Poverty and Crime

By Joseph Williams, Christian Association for Prison Aftercare

A study by McClatchy Newspapers, released in March finds that the ranks of the severely impoverished are rapidly escalating. The study found that the percentage of poor Americans who are living in extreme poverty has reached a 32-year high. Today nearly 16 million Americans live in “deep or severe poverty.” This is defined as individuals living at half of the federal poverty line. This drastic rise in the level of poverty extends beyond the traditional ghetto and reaches to suburban and rural communities.

The relationship between poverty and crime has been a controversial subject over the years. Many scholars argue that poverty does not have a causal relationship to crime because there are countries in which poverty is very high but the crime rate is relatively low. I would say that in this country it would be hard to argue that there is not a relationship between crime and poverty. Poor people make up the overwhelming majority of those behind bars as 53% of those in prison earned less than $10,000 per year before incarceration.

Sociologist and criminal justice scholars have found a direct correlation between poverty and crime. One economic theory of crime assumes that people weigh the consequences of committing crime. They resort to crime only if the cost or consequences are outweighed by the potential benefits to be gained. The logical conclusion to this theory is that people living in poverty are far more likely to commit property crimes such as burglary, larceny, or theft.

The rising levels of poverty, then, should alarm those of us engaged in ministry to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. It follows that as goes the poverty rates, so go the crime rates and subsequently the prison rates. If the relationship between poverty rates and crime rates holds, and I suspect that it will, we can expect to be faced with the challenge of ministering to even higher numbers of inmates and former inmates. Those of us who minister to men and women in transition from prison and the families of inmates can expect to have our meager resources taxed to the limit.

The city of Detroit, in which I live and work, is the poorest large city in America. Michigan has the nation’s worst economy of any state. Detroit has the poorest economy in Michigan. The neighborhood in which this ministry is located is one of Detroit’s poorest. I see first hand every day the effects of poverty and crime. In an environment of extreme poverty, system failures abound. For instance, Detroit Public Schools graduate only between 25-40% of its students depending on which report you believe. Low education rates, by the way, are also linked to high crime rates.

Establishing satisfying employment and economic well-being are important factors for successful reintegration from prison to the community. We who are engaged in this ministry are being forced to be more innovative than we ever have been in order to effectively minister to former prisoners and their families. We must identify considerably more resources than ever. We must reach out to a wider network of supporters than ever before to make our case for support.

Ironically, as the numbers of those in extreme poverty has increased so has the number of those who have become wealthy. Bridges need to be formed between those who minister in cities and other impoverished areas with meager resources and those who possess significant financial resources. Those who are interested in helping must adopt the attitude of teaching people how to fish instead of passing out fish sandwiches if persistent problems such as crime and poverty are to be effectively addressed.

All of society benefits when the least of these are helped to establish or regain dignity by elevation from poverty and crime to lives characterized by work and productivity. It will take all of us working together to make a real impact on this daunting problem.

I have articulated this issue so far in the framework of a serious social problem. It is however, also a most pressing spiritual problem. In Isaiah 61:1, a Messianic prophecy, the prophet writes on behalf of the coming Messiah, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” Jumping to the New Testament we see that in Luke 4:18, Jesus uses this passage as the text for His first sermon.

It gives me great hope and joy, then, when I realize that I am joining with Christ in His ministry to the poor, the heartbroken and the prisoner. I am also possessed with the confidence that as we work together as the Body of Christ that, even though, the poor will always be with us, that we can make a significant impact on this problem.

Your servant because of Christ,
Joseph Williams
President of CAPA