Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Roots of Poverty

In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote: “To seek 'causes' of poverty in this way is to enter an intellectual dead end because poverty has no causes. Only prosperity has causes.”

As a card-carrying criminologist I study the sociology of crime.  Some claim that poverty causes crime.  It may.  But, others claim, also rightfully, that crime causes poverty.  More cogently, in many instances, the criminal mind-set is the mentality of poverty: criminals are creatures of convenience and habit.  At least, some of them are.  (In a paper on criminological metatheory on my website here, I list the 30 or more theories that explain the 30 or more causes of 30 or more kinds of criminal actions.) 

Overfilled dumpster at my apartment complex.
In Goethe's Faust Part 1, Mephistopheles says: "Ich bin der Geist der verneint."  (I am the spirit that negates.)  The devil cannot create, only destroy.  Criminals are creatures of convenience and habit. Entrepreneurs seek new solutions to previously unknown problems.  They find and reduce inefficiencies.  An entrepreneur will invest all the resources available to make a dream come true.  A manager will not go over budget.  A criminal will not make the effort.  (In the Bible, this is the Parable of the Talents.) 

An empty dumpster was only 30 meters away.
I walked the short path between buildings to the next parking lot and found the dumpster there empty. Anyone who threw the next bag of garbage (or left that dead sofa) could have made the same small effort.  But it was too much work.  In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand painted Starnesville, the town abandoned by its productive citizens.  Those who remained had no time, no energy, no interest in effort. 

The distance is maybe 100 feet, 30 meters.
In fact, there were four or five available dumpters, all within a few hundred feet. 

Sociologists claim that when rich people commit crimes, it is because rich people are crooks; and when poor people commit crimes, it is because rich people are crooks.  The easy claim is that crime among the poor is a response to their oppression.  They retaliate against the ruling class by victimizing each other. At least, that is what I was taught in four years of university education in sociology, 2006-2010.  Myself, as an advocate of laissez faire capitalism, and a defender of so-called robber barons, I can see the landlord as the seamy underbelly of property.  Edison invented.  The landlord only holds.  And yet, the owners of this property invest a lot of money in maintenance.  And it is too little appreciated by the poor criminals who live here.

Maintenance worker picks up around the site.
Every day, the grounds crew picks up trash.  They reload the dumpsters, breaking down discarded furniture.  Contractors come in once a week to sweep the grounds, collecting leaves, mowing the lawn - not much of that with central Texas's drought.... but still they come...

The complex is perhaps 30 years old.  The property management firm owns a range of real estate investments in California, Texas, and other places.  The shrubs are trimmed decoratively.  When we moved in, my wife said, "We have real holly!" And, indeed, we do.  But be that as it may ....

Someone works pretty hard to do this.
No matter how much work the owner invests in the property, those who have no ownership stake take no ownership care.  Look closely under that bush in the foregound and you may notice the beer can.  They are all over the place every morning.  In a previous post, I spoke of the scavengers who come for the aluminum.  In a fascinating display of inherent respect, they do not actually walk the grounds.  I wish they would.  They only come to the dumpsters.  They do not want to intrude on the grounds.  If only all the residents here showed the same sense of propriety and respect and self-respect.

Under the round bush in the foreground,
a Modelo beer can
which someone made an effort to crush
but not to discard.
And yet, the problem is complicated and nuanced.  It has texture.  Today, a woman from an apartment along my walkway was vacuuming out her SUV.  I am fairly confident that she did not toss the beer can under the bush.  This morning, I met my neighbor below.  He has a lunch wagon, a converted pickup.  Every day, he gets up, cooks, loads his truck and goes off to construction sites.  I doubt that the beer cans are his.

BudLite can tossed on the ground, not in a dumpster.
Lacking an objective basis for morality, earlier advocates of capitalism only could say that the millionnaire has as much right to his wealth as the laborer to his hundreds. In the 20th century Ayn Rand delineated productive workers at any income from the looters and moochers.  Common laborers or uncommon inventors alike are to be contrasted against those those who look to Washington or to heaven because they cannot look within themselves to find their motivation.

Like poverty, crime has no 'cause.'  It is the ground state, the default, the lack-of-something.  In metaphysics, we say that "nothing is not a special kind of something."  So, too, in ethics, is poverty not a different kind of productivity. 


  1. Blasphemy! We are all born as blank slates! Society corrupted them and their criminal and destructive tendencies are our fault! If you think otherwise you are obviously a hateful racist.

    PS Important points; well written. I especially enjoyed the last paragraph.

    PSS Have you read The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker?

  2. I've seen people treat cars they own like garbage dumps, and renters who don't dare litter the pathways of their apartment complex. Clearly something other than ownership is at work, like personality.

  3. I agree that ownership is perceptual. Interviewing one landlord many years ago for an article, I quoted him on tenants who give "ownership care."

    As a social scientist, I agree also that the fundamental unit of analysis is the individual. Cultures are formed when individuals aggregate.

    If this neighborhood were public property, the "broken windows" theory of criminology would prevail. However, the management company has a vested interest, and so fights a never-ending battle against sloth, indifference, and disrespect.

  4. Reply to Stone Glasgow: I have not read the Pinker book. As powerful as sociobiology can be, it has limits.

    My own name ends in a vowel, so I stay sensitive to "Latino" issues. Visiting our daughter in Miami, I learned to enjoy coffee in a style I cannot get here in Austin.