It Doesn’t Make Sense to Blame Crime on Poverty

Being mayor of New York comes with lots of media attention, but anyone who has held the job can tell you that the real power is in Albany, the state capital, where the governor and Legislature hold major sway over everything from the subways to the public schools.

Mayor Eric Adams was back in Albany this month asking his state overlords to rethink bail-reform measures passed in 2019 that protect crime suspects from pretrial detention. The number of shoplifting complaints in New York City rose by 45% in 2022 to more than 63,000, according to New York City Police Department data. The mayor sees an obvious connection that too many of his fellow liberal Democrats willfully ignore.

In his testimony, Mr. Adams argued that soft-on-crime policies hit poor communities the hardest, not only in terms of public safety but also economically. “When you do a real analysis in our pursuit of making sure people who commit crimes are receiving the justice they deserve, we can’t forget the people who are the victims of crimes,” he said.

The mayor also pushed back at the common argument made by social-justice advocates that arresting and prosecuting lawbreakers is tantamount to “criminalizing” poverty. “People who state that we’re criminalizing the poor,” he said, are wrong. Moreover, crime is costing the city jobs and businesses. New Yorkers are “unemployed because we’re losing those businesses in our city. We can’t allow repeated offenders to make a mockery of the criminal justice system.”

The belief that poverty is the root cause of crime may be popular, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. For starters, most poor people aren’t criminals. In a previous era, when Americans were significantly poorer than they are today, crime rates were significantly lower. Crime during the Great Depression was lower than during the 1960s, a decade of tremendous economic growth and prosperity. In 1960 the black male homicide rate was 45 per 100,000. By 1990 it had climbed by more than 200% to 140 per 100,000, even though black average incomes by then were much higher, and the black poverty rate much lower, than 30 years earlier.

In a recently published book about criminal-justice reform, “Criminal (In)justice,” Rafael Mangual notes that this disconnect between crime and poverty continues today. Mr. Mangual writes that between 1990 and 2018, murders in New York City declined by 87%, a period during which the city’s poverty rate increased slightly. Black residents today “experience poverty at a lower rate (19.2 percent) than their Hispanic (23.9 percent) and Asian (24.1 percent) counterparts, who account for much smaller shares of the city’s gun violence.”

Last month the local Fox station in New York did a story on how local bodegas are trying to combat the rise in customers looking for five-finger discounts. It featured footage of laundry detergent and other items that had to be kept behind the counter or chained to shelves in the aisles to deter thieves. The piece perfectly illustrated the concerns of Mr. Adams, a former police officer who understands that crime victims shouldn’t be an afterthought.

New businesses are less likely to open in unsafe neighborhoods where the police can’t be counted on to protect private property. Existing businesses are more likely to flee the community and take employment opportunities with them when they leave. Worse, those establishments that remain must take more costly measures to stay open—costs that invariably are passed on to paying customers.

Liberals have long alleged that merchants in ghetto neighborhoods are exploiting their low-income shoppers by charging higher prices. Those prices, however, reflect the cost of doing business in high-crime neighborhoods. Decriminalizing theft significantly increases the cost of opening and operating a business, especially a mom-and-pop shop relying on small profit margins to begin with. Lenders are more reluctant to extend credit. Insurance premiums are higher. Security is more expensive. What the left derides as exploitation is more accurately described as a rational economic response to misguided public policies.

In his testimony, Mr. Adams called public safety “the prerequisite to our prosperity” and stressed that the problem isn’t previously law-abiding New Yorkers turning to crime but career criminals running rampant with no fear of being prosecuted. “This is critical because a disproportionate share of the serious crime in New York City is being driven by a limited number of extreme recidivists,” he said. “Approximately 2,000 people who commit crime after crime while out on the street on bail.”

Mr. Adams is fighting the good fight, but he’s outnumbered by progressive Democrats who are more concerned with racial parity in punishment than with safe streets. Cities such as New York and Philadelphia and Chicago have essentially manufactured a crime wave, and no one knows when it will crest.


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