Poverty and crime

Crime as a force making for poverty includes consideration of the professional criminal and his family. Rarely is such an individual an able provider for those who are rightfully dependent upon him. Convicts are public dependents, and in most cases, so also are their families. But the problem of environmental degradation as an inducer of poverty and crime must be related to other causes of poor economic condition.

One of the chief ways by which mental defect causes poverty is by the debauching of daughters, the breeding of illegitimates and the unrestrained increase of the families of the feebleminded poor. If the feebleminded could be cared for as the welfare of Society demands, the most serious aspect of the problem of illegitimacy would be solved automatically. So here again, crime as such is not an outstanding cause, it is an attendant circumstance in the operation of mental defect, of overcrowded living conditions, of the alcoholism of parents and their neglect of children.

We found in the all but a small margin of crime is closely correlated with drunkenness, and that drink is undoubtedly the greatest of all the personal weaknesses making for poverty. The conditions of poverty–crowded tenements, unwholesome and insufficient food, lack of privacy between the sexes, dirty, filthy buildings and evil-smelling alleys, dirty language, dirty thinking, fatigue and drink–these are the matrix out of which disrespect for law, the satisfaction of vanity, of hatred, of love, of hunger, by the shortest, though it may be the illegal way, spring easily.

The visitor in any juvenile session of our courts will shortly observe the adolescent boy who stands forward in front of a troubled-looking woman of middle age. She is the widow of a laborer or she is the deserted wife of a drunkard. She takes in washing, or she scrubs office buildings. She makes a hard living. Her Jimmy sells papers or is a messenger boy, or he works in some factory. This boy is in court for his last chance. He is to be sent away to the juvenile training school. Yet this is the boy upon whom this mother is to depend when she is no longer able to wash and scrub.

If we were to peer into his background we should find a dreary story of gang life, of parental neglect, partly through ignorance but largely through mother’s necessity for being away from her home when she should have been with her children. In the days when father was working, this family may have been above the poverty line. Into this juvenile court will come also many a daughter, charged, perhaps, with being “a stubborn child. ” Usually she has become a clandestine prostitute from which she has gone to the promiscuous entertainment of sailors, if it is a seaport town.

Sometimes she has a good home with hardworking, self-respecting parents and brothers and sisters who are amounting to something as students or as workers. But in most cases the background is not so good. She has been cramped, deprived of even the least fling for her vanity and her love of company and pretty things. So she has gone off to seek pleasure, without much vision of what the consequences might be. Now she is on her way to a reformatory, to the lasting shame of her relatives and the nearly hopeless disruption of her own future.

A broken mother, a hardened and discouraged father, a group of brothers and sisters not greatly removed from the convict in their thinking and conduct-these make up a household which by the fact of this girl’s delinquencies has received a shock that will materially retard its efforts to keep out of poverty. The first long stretch of unemployment will seem like the last straw. No one can say to what extent crime in this case may have tended to reduce this family to poverty or to keep them so, but that it is a heavy and depressing factor defeating ambition and courage in life, there can be little doubt.