Transformation, poverty and crime

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

A prevailing myth apparently adopted by most of our society is that crime happens because people were forced to do so by poverty. The effect of this thinking is to essentially absolve the commission of crime due to the misguided (and destructive) notion that people should be released from any responsibility for doing what they did in order to survive. The truth of the matter is that people, no matter how poor, should be made accountable for their decisions. And our policies should be made to reflect that fact.

Some of the poorest countries in the world actually have the lowest of crime rates: Azerbaijan, Andorra, Angola, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso and Mali, Cambodia, Cameroon, and Vietnam. According to one source, India has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and this from a country with 1.2 billion people. Aside from battling massive poverty, it is also a huge mix of different cultures and religions. By Philippine understanding, it should be mired in crime but isn’t. On the other hand, the US, definitely an economic leader, possesses high crime rates.

Heather MacDonald, reporting for the Wall Street Journal, points out that the “notion that crime is an understandable reaction to poverty and racism took hold in the early 1960s,” particularly through the work of sociologists Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin. However, these theories came into considerable doubt when it was found that crime rates fell when unemployment rose. The financial crisis of 2008 resulted in the loss of seven million lost jobs but sees crime rates fall at record levels.

Thus, as MacDonald finds, even in the 1960s “homicides rose 43%, despite an expanding economy and a surge in government jobs for inner-city residents. The Great Depression also contradicted the idea that need breeds predation, since crime rates dropped during that prolonged crisis.” In more recent times, “by the end of 2009, the purported association between economic hardship and crime was in shambles. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, homicide dropped 10% nationwide in the first six months of 2009; violent crime dropped 4.4% and property crime dropped 6.1%.”

The poverty-results-in-crime theory is certainly a very destructive basis for social policy. But for those espousing liberal politics in the US and very much the common attitude in the Philippines, it justified the giving of preferential treatment to the unproductive in society. But clearly this resulted in the worst for our country: our chronically weak institutions have been continually undermined due to the belief that since individuals cannot be held responsible for their actions, then society owes something to individuals rather than the other way around.

Furthermore, it also disguises the fact that the most massive corruption and crimes in this country are actually committed not by the poor but by our rich elite. From the embezzlement of Katipunan funds, to collaboration with the Americans or the Japanese, war profiteering, corruption over the US Army surplus, currency manipulation, import licensing schemes, behest loans, government coddling of favored companies, bungled land reform, missing sequestered assets, missing agricultural funds, NBN-ZTE, the unconstitutional MILF-MOA -- these are not crimes committed by the poor.

So, instead of poverty, some experts are pointing to other causes of crime: the breakup of families, poor housing conditions, education, weak police enforcement, and inequality. The last is interesting as it was just recently reported that Stratbase Research Institute found the Philippines to have a higher degree of inequality as compared to other Southeast Asian countries. The institute warned that “inequality, if left unaddressed, leads to the polarization of society and the creation of social tensions that eventually undermine the process of growth and development.” The foregoing is paralleled by a World Bank report finding that “the richest 20 percent of the Philippine population outspend the poorest 20 percent by more than eight times.” Most reprehensively, it was found by the ADB that the “[richest 10% of Filipino families are] raking in more than a third of the country’s total income.”

Moving forward on a new legislative year, it would be helpful therefore to take into account realities rather than romanticizing the plight of our people. We should address crime as a matter that takes into account individual responsibility and emphasizing discipline for purposes of benefiting society. Our law enforcement capabilities should be strengthened and essentially give a signal that when people commit crimes they will be taken to account for their actions. Furthermore, dole-outs or any similar type of welfare programs should be stopped. If money is to be given out, then it should be done in a manner emphasizing the need for equalization of opportunity and the rewarding of merit, not encouraging dependency. Instead of having a contraceptive and divorce mentality, policies should be made strengthening the family as an institution. Finally, rather than focusing on growth as an indicator of economic success, we should address the continuing problem of inequality in the country.