Mitt Romney had a lot of bad moments in last night's debate. One of the worst moments came when he naively blabbed about what he believes to be the cause of our nation's crime problem. In doing so, he made two critical errors. First, he proved that he is too naive to handle what remains one of our nation's biggest problems. His answer completely misled the American people on the true causes of crime in this country. His second problem was a willingness to blame women - a troubling theme that permeates the Romney and Ryan campaign.
Anyone who has studied crime had to shake their head with Mitt Romney's answer. When asked about his feeling on AK-47s and other assault rifles, Romney eventually dove into a take on the crime problem in America:
How are we going to [change the culture of violence]? there are a number of things. he mentioned good schools and I totally agree. I believe if we do a good job in education and give people hope that they deserve. And perhaps less violence from that.
Let me mention another thing - parents. We need moms and dads to raise kids. Wherever possible, the benefit of having two parents in the home. That's not always possible. Lot of great single moms and single dads. But gosh, to tell our kids, before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone. That's a great idea. Because if there's a two parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will be able to achieve increase dramatically. So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity and bring them into the American system.
Yes, it is true that there is a correlation between crime and single parent homes among juvenile offenders. But questions remain about those statistics. Correlation does not always equal causation. Around six percent of two-parent households are in poverty, while nearly 27 percent of single parent households live in poverty.
It's a fact that kids growing up in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to live under a one-parent roof. So what is causing the crime? Is it the family structure, or is it the economic depravity?
It should also be noted that juvenile crime is only a small part of the crime problem. In fact, estimates note that only around 15 to 20 percent of violent crimes committed each year are committed by juveniles. So when Mitt Romney brought up the right-wing family talking point, he was dodging a hard and important question on the real root of crime. He dodged the real discussion on how to change the "culture of violence" by oversimplifying the issues.
What is the cause of violent crime? That is a complicated question with many answers. We do know some things, though. This discussion is a global one, as crime trends can be drawn across nations. A World Bank study in the Journal of Law and Economics noted:
The main conclusion of this paper is that income inequality, measured by
the Gini index, has a significant and positive effect on the incidence of crime.
That study did not stop at proving the link between economic inequality and crime. It also noted the link between poverty alleviation and crime:
Since violent crime is jointly determined by the pattern of income
distribution and by the rate of change of national income, we can conclude
that faster poverty reduction leads to a decline in national crime rates.
The study interestingly notes that average income in a country and average educational attainment do not correlate to a reduction in crime. The problems, it would seem, have more to do with the ranges between rich and poor and less with the overall prosperity of a society.
Some have argued that the United States is different from other countries. After all, those countries with low crime rates and low economic inequality - mostly found in Europe and Asia - are racially homogenous. This may be true, but it does not provide an explanation for why the United States sits with countries like Georgia, Russia, and many African nations in terms of crime rate. As Jed Lewison explains in a 2008 article, most crime is intraracial:
As it turns out, most crime -- including the two most heinous crimes, rape and murder -- are mostly intraracial. That fact reflects our society's racial divisions -- in a completely colorblind nation, interracial crime would be much higher. So actually, the relative lack of interracial crime is a manifestation of our racial problems.
The reasons for this should be clear. Most communities are segregated on their own. And people commit crimes closest to where they live. The natural consequence, then, is that people will most often commit crimes against people of their own race, since those people are more likely to live near them. In most years, the intraracial rate of crime approaches 90 percent.
Why does economic inequality lead to higher crime rates? There are many possible explanations, and most of them have some merit. Mostly it is because people in these systems have little hope. In addition to that, the value assumptions made by society cannot span the wide gap between the richest and poorest. A study from Cornell University found:
Ehrlich (1973) uses an income distribution variable to capture the opportunity costs of crime and finds it to have a positive and statistically significant effect on crime. That is, individuals at the lower end of the income distribution will be more prone to commit a crime because the cost in terms of legal income forgone is quite low. Similar to Fleisher’s (1996) results, Ehrlich found that a measure of income inequality––the percentage of families below one-half of the median income––was associated with higher crime rates.
The opportunity cost analysis makes sense from a criminalization standpoint. When legislators ascribe criminal penalties for certain crimes, they make assumptions about how people value their time and what impact prison might have on their lives. For people without good jobs, the opportunity cost of prison is much lower. It is ultimately about much more than simple economic cost, though. People on the bottom end of the social structure have much less to lose. Economic inequality has produced a system where the disincentives of crime are no longer as compelling.
Take the case of a young adult living in a low-income community. He has nothing more than a high school education and he has never had a family member attend college. In fact, so many people have been picked up for various things in his community that going to prison no longer has significant social stigma. Consider, as well, that this young man has grown up with the sounds of bullets flying and sirens raging. He has been in a few fights, mostly because he needed to defend himself. He has no job, other than the odd jobs he pulls every so often. His idea of a future extends no further than next week.
For this guy, there is very little disincentive to crime. Prison is no longer a major deterrent because it's not nearly as scary as the neighborhood he has known. The social controls that deter crime in middle-income or high-income communities are not in place, either. The young man in our example will suffer few social consequences from committing his crime. From an economic perspective, he loses very little, since he had no guaranteed legal income. Likewise, this young man is not forfeiting the future that a middle-income young man might surrender. For the middle-income man, crime is a devastating blow to any budding career. For the low-income man who sees no hope in a future, these informal social controls do not exist.
What is the answer? It is very complicated. One answer is to provide these people with the hope of a better future. The key is to provide them with something to lose, so that the "costs" of crime that apply to the rest of society will apply to them. In order to do this, though, a country must make for more social mobility. It must provide for the possibility that a low-income kid can do more than just rise to the level where he can feed himself without government help. Instead, the society must provide a structure where a kid doesn't have to be a world-class dreamer to picture a better future.
This is dangerous, though. Upward mobility threatens the concentrated power structure of the wealth base. Instead of true opportunity, the power brokers want only a system where our young man has enough hope to muster the energy to take a job that might just put a meal on the table. So long as that man makes enough to stay off the direct government dole, they are pleased with the opportunity he has been provided. This sort of "opportunity" is not the type that provides an opportunity cost that might thwart crime.
The answer to the crime problem is complicated and multi-faceted. To some extent, we have made a societal value judgement on where we stand. We appreciate the upside of capitalism and have bitten the crime bullet in order to enjoy our lifestyle. That necessarily means that we will live with the crime consequences that our "winners and losers" system produces. We must understand this challenge, though, and do what we can to form compelling solutions.
That starts with electing a president who understands the true root of our crime problem. Rather than electing a man who would pander to the right with a naive "fix the family" spiel, we must elect Barack Obama, who answered the same question in his first sentence. The President noted that "opportunity" was the key to our crime problem. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is content demonizing single mothers. Sure, single mothers tend to have children who commit more crimes. But do we really think this is true of rich single mothers who have been divorced and have the means to provide for their kids? Are these women turning out delinquents? That's an easy question to answer. The problem is poverty, and more aptly, the economic inequality that produces a social structure where some people have nothing to lose.