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HomeNewsPoverty doesn’t cause crime, Mr Mayor. Criminals do

Poverty doesn’t cause crime, Mr Mayor. Criminals do


A FEW weeks ago the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, released a report showing how the poorest areas of London are the most likely to see the highest levels of violence, with 74 killings this year alone. Khan described this as a ‘direct link’ between violence and poverty. This was crass, even for a politician. Does he not know the difference between causation and correlation?

The implication we are invited to accept is that poverty is a driver of crime and violence; get rid of poverty and we rid our communities of violent crime.

This ridiculous Left-wing mantra has been doing the rounds for decades and we hear it from all political parties. The persistence of the idea that crime and violence represent some sort of crude reaction to poverty and inequality is all the more remarkable given that serious research and our own history contradicts this view. During the first half of the 20th century millions in Britain lived in abject poverty. The absence of a male breadwinner due to the great loss of life in the First World War, high levels of unemployment during the Great Depression, little or no financial assistance, hunger, poorly constructed and damp housing, restricted access to medical services, overcrowding, no internal sanitation, access to water via one cold tap or a shared pump in a courtyard, all represented the way of life for many communities. Yet in 1926, when hardship for working-class people was beyond anything we could imagine today, the rate for ‘violence against the person crimes’ was 4.39 per 100,000 of the population, a fraction of what it is today at over 1,400. 

It is impossible to be poorer than the Haitians living in Cite Soleil, yet in 2010 they rejected armed criminals who tried en masse to re-establish their old fiefdoms after their break-out from prison following the earthquake. This once again undermines the idea that crime is some kind of primitive revolt against poverty.

It is worth recalling that R A Butler, who was Home Secretary from 1957 to 1962, noted that the marked increase in crime during this period coincided with the ‘most massive social and education reforms for a century’. These years were a phase of distinct economic and social progress. They were years of full employment, higher wages and rising consumption. Well over a million new houses were built and there was a massive movement of the British working classes away from their drab slums into new council houses. In 1961, as Butler pondered these developments and the escalating crime rate which paralleled them, he said, ‘today the link between poverty and crime has been severed’. (1)

Does Sadiq Khan think Butler drew the wrong conclusion?

New Zealand was far less well off in the 1950s than it is now, yet its crime rates then were significantly lower than they are today. Likewise research by Stephen Levitt found that data from the Great Depression, which produced unemployment rates near to 28 per cent in America, failed to confirm the expected connection between poverty and crime. (2)

As far back as 1994, Home Office research found no relationship between unemployment and crime in Britain. (3) A more recent analysis carried out in 2011, based on 27 EU countries (including Britain) found, contrary to what many believed, that the countries with greater degrees of inequality and poverty had less crime than those which were wealthier, with better medical and welfare provision, and more equality. (4)

On what grounds does Khan ignore such findings? If he is indeed aware of them.

Following the riots of 2011 (wrongly presented as being fuelled by poverty and inequality), the then Prime Minister David Cameron launched his ‘Troubled Families’ project. The aim was to help disruptive and ‘damaged families’ raise themselves out of poverty (which compared with circumstances in Britain 80 years ago, none of them have experienced) by helping them find work, and at the same time cut their crime rates, truanting, drug abuse and anti-social behaviour.

After providing planned and consistent help to 20,000 families (approximately 40,000 to 80,000 people) over a period of five years, the project was found to be a lamentable failure. In 2015, the independent consultancy Ecorys reported that despite the expenditure of £1.3billion in taxpayers’ money the scheme had failed to have any effect on the crime and other problems mentioned above. (Can the Mayor of London be unaware of this debacle?) But even though these results gave them the grounds to do so, the government remain fearful of challenging the myth espoused by the pro-criminal lobby that their behaviour was a result of disadvantage (aka poverty) that could be changed by ‘help’.

The link which Sadiq Khan is quick to make between violence and the poorer areas of London, while superficially attractive, is not only misleading but also approximately 250 years out of time. Whilst there is little doubt, for example, that in the 18th century crime for some (but not all) was a matter of survival, no one can claim such conditions exist now. No one is driven to kill because he or she is hungry.

Nevertheless, an analysis of all murders in London for the period 2006 to 2012 showed that the four boroughs with the highest number of murders per 100,000 of their population were among the poorest: Newham, Southwark, Hackney and Lambeth. However it would be wrong to interpret this apparent connection to mean that poverty was the driver for crime and violence. Not all boroughs regarded as poor, for example, had high murder rates. (5)

Another theory is needed. What we know about the background of criminals suggests it is equally if not more valid to interpret this association the other way around. That is: the poorer boroughs tend to have the highest crime rates because they have the greater concentration of criminals, not because their inhabitants are poor. They may also be areas where effective policing has broken down. Those who choose to be violent and commit crime are in many cases the same people who refuse to work at school, are violent, ill-disciplined, demand instant gratification and fail to plan for the future. This is not to say that they do not have access to money – crime and violence brings many of them a good income and their social station can be seen as an indicator of how they choose to live and spend their ill-gotten gains.

The truth is (sometimes even in the case of the psychotically driven violent) that it is the ‘life choices’ criminals make – to be violent, ill-disciplined, take illegal drugs or otherwise demand instant gratification, fail to work at school, resist the conventional 9-5 routine, and fail to plan for the future – that results in them living in the poorer areas. Hence the greater concentration of criminals in these areas, which leads in turn to their being more violence in some of these poorer boroughs.

Sadiq Khan should be mindful that the vast majority of people who grow up in poorer, working-class conditions lead industrious, law-abiding lives. To preach a connection between their less well-off conditions and violence is not only patronising and insulting, it is to deny citizens any moral autonomy or judgement.


(1) Fyvel, T R, The Insecure Offenders, Middlesex, Penguin Books, 1963

(2) Levitt, S D, ‘Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s. Four Factors That Explain the Decline and Six Factors That Do Not’, The Journal of Economic Perspectives 18 (1): 163-190, 2004

(3) Home Office Statistical Findings, Issue 1/94, A Study of the Relationship Between Unemployment and Crime, 1994

(4) Fraser, D, Crime, Poverty and Imprisonment, CIVITAS: Institute for the Study of Civil Society, September, 2011

(5) London Murders (all), 2006-2012, Citizens Report, London Murders, quoted in Fraser, D, Licence to Kill, Britain’s Surrender to Violence 

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David Fraser
David Fraser
David Fraser is the author of Licence to Kill, Britain’s Surrender to Violence. He is a former senior probation officer and criminal intelligence analyst with the National Criminal Intelligence Service (now the National Crime Agency).

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