which, of course, happens to be true. People (of any income level) who rob, rape, and murder do so because they lack a functioning conscience and moral self-control. It is not material poverty that causes violent crime, but poor character. But the “poverty causes crime” advocates refuse to acknowledge this, because such an acknowledgment blames criminals — rather than American society — for poor peoples’ violent crimes.
And that they won’t admit. Because once they do, they will have begun the journey toward affirming conservatism and Judeo-Christian values, both of which are rooted in the belief that values, not economics, determine moral behavior.
— Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist. His most recent book is Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph. He is the founder of Prager University and may be contacted at dennisprager.com.