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Poverty Is The Root Cause Of ... Oh, Never Mind

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The most cherished belief of Politically Correct types when it comes to crime is that poverty is the root cause of crime.  If we only spent more money on government antipoverty programs instead of nasty things like enforcing the criminal law, crime rates would plunge.  The fact that we tried that during the Great Society and crime rates soared instead was explained away.

The problem with studying such things, of course, is that there are many factors that go into crime rates, and untangling them is difficult to impossible.

The best studies tend to be longitudinal studies that follow a group of people over a long time.  These studies cost a lot of money and take a long time, obviously, but they overcome some of the difficulties with snapshot surveys taken at one point in time.

The Christchurch Health and Development Study by Otago University in New Zealand has this press release today.

"But contrary to popular belief being brought up in a poor family in this study does not mean increased rates of crime or mental health problems in adulthood," adds Professor Fergusson.

The contextual impact of factors relating to the individual, as well as the family and social environment, were adjusted to distinguish these from the direct impact of low family income.

When this was done it found that poverty and other family factors are not associated with increased rates of crime in adulthood, or mental health problems or related outcomes; but the reasons are not yet clear.

The study therefore suggests caution with regard to claims that reducing childhood poverty will also have a significant and direct effect on crime and other psychosocial outcomes in New Zealand.

The technical article is Sheree J. Gibb, David M. Fergusson, and L. John Horwood, Childhood family income and life outcomes in adulthood: Findings from a 30-year longitudinal study in New Zealand, Social Science and Medicine (in press).  Abstract follows the jump.

The aims of this study were to use data gathered over the course of a 30-year longitudinal study to examine the linkages between economic circumstances in childhood and subsequent developmental outcomes spanning educational achievement; economic circumstances; crime; mental health; and teenage pregnancy. All of these outcomes have been linked with childhood economic conditions and it is frequently argued that reducing income inequalities will mitigate psychosocial risks of children reared in families facing economic hardship. Alternatively it may be suggested that the associations between childhood family economic circumstances and later outcomes are mediated by individual, family and social factors that are correlated with low family income and contribute to later outcomes. To examine these issues, data were drawn from a birth cohort of New Zealand children born in 1977 and followed to age 30.

Declining childhood family income was associated with a range of negative outcomes in adulthood, including: lower educational achievement; poorer economic circumstances; higher rates of criminal offending; higher rates of mental health problems; and higher rates of teenage pregnancy. After covariate adjustment, childhood family income remained significantly associated with educational achievement and economic circumstances, but was no longer significantly associated with the mental health, offending and teenage pregnancy outcomes. These findings suggest that, after due allowance has been made for social, family and individual contextual factors, low family income during childhood is associated with a range of educational and economic disadvantages in adulthood but is not directly related to increased risks of crime, mental health problems or teen pregnancy.

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