'If we're serious about tackling crime, we need to tackle poverty'

8:09 pm on 13 October 2016

Opinion - Police Minister Judith Collins says child poverty has nothing to do with crime, and many problems are down to bad parenting instead, but where's her evidence?

A child's feet in torn, old shoes.

Photo: 123RF

There's help there for all those who need it, she argues. Well, those who work with struggling families know how much more difficult it is to get the help needed under this government.

Ms Collins' position is strange, to say the least, because the evidence doesn't support her and she's part of a government which says it is committed to evidence and to effective use of knowledge and research to support policies and actions.

Interesting how selective the use of evidence can be.

Police Minister Judith Collins.

Police Minister Judith Collins Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Studies from around the world tell us several important things about poverty and crime. Poverty is linked with crime. Those who experience poverty are much more likely to be the victims of crime than those in more affluent communities. As a British review of the research noted: "Most children raised in poverty do not become involved in crime, but there are higher victim and fear of crime rates in disadvantaged areas".

That said, there is good evidence that, compared with their more affluent peers, children brought up in poverty are more likely to be reported as having behavioural problems, more likely to be reported for aggressive and/or risk-taking behaviour, more likely to be excluded from school, more likely to be the victims of criminal behaviour, more likely to grow up in communities with limited social and recreational opportunities and facilities.

Two important points need to be made about this evidence:

If we are serious about tackling crime then we need to tackle poverty

First, none of the research links these outcomes and behaviours with bad parenting by parents who don't care. It is the poverty of lives, experiences and opportunities that is critical. Put simply, children and families need the resources to enable them to have a full life in which children are given every possible opportunity to grow and develop.

The UK research indicates that poverty is identified as an important part of the context of crime, while US research goes further, indicating that poverty causes crime.

Whether it is context or cause, if we are serious about tackling crime then we need to tackle poverty as part of the response.

Of course, we have seen nothing from this government which indicates they are really serious about tackling poverty. It is much easier to tackle the poor and to blame them for poverty, and for crime.

Poverty is expensive

Second, both crime and poverty are expensive economic and social failures.

There are now good calculations of the costs of crime and the costs of poverty. Reducing poverty is seen as an important part of reducing the costs of poverty. If we are really serious about cutting the costs of crime, then we will need to be serious about reducing poverty.

The personal and social advantages are clear. So are the economic advantages.

* Michael O'Brien is an associate professor at the University of Auckland and is the social security spokesperson for the Child Poverty Action Group.

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