Some really interesting thoughts on crime and poverty from Megan McArdle in the Daily Beast (an online Newsweek spin-off, in case you wondered). Because poverty in the developed world is much more about relative concepts like social exclusion than absolute realities like hunger and destitution, conflicting interpretations abound:

  • “There's what I'd call the implicit conservative view, which is that poor people are not so much lacking in money, as lacking in the self-discipline to spend their money wisely…
  • “I think it's hard to disagree that the poor could stop being poor – at least as the US currently defines poverty–if they behaved differently; it's basically numerically impossible to fall under the poverty line if you finish high school, wait to have children until you get married, and both work full time.”  

Against this, there’s the view that being left at the bottom of the pile isn’t much fun regardless of personal standards of behaviour – for instance, look at the example of Japan:

  • “…16% of the Japanese seem to be poor, even though they are notoriously crime free, averse to single parenthood, and not big drinkers or drug users. These are people who work, but need to scrimp on things like food, and eschew vacations, in order to afford even more necessary items such as medical care and school uniforms.”

McArdle accepts this argument, but only up to a point:

  • “There are problems that the government can fix, but the problem of people not liking to be in the bottom of the distribution is not among them.  At least, not short of a sort of radical communism that not even the radical communists managed to actually implement.”  

Instead, of eliminating the very fact of income inequality, McArdles suggests action to deal with the worst things associated with life at the bottom – and here she speaks bluntly:

  • “…being poor is still miserable in America because much of the worst part of being poor is being forced to live in high concentrations of other poor people. No, I am not saying that all poor people are bad neighbours… most poor people are good neighbors. Unfortunately, most bad neighbors are poor.”

There’s a good reason for this:

  • “People with impulse control problems, mental illness, drug and alcohol addictions, are very, very disproportionately likely to end up poor. (And the stresses of poverty will exacerbate these problems still further). So even though these people remain a minority in poor neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods nonetheless have a lot more of them than more affluent communities.”  

Moreover, as well as being more likely to live near to such people, the poor have fewer options to escape them:

  • “If a gang moves into a middle class neighborhood and starts terrorizing the residents, either the cops take care of it, or the middle class people move. If it happens in a poor neighborhood, well, where are you going to go?”  

If good people can’t escape bad neighbourhoods, then the only thing that will help them is if the state intervenes to get the bad people out instead. After all, if the concept of social inclusion has any meaning at all it must encompass the right to live your life free from fear. In already hard-pressed communities, we therefore have a choice – either to exclude the anti-social minority or to exclude everyone who has misfortune to live near to them.