How big is income inequality as a determinant of crime rates?

The link between poverty and crime is a subject that has been examined by sociologists, governments and organizations such as the World Bank and United Nations for decades now. Robbing, for example, is most commonly reported to take place in areas of extreme poverty in the Americas (Latin America and the Caribbean) at a rate of 21 percent, and robbery and assault are among the most commonly reported crimes in communities that are predominantly poor. Places with high income inequality in particular have higher incidences of crime – overwhelmingly so, in fact. A 2002 study by The World Bank found that crime rates and inequality are positively correlated, and an increase in income inequality has the effect of intensely increasing crime rates. That same study also found that increases in a country’s GDP has the ability to lessen the incidence of crimes in that country, showing that poverty alleviation has a crime-reducing effect.

That being said, other studies have revealed that the upper class commits far more crime than the lower class, which contradicts the assumption that crime is more predominant among the poor. In 1993, blue-collar criminals stole $15.3 billion but in that same year white-collar criminals stole $200 billion through embezzlement and fraud. In terms of violent crime, 23,271 people were murdered that year by street criminals, but the decisions made by high-value corporations led to the deaths of at least 318,368 people through worker safety violations, pollution, etc. Why are we conditioned to believe crime is limited to the lower and middle classes? Why is that when a white-collar worker is taken to court they gets far less media coverage than that of their blue-collared counterpart? The way the general public perceives crime is classist to say the very least.

Take the following statistic as an example. South Africa holds a reputation for having the highest rape incidence in the world, at 500,000 annually. One associates the country’s high crime rates with the disproportionate levels of inequality that have ravaged the country since the apartheid era. In 2011, it was found that the average annual income of white households was at least six times higher than that of black households. Is this what led to the murder rate in 2013 of 33 per 100,000 people being more than five times higher than the global average of 6.2 per 100,000? It is perceived to be so. For years now worsening poverty, unemployment and inequality have seen crime rates grow, with violent crime especially on the rise, seeing 49 people murdered every day in South Africa.

But in Sweden, a country of perceived wealth, high GDP and income equality, also reported among those countries with the highest incidence of rape in the world, with 46 rape cases per 100,000 in 2009. How is this so, you ask, given the general patterns seen around the world that link high levels of poverty with crime? Turns out that wealth distribution in Sweden is not as equal as often thought. For a small country, Sweden has a relatively high number of millionaires and ranks among the top 20 nations for ultra-high net worth individuals. The growth in inequality in Sweden since the 1980s has in fact been the largest among all OECD countries.

So, is it not so much the level of abject poverty but more the level of income inequality that lead to high crime rates in a country?

The reaction to the recent financial recession in the United States tells us that yes, this is indeed the case. According to official FBI statistics, crime rates actually dropped across the country in 2009, despite the fact they had been gradually increasing in the lead up to the financial meltdown. Murder, rape, assault, theft, robbery – you name it, the incidences of it fell across the board, destroying the idea that the root cause of crime lies in poverty and rather, affirming that it lies in widespread income equality. This too was seen during the recession of 1893, in 1907, the Great Depression of the 1930s. In all of these economic catastrophes, crime did not increase at all, showing that, as inequality between the rich and the poor shrunk, so too did the number of crimes committed.

So, what can we take from this? Is the answer to preventing crime such as robbery and break-ins improving public education, installing better security screens in our homes, or hiring security guards? Apparently not. It seems we need to focus more on lessening income inequality in countries around the world, targeting social justice and poverty in the fight against crime. In this way, we will perhaps be able to see a vast reduction in the instances of crime, both violent and non-violent, around the world – and especially in poorer countries.

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