Yesterday morning, a burglar tried to break into my home. Thankfully the doors were all locked, but a few houses down wasn’t so lucky. Our neighbor was home and is now pretty traumatized to have experienced a home-invasion burglary. By the time the police arrived, the burglar was long gone in a stolen car.
A friend is trying to sell his condo in downtown Portland but large parts of downtown have been turned into a giant homeless camp so there are few buyers even in this hot real estate market. The nearby streets are pockmarked with tents and the curbs frequently sport human waste.
Homelessness and its attendant crime are getting so bad that police in many cities don’t bother to investigate many property crimes unless they’re against wealthy people and involve things of great value. Just among my own friends and acquaintances in the past year I’ve seen 3 cars stolen (one I watched happen!), one car damaged in a smash-and-grab, and two home-invasion break-ins.
Community policing is important, but if we don’t address the core problem of inequality they’re band-aids on the cancer of our social crisis.
And I know of dozens of smaller crimes, including assault against a family member by a mentally ill homeless person, that were simply never reported to police and therefore don’t show up in official statistics.
And this isn’t a story unique to Portland; petty and property crime are exploding along with gun crimes and homelessness in cities across the nation. New York City just elected a new Democratic mayor whose main credential was that he was a cop; people are freaking out.
But there’s more to this than homelessness or “bad people” doing crime for fun and profit; there are deep causes to this problem (beyond the pandemic) that require deep solutions.
Most people think crime (particularly property crime) is caused by poverty, like the poor people portrayed in Les Misérables stealing food for their children. But Louis XVI’s policies had both increased poverty in France while massively increasing his own wealth and that of his friends. There was poverty, and even periodic famines, but (outside of stealing food) that wasn’t what was driving crime and ultimate revolution of 18th century France: it was inequality.
Hold that thought.
I’ve worked among very, very poor people and even in the midst of famines. In late November 1980 I went into Uganda at the tail end of the Tanzanian invasion that overthrew Idi Amin. As Amin fled to Saudi Arabia where he was feted with a palace for himself and his wives by the Saudi government, his soldiers went on a killing and looting rampage, particularly in the northern region against the Karamojong people.
They killed most all the men and boys older than toddlers and raped the women; by the time we got there the region was filled with thousands of starving women and small children (my contemporaneous diary of that trip is here).
Thursday of that week the special on NPR’s All Things Considered show was an 18-minute conversation between Sanford Ungar and me (on a satellite phone from Uganda) as I was describing the famine we were trying to address, with hundreds of people dying every day, live on the radio as Americans were sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner.
I worked in Bogota, Colombia a year or so later in one of that city’s massive barrios built on a hillside out of cardboard and scrap wood with streams of raw sewage running to an open sewer in the valley below. I worked in the Klong Toey slum of Bangkok where the Duang Prateep Foundation was putting in non-flammable sidewalks and organizing regular trash removal because the giant Japanese corporation that owned the swamp the slum was built over kept trying to burn out the slum-dwellers.
When I was in The Philippines in 1985, Father Ben Carreon, an activist priest and the author of a popular column for the Manila Times, took me to one of that city’s massive garbage dumps. The smell was awful, the air thick with insects, as mountains of rotted garbage stretched off into the distance.
We stood in the hot afternoon sun, and Father Ben said, “Look carefully at the piles of garbage.” I squinted in the bright light, looking at the distant piles, and noticed something. “They’re moving!” I said. “No, it’s children on them that are moving,” he said. “Thousands of them. Their families live all around here, and the children spend their days scavenging for garbage that their families can eat.”
People in Uganda were dying of famine in Mbale and across the Karamoja region, and hunger stalked the “big city” of Kampala, but there was little crime because the rich people had all left the country. Instead, there was a shared sense of solidarity; while poor people did prey on each other, it was more the exception than the rule and entire communities would rise up against thieves.
I experienced the same thing working in the slums of Thailand, Peru, and Colombia; the biggest crime I personally experienced was having my wallet and pocket computer stolen on a flight to Kenya while I was asleep. Truly poor people don’t buy airplane tickets.
Poverty doesn’t cause most crime it turns out. Inequality does. And America is now, far and away, the most unequal developed country in the entire world.
While billionaires who pay less in federal income taxes than you do blast themselves into space on giant penis-shaped rockets, the majority of Americans are struggling to get by. I say “the majority” because a decade ago the number of Americans who could call themselves “middle class” slipped below 50% for the first time since the Eisenhower era.
My neighborhood’s burglar wasn’t hungry; she was young, healthy and well-fed as was the small dog she walked to blend into the community. America is not experiencing a surge of crimes related to survival.
So how does inequality provoke criminality? The research on the topic is pretty exhaustive, albeit poorly publicized, and the simplest explanation is among the most easily understood: Humans are wired to rebel against unfairness.
Walk into a preschool class and give one child a pile of cookies while giving everybody else only one each and see what happens. In fact, it’s not just humans; this holds true across all mammalian species from rats to dogs to apes.
As research across 33 nations published in Oxford’s European Journal of Public Health found, inequality devastates social trust among people, opening the door to antisocial crime, including violent crime (although you could argue that stealing is also a form of interpersonal violence).
We’re social animals and evolution has fine-tuned that socialization instinct — necessary for survival in a hostile world — so well that in virtually ever pre-literate and/or pre-agricultural society in the world (and there are still many left) that the number one way to gain status in such societies is to give things away. In North America, that’s the origin of the Native America Potlatch, a feast where everybody brings food and shares as much as they can. (The first Thanksgiving of lore was probably an east-coast variation on the Potlatch.)
In fact, as I learned in Uganda working through that famine, the more people have their backs to the wall the more cooperative and concerned with others they become. Shared hardship fosters community.
This isn’t to romanticize poverty; it’s tough and crime is a problem in barrios and slums around the world. But crime isn’t sweeping the cities of Europe, Japan, South Korea or Taiwan the way it is American cities because in those countries the very wealthy are appropriately taxed and therefore average people are still well within the parameters of the middle class.
Research published in the Oxford Economic Papers in 2014 found that not only does inequality cause increases in crime (including violent crime), but the main variable is people’s perception of inequality: When the morbidly rich are conspicuous in their consumption, crime explodes faster than when they’re discreet.
“Using variation within US states over time, we document a robust association between the distribution of conspicuous consumption and violent crime,” authors Daniel and Joan Hicks noted.
A 2000 study published in The Review of Economics and Statistics (Harvard/MIT) came to the same conclusion: inequality causes crime, not just poverty.
The World Economic Forum published a paper in 2014 looked at the relationship between inequality and crime in Mexico. “Our key finding is that, in fact, municipalities with lower inequality saw lower rates of crime,” the authors write. “In other words, while the overall national data reveals an apparent paradox; broken down by smaller geographical regions, the paradox does not hold — less economic disparity does lead to less crime.”
A study of 148,000 people across 142 countries found a similar association all over the world. The Economist magazine titled their review of it: “The stark relationship between income inequality and crime.”
Research published by the Equality Trust in the UK, which exclusively studies the impacts of economic and social inequality, found: “Small permanent decreases in inequality — such as reducing inequality from the level found in Spain to that in Canada — would reduce homicides by 20% and lead to a 23% long-term reduction in robberies.”
Inequality causes crime because it destroys social trust, the core fabric of any society. Without social trust, empathy and shared values disintegrate and culture begins to disintegrate.
We see examples of this across the Third World in countries that have been essentially raped by their morbidly rich ruling class for decades. Beyond a certain point, inequality becomes an actual poison to society itself. We passed that point in the last decade, and it’s tearing our nation apart.
Which brings us to the GOP. The Republican Party is so committed to making morbidly rich people even richer (and keeping them that way) that just this weekend Republican Senator Rob Portman announced on TV that they wouldn’t go along with funding a bipartisan infrastructure bill by letting the IRS hire more auditors to catch rich tax cheats. Seriously. That’s their position.
Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming told Axios last week that “spending $40 billion to super-size the IRS is very concerning. … Law-abiding Americans deserve better from their government than an army of bureaucrats snooping through their bank statements.”
Republican Senator Ted Cruz said, “Throwing billions more taxpayer dollars at the IRS will only hurt Americans struggling to recover after waves of devastating lockdowns. ... Instead of increasing funding for the IRS, we should abolish the damn place.”
Republican tax policies, starting with Reaganomics in the 1980s (and continuing to this very day) have both gutted the American working class and exploded inequality in this nation, all while making a hundred thousand or so Americans obscenely rich.
We’ve even exceeded the worse inequality gap we’d ever seen, in 1929 at the tail end of the “Roaring 20s” and the beginning of the Republican Great Depression (yes, they called it that until the early 1950s).
If we want to get crime under control and restore social cohesion to our society, we must also tackle inequality. And that means to tax the morbidly rich who today pay less than 3% of their income in taxes.
Community policing and a variety of other solutions are important, but if we don’t address the core problem of inequality in our society, they’re merely band-aids on the cancer of this social crisis.
Independent Media Institute