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Throughout American history, it has been a common perception that the poor have a higher propensity toward crime than the middle class. Although there is some basis to this belief—because the poor have less lawful options to obtain material goods and, if unemployed, have less constructive pursuits with which to occupy their time—the poor are not by nature more inclined to crime than are the more affluent classes. Nevertheless, the poor—especially minorities—are more likely to be in prison. Whether this is a result of increased crime levels or a sign of greater police presence in poor and minority areas is a point of contention among scholars. Most mainstream and conservative scholars argue that the higher proportion of minorities and the poor is caused by the higher incidence of crime in poor areas; however, liberal historian Howard Zinn argues that the authorities are to blame for the unequal prison system, which he sees as an example of America’s bias against minorities and the poor.
The relationship between the poor, crime, and imprisonment was present in Tudor-Stuart England, and perceptions and behaviors followed the English to America. Thousands of impoverished English men and women who had turned to crime, been apprehended, tried, and condemned to the gallows, escaped their fate by transportation to the colonies, to serve fourteen years as bound servants. Colonials such as Ben Franklin feared that England used the colonies as dumping grounds for poor ne’er-do-wells. Upright colonials considered immigrant servants to be little better than criminals, a view that would continue for centuries to haunt immigrants who sought asylum in America. The pauper in early America was not only unwanted but sometimes jailed for vagrancy or other petty crimes. Creditors by law could demand the incarceration of debtors until the debt was paid. The Dominion of New England in 1679, for example, required that jailed debtors not be allowed even the most temporary furlough to earn money. In 1716 a pauper petitioned the General Court for mercy, complaining that he had been incarcerated for four years, “which Is the Cause of my poverty.” He admitted his debt but added that he had “not . . . one farthing In this world wherewith to pay itt, nor wherewithal to Subsist my Self, my wife, and three young Children who Cry for Bread.” Eventually in 1767 the colony took action to help imprisoned debtors who, “when they are capable of Labour thier [sic] detention becomes a Publick loss & the Confining Prisoner for Debt with Criminals is not Expedient or any way Suitable to their different Circumstances.” New Hampshire legislators resolved by law that, if a debtor swore an oath that his property was not above £3, he would earn release (although not forgiveness of the debt). The proclamation of the Declaration of Independence of freedom and equality did little to mitigate the evil of debtor’s prison. Some reformers realized the absurdity of a system that imprisoned the very person who could work to pay the debt. But not until the 1830s did states finally outlaw debtor’s prison. But debts, and resulting poverty, could not be legislated out of existence.
In his 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis clearly demonstrated the perceived connection between the poor and crime. In his introduction he wrote of the tenements:
The story is dark enough, drawn from the plain public records, to send a chill to any heart. If it shall appear that the sufferings and the sins of the ‘other half,’ and the evil they breed, are but as a just punishment upon the community that gave it no other choice, it will be because that is the truth.
Riis identified crime as a condition of the poor, but he also laid blame on the city’s middle class and elites for not taking steps to ix the problem. Specifically, Riis identified the tenements as the “boundary line” between the peaceful middle-class neighborhoods and the crime-filled poor neighborhoods, arguing that in
the tenements all the influences make for evil; because they are the hot-beds of the epidemics that carry death to rich and poor alike; the nurseries of pauperism and crime that fill our jails and police courts; that throw off a scum of forty thousand human wrecks to the island asylums and workhouses year by year; that turned out in the last eight years around half million beggars to prey upon our charities; that maintain a standing army of ten thousand tramps with all that that implies; because, above all, they touch the family life with deadly moral contagion.
Riis qualified his denouncement of the tenements, however, by noting that the prevalence of crime in New York was just as much the fault of the “top half” of society who only cared about profits and thus forced the poor to live in wretched conditions. Riis wrote:
There had been tenant-houses before, but they were not built for the purpose. Nothing would probably have shocked their original owners more than the idea of their harboring a promiscuous crowd; for they were the decorous homes of the old Knickerbockers, the proud aristocracy of Manhattan in the early days. It was the stir and bustle of trade, together with the tremendous immigration that followed upon the war of 1812 that dislodged them. In thirty-five years the city of less than a hundred thousand came to harbor half a million souls, for whom homes had to be found.
The movement of the affluent—out of the central city toward the outskirts—led to the conversion of “once fashionable streets along the East River” into tenements under the direction of shady proprietors and real estate speculators. According to the report of the New York Legislature of 1857, cited by Riis,
in its beginning, the tenant-house became a real blessing to that class of industrious poor whose small earnings limited their expenses, and whose employment in workshops, stores, or about the warehouses and thoroughfares, render a near residence of much importance.
However, business increased soon afterward, leading to exponential population growth; large, old houses suddenly become valuable for their capacity to house large numbers of people. Of the general structure of tenement housing, Riis wrote: the
large rooms were partitioned into several smaller ones, without regard to light or ventilation, the rate of rent being lower in proportion to space or height from the street; and they soon became filled from cellar to garret with a class of tenantry living from hand to mouth, loose in morals, improvident in habits, degraded, and squalid as beggary itself.
Middle-class New Yorkers, like Riis, saw these tenement dwellings, which were “prolific of untold depravities,” as both the scene and cause of the city’s high crime levels. Within the “dark bedroom” of the tenement house, Riis wrote— echoing the beliefs of Progressive reformers—the immigrant poor reveled in “evils more destructive than wars.” The proprietors did little to correct this situation; instead, they sought to protect their own interests by fixing rents high enough to cover the “damage and abuse” of the residents. Moreover, the tenement was no place for the middle-class conception of “neatness, order, cleanliness,” as by nature the tenements encouraged “slovenliness, discontent, privation, and ignorance,” engulfed by general “dilapidation, containing, but sheltering not, the miserable hordes that crowded beneath smoldering, water-rotted roofs or burrowed among the rats of clammy cellars.” Yet the real object of Riis’s anger was the proprietors, who cited the “filthy habits of the tenants as an excuse for the condition of their property” rather that take steps to improve their properties; according to Riis, the proprietor’s tolerance of the tenement-dwellers’ habits was the “real evil.”
Similar conceptions of crime as a companion of poverty are evident in twentieth-century America. Particularly illustrative are the poor’s perception of the police and the connection between police brutality and minority unrest. The situation in St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex provides insight. A series of surveys of the complex residents conducted in the 1960s clearly illustrated their distrust of authority and belief that city officials were not concerned with their needs. In general, the residents tolerated welfare workers more than police. These surveys demonstrated that men (66 percent dissatisfaction) serving as “Head of Household” were more critical of welfare workers than women (17 percent dissatisfaction) serving in the same capacity. Common complaints about the welfare system (represented by the experience of residents with individual welfare workers) were that the system was too inflexible and unjust—many residents thought the welfare system promoted inequality. The police, however, were a more prominent symbol of authority, and they tended to elicit more poignant responses.
Despite the fact that many residents welcomed police presence as a counter for youth violence and the drug trade within the complex—which was out-of-hand because of poor upkeep and frustrated residents—the overwhelming perception of the police was negative. Although 91 percent of the respondents (88 percent of the men and 92 percent of the women) agreed that Pruitt-Igoe needed more policemen (whereas only 3 percent thought the complex needed fewer policemen), many respondents complained that the police (both the St. Louis police and the project’s police force) took too long to respond and acted disrespectfully. Only 31 percent of the respondents agreed that the St. Louis police did a “good job of providing protection” for the residents of Pruitt-Igoe; 78 percent complained that the St. Louis police were “never around and take too long to come when you call them”; likewise, only 40 percent thought that the project police did a good job providing protection, and 65 percent complained that the project police were never around and did not come when called. Two typical quotes illustrate this perception: “the (city police) threw me behind bars and took all my money and the ring off my hand . . . they talk to you like a dog”; and “three fourths of the time they (the project police) don’t come.”
Statistically, the poor are more likely to be incarcerated, which superficially seems to justify their distrust of the police and the prison system. In particular, urban blacks and Hispanics are overrepresented in U.S. prisons: in the 1980s, although blacks comprised only 12 of the nation’s population, they represented 48 percent of all prison inmates; 51 percent of black males in large urban areas had been arrested at least once for an “index crime—murder, aggravated assault, forcible rape, robbery, car theft—compared to only 14 percent of white males in the same areas. Likewise, in the 1980s Hispanics comprised only 6 percent of the population but represented 12 percent of all arrests, and Hispanic males represented 11 percent of the nation’s male prison population. Scholars disagree on the effect of racism in this statistical discrepancy, but it is not a coincidence that these groups also represent a significant portion of America’s poor. Although America no longer explicitly incarcerates the poor in debtor’s prisons, poverty remains an indicator of social infirmity because of the continued perception that poverty and crime are irrevocably joined.
- Atkins, Jacqueline M., ed., Encyclopedia of Social Work, 18th ed., 2 vols. (Silver Spring, MD: NASW, 1987);
- Riis, Jacob, How the Other Half Lives (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890);
- Stromberg, Jerome S., “Private Problems in Public Housing: A Further Report on the Pruitt-Igoe Project.” Occasional Paper no. 39 (1968);
- Zinn, Howard, “Surprises,” A People’s History of the United States, rev. ed. (New York: Harper Collins, 1995: 493-528).
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