Poverty and crime

The following commentary is provided by Director of the Institute of Criminology, Dr Elizabeth Stanley.

A child shelters beside a fence.

Police Minister Judith Collins faced a barrage of criticism this week for her dismissal of poverty as a 'driver' of crime. For the Minister, crime problems are 'primarily' linked to 'a lack of responsibility' among parents.

Responsibilisation has become a dominant feature of the government’s approach to significant social problems. Can’t afford housing in the place you and your children were born? Solution: move to another island and start over! Struggling to cover weekly basic necessities on a poorly paid full-time job? Solution: enhance your ‘flexible working’ with different employers or take out a government loan!

New Zealanders encounter a steady stream of political messages that individuals, families and communities should suck up economic struggles with entrepreneurial, self-focused spirit. At the very least, they should ‘step up’ and not have problems.

Numerous reports have indicated the depths of poverty in our country. The Child Poverty Action Group recorded that, in 2013, almost a quarter of New Zealand’s children lived under the Ministry of Social Development’s relative poverty line, while over half of those children had been in poverty for more than seven years.

Other NZ research has shown that 10 percent of children live in severe poverty and that Māori children are twice as likely as European/Pākehā children to be living in a poor household. Colonial trauma is cultural, political and economic.

This data passes above our heads like the digital statistics that wrap around our stock exchange. Constantly updating, but ever present, the knowledge of endemic poverty has become normalised. Stalling for time, we question the models of data collation. We barter around the edges—a reduction of 10 percent? 20 percent? Five percent? We look for an ‘acceptable’ level of child misery and life-time disadvantage. And, we blame the parents who didn’t properly ‘invest’ in their families, who ‘lacked ideas’, or failed to play ‘the market’.  

Many crimes that cause great harm—for example, tax crimes, deaths and injuries at work, or violence by state workers—have little connection with poverty. These are crimes that we often do not even designate as crimes. We tend to re-label them as ‘evasions’, ‘accidents’, ‘force’.

However, our best research repeatedly tells us that other crimes—including family violence or youth crime—are linked to poverty and inequalities. The crimes we label, police, control and punish tend to be committed by those who endure significant economic disadvantage. In New Zealand, this has a further layer, as Māori suffer multiple levels of marginalisation.

Certain populations are made more responsible than others: Māori children and young people are four to five times more likely to be apprehended by the police than non-Māori; over 60 percent of female prisoners are Māori. Like our poverty rates, these realities have become an unremarkable part of New Zealand life. And, like poverty, we regard these outcomes as the primary result of individual, whānau or cultural deficits. Yet they have their roots in poverty and disadvantage.

Our current talk on responsibilisation insists that those communities with the highest levels of poverty have to deliver solutions for their ‘risks’. And yet the real solutions for poverty and all its attendant problems—poor health (including obesity), insecure housing, family stress, mental health problems, limited educational achievements, some offences—will come from the ‘top down’. In this respect, we might encourage the government to step up and take responsibility. Many options are already on the table—social assistance reforms, reconfigurations of child supports, increased social housing, the development of liveable wages. There is no ‘poverty of ideas’. Rather, the political challenge seems to lie in the ‘poverty of responsibility…the poverty of caring’.

This was originally published in The New Zealand Herald on 28 October 2016.